‘Forced to show up the day after I give birth’: Prince George’s Co. Council debates virtual voting, member ethics

The pandemic has brought about lots of changes in the ways we live and work, with more and more jobs allowing for remote work than before. In some cases, employers can find it hard to attract talent by having a rigid “no virtual work” policy.

That’s not the case in electoral politics. And with the declared pandemic emergency officially over, there’s no virtual work — at least, official work — that can be done by the Prince George’s County Council.

Attendance at council and committee meetings must be in-person, as do all recorded votes. An effort to change that policy failed on a 5-5 vote as the full council met in what’s known as the Committee of the Whole. Even though the sixth vote, Council member Jolene Ivey, was out sick, the measure would have needed eight of 11 votes to ultimately pass in the future.

While a couple of Council members who supported the change brought up COVID-19 and the impact it could have if one of their colleagues had to quarantine, it became pretty obvious that they knew what the outcome would be before the measure was taken up — and that the change to the rules wasn’t because of concern about another winter of COVID-19.

‘They are using this as a power opportunity’

“I know that the reason is clear,” said District 7 Council member Krystal Oriadha. “We were told by some of the members on the other side of the vote, that it’s specifically an issue with me and my ability to vote. And so they are using this as a power opportunity.”

Oriadha endured a difficult pregnancy this summer, which she said has required multiple hospitalizations. She’s expected to give birth in the fall. But she’s also part of a faction of six voters that exerts strong legislative control on everything from committee assignments and votes, to land use, to other pieces of legislation.

At-large Council member Calvin Hawkins, who strong-armed several pieces of legislation himself — including a controversial redistricting measure aimed at making it harder for certain members of the current council to get elected, which was later overturned in the courts — didn’t beat around the bush.

“I’m clear why I’m voting the way I’m voting. The rules allow me to make this vote,” he said, speaking in a tone that was far louder than most of his colleagues. “And I’m making it so now there’ll be — you show up, Ms. Oriadha. You’ve got that right.”

But he said if she can’t, “now it’ll be five Council members, plus five other Council members, who will make one body, and then you all will have to be more open, more honest and more transparent.”

Oriadha spoke again to address those comments a few minutes later.

“There was a time where some people were in, maybe leadership, and had the power — and who got leadership and committees, who got grants, who got this, who got that, was fully in their power,” she said. “There was no complaints then. But now there’s complaints because maybe it’s not going to your friends, and your cronies, and your bills and legislation that you disagree with because you’ve promised developers and you got money and things are happening differently. But that’s because the people voted.”

Debates over ‘good governance’

Other members, including Council Vice-Chair Wala Blegay, tried to separate some members’ feelings for Oriadha from the legislation at hand.

“Let’s put politics aside, let’s put any of the personal things aside, because at the end of the day, there’s no part of this resolution that has Councilwoman Oriadha’s name on it. It benefits us all,” Blegay said. “It just shows that we’re making sure that women can be a part of the process no matter what, especially those that are … giving birth, that they can be a part, that we can make it easier for them to represent their district.”

District 2 Council member Wanika Fisher, who came to Largo after getting elected to Maryland’s house of delegates during the pandemic (and who sometimes votes with the majority) said her vote on this matter was influenced by her experience in Annapolis.

“Good governance is important. And I had two colleagues give birth and be in Annapolis the entire legislative session,” Fisher said. “One from Baltimore City who, she not only gave birth, it was very intense and she was on crutches the entire session, and there was no exception.”

But she also pointed out that a piece of legislation she sponsored earlier this year was taken up and voted on when she wasn’t there.

“I didn’t take it personally,” said Fisher, who chalked it up to “good governance” that day.

‘It is clearly very personal’

For her part, Oriadha vowed to show up no matter how difficult it was.

“I refuse to have my community be disenfranchised. And if I’m forced to show up the day after I give birth, on the desk with my child breastfeeding, I will do that. Do I think I should be forced to do that? No, I don’t,” she said. “It’s very clear that this is not on the principle of the legislation. It’s not on the principle of changing the rules. It is very clearly personal.”

Council member Sydney J. Harrison, who also voted no, didn’t disagree with that sentiment either.

“I’m a firm believer right now that this body has some healing to do, regardless of how we got here, what our viewpoints are,” said Harrison.

“I think that there’s been an erosion of trust. I’m going to be honest. At times, there’s not a whole lot of trust that I have,” he said of his colleagues.

Harrison said what’s frustrating to him is the demonization that goes on between the council’s two ideologically different factions when disagreements arise.

“How we vilify each other on each vote is sickening,” he said.

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John Domen

John started working at WTOP in 2016 after having grown up in Maryland listening to the station as a child. While he got his on-air start at small stations in Pennsylvania and Delaware, he's spent most of his career in the D.C. area, having been heard on several local stations before coming to WTOP.

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