College Park’s next mayor could be 18 years old.
On Feb. 11, after three hours of discussion and comments from city residents, the College Park City Council voted 5 to 3 to lower the minimum age for mayoral candidates from 25 to 18. The council also reduced the age requirement for City Council candidates from 21 to 18.
College Park Mayor Andrew Fellows did not formally vote on the issue because his vote is reserved in case of a tie, but he made it clear he supported the change.
“I do think this is a great step forward,” Fellows said. “I think this is going to lead to greater collaboration and greater dialogue and resolve a lot of the issues that are a concern to long-term residents.”
Tensions were high at the public hearing preceding the council meeting as around 20 residents voiced their opinions, with a clear age gap dividing both sides of the issue.
Many long-term College Park residents said a younger mayor or council member would not have enough life experience or commitment to the city necessary for the positions. Those in favor of changing the age requirements stated that college-aged candidates could be well-qualified and that voters ultimately decide whether a candidate will hold a position in city government.
“I am bewildered and dismayed by the council members who are apparently ready to jettison one of the few ways we have of legally and fairly tempering the undo influence of college students on the quality of life in this town,” said Cindy Lollar, 55, of College Park. “Casting this as a civil rights issue as if undergraduates in this town are an oppressed minority with no access to the voting booth or to other mechanisms of civic influence strikes me as, at best, sentimental. They are not disenfranchised.”
Samantha Zwerling, 22, of College Park is the current University of Maryland, College Park, student body president and said she oversees a budget of $1.3 million and answers to 26,000 constituents in that role.
Zwerling gave examples of college students working on behalf of College Park and its interests, including the example of 100 students testifying on behalf of the new College Park Academy school, which is part of the College Park City University Partnership.
Marcia Booth, 59, of College Park said she does not believe her 18-year-old daughter would be qualified to take on the office of council member or mayor despite her volunteer history and leadership skills.
“It isn’t that she couldn’t rise to the occasion and give it her best attempt,” Booth said. “It’s because she doesn’t have the life experiences that she would need to be able to relate to the issues that may come before the council and serve her constituents.”
Several student representatives from UM attended the meeting, including former student liaison to the City Council Josh Ratner.
“It really hurt a lot to hear a lot of what was going on,” said Ratner, 20, who is a volunteer firefighter with the city. “I’ve seen people die in this city. I’ve seen people get shot. I’ve seen the prosecution first hand. I’ve delivered babies. I’ve seen it all. And to imply that because an 18-year-old is young they don’t have relevant life experience is insulting.”
Councilman Fazlul Kabir (Dist. 1) suggested a compromise that would lower the age requirement for mayor to 24 and for council member to 20. The council voted 4 to 4 on the compromise and Fellows broke the tie by voting against Kabir’s suggestion, saying he preferred the original proposal.
“One of the things that I have come to appreciate about College Park is that it is a college town that is doing a collaboration that is showing a lot of promise,” Fellows said. “I also think most people, especially 18, but even 18 through 21, shouldn’t be running for office and I would discourage them and I would actually campaign against them winning. But I think that they should have the right to run.”