Candidates question proposed election rule change; Sen. Muse seeks to prevent community college board members from seeking office
Gazette, 7 Jan 2009 (Valentine).
A proposal to toughen eligibility for elected office in Prince George's County is raising questions about a legislator's involvement in elections.
A bill proposed by state Sen. C. Anthony Muse (D-Dist. 26) of Fort Washington would prevent members of the Prince George's Community College Board of Trustees from seeking elected office while serving on the group that approves long-term planning decisions by the college.
Muse proposed the legislation as an emergency measure, which means it would take effect in time for the primary election Sept. 14, when all county and state offices are up for election. Normally, bills approved by the General Assembly do not take effect until after Oct. 1.
"This is just vindictiveness against me," said Jerry Mathis, a Fort Washington resident who serves on the Board of Trustees and is running for County Council in District 8. "What? Do I have the plague or something?"
Muse was reluctant to discuss the proposal when reached last week, saying he was asked "to put in the bill for some folks." Muse refused to say who had requested the legislation.
"I don't want to get into that conversation," he said.
Muse denied the bills are targeted.
"None of my bills are for political retribution," Muse said, explaining that he wanted lawmakers to consider imposing the restriction for the college board at the same time a similar restriction imposed on school board is being considered for removal.
But Mathis alleges the proposal is revenge against him for speaking out about several of Muse's past initiatives, including a failed bid in March to have the state study building a $200 million soccer stadium in the county. That measure failed to pass the County Council amid heavy community opposition, much of it led by Mathis.
"It was told to me that they felt I shouldn't have spoken out in public," said Mathis, who said allies of Muse had communicated their intent to him.
Mathis declined to name the people he claims to have spoken with, and said he and Muse have not spoken about the bill.
A candidate for the County Council's District 9 seat, Mel Franklin of Upper Marlboro, also serves on the college's board and could also be required to resign to seek election. Franklin said he was still investigating the bill and planned to discuss it with Muse, but said he thought Mathis was the target of the proposal.
"If this is a personal thing between him and Jerry, that's just inappropriate," Franklin said.
In current form, the bill also prevents board members from serving on fundraising or political committees while serving on the board. Committee fundraising is a key part of campaigning in the county, where candidates often raise and spend more than $20,000 for a County Council race.
Some delegates expressed confusion about the bill at a hearing Dec. 17 at the community college in Largo. Muse did not attend the hearing.
"How is this even constitutional?" Del. Tawanna P. Gaines (D-Dist. 22) of Berwyn Heights asked other delegates, who said they would need lawyers to review the bill.
At the same hearing, a lobbyist for the county school board asked delegates to lift a similar rule that prevents school members from seeking other elected offices while on the board.
The restriction has been in place since the county switched back to an elected school board in 2006, and Prince George's County is the only jurisdiction in the state that bars members from seeking election.
"It's really a constitutional right," said Len Lucchi, lobbyist for the school board. "Certain members would have to resign to seek office."
Lucchi said no specific member has indicated they wish to run for another office and said the board did not ask for the bill "of their own concern" but for future boards.
However, the upcoming election is likely to place several seats in play. Currently, there are four at-large seats on the 10-member board, which includes a student board member. Due to a switch to all single-member districts in the election this year, those serving in at-large seats would be forced to run against those in single-member districts if they wish to remain on the board. In addition, at least one school board member has spoken privately about plans to run for County Council.
The school board proposal would face significant hurdles, delegates noted. Before it can be introduced to the General Assembly, county delegates must agree to put it forward.
"We still have several steps it will have to go through before it can even be considered," said Delegation Chairwoman Melony G. Griffith (D-Dist. 25) of Upper Marlboro.