College Park, Md., Mayor Patrick Wojahn and City Council member P.J. Brennan, both of whom are gay, were among the suburban city’s leaders who came under fire last week for backing a controversial proposal to allow non-citizen residents to vote in local elections.
Wojahn presided over a contentious City Council meeting on Sept. 12 in which several dozen residents spoke for or against the proposal, which called for adopting a city charter amendment to give non-citizens the right to vote.
Wojahn infuriated many of the residents who spoke out against the proposal by casting the deciding vote to kill a proposed resolution to place the issue before the voters in a referendum in November rather than let the City Council decide the matter.
The eight-member Council then voted 4 to 3 with one abstention to approve the non-citizen voting rights charter amendment, prompting Wojahn and the Council members backing the measure to declare it had passed.
But four days later, Wojahn and the Council issued a joint statement saying they had overlooked a recently approved city charter revision that required a six-person majority vote on the Council to approve charter amendments. Thus the noncitizen voting measure did not pass, Wojahn and the Council members said in their joint statement, which added, “It is with considerable embarrassment and regret that we acknowledge our oversight.”
P.J. Brennan, the gay Council member who joined Wojahn in voting against the voter referendum proposal and for the non-citizen voting rights measure, said he was troubled by the sometimes acrimonious rhetoric by people on both sides of the issue.
“No doubt, as gay men, Patrick and I have been the targets of some unfortunate statements attacking our sexuality and making us feel unsafe,” he told the Washington Blade. “These attacks have allowed a perfectly reasonable community debate to devolve into name calling and lies,” he said.
Brennan said he commended those on both sides of the debate, especially the opponents, who spoke out against personal attacks and “hateful rhetoric.”
Supporters of giving non-citizen residents the right to vote in College Park’s local municipal elections noted that other Maryland municipalities, including Hyattsville, Mount Rainier, and Takoma Park approved non-citizen voting rights measures in recent years and have not encountered any problems.
“Our residents who are non-citizens are taxpayers and receive city services,” Brennan told the Blade. “They should have a say in voting for the elected body, the mayor and Council, who spend our tax dollars and set the priorities for city services,” he said.
Opponents argued at the Sept. 12 Council meeting that voting should be limited to citizens, including immigrants who become naturalized citizens.