Every two years, Greenbelt has city elections — and every two years, complaints surface about how the election process works.
Of Prince George’s County’s five largest municipalities, Greenbelt is the only one that doesn’t have district seats. All Greenbelt council members are at-large, meaning all city voters cast ballots for the council seats, and the top vote-getters win office and speak for the entire city.
Unfortunately, this often means that communities where residents aren’t as involved in the election process — neighborhoods that often need the most help, in part because of highly transient populations — are easily overlooked by leaders.
It’s not that at-large positions are bad in general. Some county municipalities have at-large seats, but they also have single-district representatives to keep less-involved communities in mind during legislative decisions.
Unfortunately, Greenbelt refuses to do so.
When the county branch of the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland chastised Greenbelt in 2008, pointing out that no minorities had ever been elected to the council and requesting the city be divided into five single-member districts to allow for more diverse representation, the city instead added another voting precinct and two more at-large seats to the then five-member council.
The theory seemed to be that improved voting access and opportunities to join the council would somehow make up for the fact that some communities simply weren’t being reflected in the council’s composition.
While the first black City Council member was elected that following year, the flawed thinking behind the city’s tweaks was also evident. Another black candidate received the most votes from the community where he lived, but wasn’t elected because he failed to garner enough votes citywide.
Communities — not residents living elsewhere in the city — should be allowed to elect who they think best represents them.
Many residents argue that having at-large elections maintains the “we’re-all-in-this-together” mentality of Greenbelt, that good leaders will take care of all parts of the city and that residents who feel left out of city decisions are welcome to run for office.
However, Greenbelt’s strong sense of community clearly doesn’t hinge on how its leaders are elected, and it’s unrealistic to think there won’t be occasions when resources are scarce and leaders clash. A process needs to be in place during those difficult times to ensure less vocal communities aren’t ignored.
In addition, there is some confusion in the selection of Greenbelt’s top leaders. Many residents thought the two top vote-getters were made mayor and mayor pro tem, but that’s not necessarily the case. The council selects the mayor and mayor pro tem from among its members — it just so happens that the council has tended to select for the highest seats those who received a lot of votes.
One Greenbelt resident said the misunderstanding led him to cast only one vote during each election in the past, choosing the person he wanted to serve as mayor to ensure his choice would have more votes than the other candidates.
There’s an easy way to eliminate the confusion: Let voters, not the council, select the city’s top leaders.
Unfortunately, even with single-district representation, there is no guarantee that areas with apathetic residents would yield candidates interested in a city seat. However, Greenbelt has done well increasing voter outreach, and concerted efforts in less politically motivated communities would be of benefit to everyone.
Changing the election process is not a condemnation of the city’s leaders in any way. Mayor Judith “J” Davis, who has been in the top post since 1997, and many others on the council have done well as the city has grown and are generally aggressive in addressing challenges.
It’s important to note than when the city was created about 76 years ago, it was done in part as a social experiment. Greenbelt was a new community where many people considered themselves “pioneers,” according to the city website, where the first residents were largely younger than 30 and willing to take part in community organizations. They opened the first public pool in the Washington area and formed the first kindergarten in the county, the website states.
Greenbelt was a community willing to make changes for the better — and it should continue doing so.