Considering the traditional antipathy between the Washington Post editorial board and Montgomery County, it wouldn’t be surprising at all if the Post took a favorable view of Question B, the Robin Ficker-inspired term limits proposal on the ballot next month. Happily, however, the Post sees Question B foe what it is – a heavy-handed and ill-advised solution in search of a problem.
Montgomery, Maryland’s most populous jurisdiction, has an unusually engaged, motivated electorate, perfectly willing to show incumbents the door, as it has with at-large members of the council three times in the past 14 years. That’s an effective means of exercising term limits surgically; no improvement would result from Question B’s meat-cleaver approach.
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The best argument for term limits is that they prompt an infusion of new blood into tired governing bodies and, possibly, more diverse pools of candidates. In practice, Montgomery has a council that, whatever its faults, is reasonably diverse if top-heavy with veterans: Of the council’s nine members, five would be barred from seeking reelection in 2018 if voters approved Question B, which would impose a limit for three four-year terms. (The limit would also apply to County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), but he is likely to retire in any event.)
There are several problems with term limits, beyond the fact that they are unnecessary in places such as Montgomery. One is that fresh eyes are also dewy, and local governance is complicated. It can take a couple of years for members to gain the expertise they need to become effective.
A vacuum of experience in a council stocked with relative novices is a recipe for shifting power to unelected staffers and, more worryingly, special interests with deep pockets — in Montgomery’s case, developers and public-employee unions. Recent history suggests that the longer members hold office, the less sway special interests have.
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The right way to set term limits is to throw bad officials out of office. Montgomery voters are up to that task; they should reject Question B.
My only problem with the editorial is the Post’s myopic insistence on seeing public employee unions as a source of undue influence along with developers. The comparison is utterly inapt, and almost laughable. If the Post still maintained a reportorial presence in Rockville, it would know that there is a strong institutional antipathy between the County government and its unions that cannot be compared with the openly incestuous relationship with developers. Money changes hands freely and openly during campaign season, and it will be very interesting to see which candidates elect to forego developer largesse in favor of the new public financing system in 2018.
Overall, however, the Post’s view on term limits is spot on.