The news that Ellicott Council Member Darius G. Pridgen had won the support of his colleagues to become the next Council president led to an obvious question: How did he do that?
Up until a few weeks ago, those in Council leadership had said that they expected the roles of most on the Council to stay the same, with the exception of President Pro Tempore Bonnie E. Russell, who represents the University District and is leaving her seat in early January for job in the court system.
But in a matter of hours last week, Pridgen, who said he had considered pursuing the position for the last few months, had moved quickly to line up the support he needed, and then some.
The Council’s unanimous support of Pridgen, if it comes to fruition as expected when a reorganizational meeting is held Jan. 2, will mark the first time in a long time that the Council has been in such agreement.
Pridgen, 49, has been a member of the Council’s majority, whose leader is Masten Council Member Demone A. Smith, and who is seen as being friendly to Mayor Byron W. Brown.
But Pridgen found his earliest support on the nine-member Council from people who are anything but friendly to the Brown administration, and said he didn’t inform the mayor’s office about his plans until he had the votes.
Fillmore Council Member David A. Franczyk was one of the first lawmakers to declare his support of Pridgen, and Delaware Council Member Michael J. LoCurto was an early supporter as well.
Support also came in from members of the Council’s majority.
Smith said he was surprised that Pridgen said he wanted the job and that once Pridgen lined up support from four other members, giving him five votes, including the vote he will cast for himself, the discussion was over.
“Once Darius had five votes, why continue counting?” Smith said.
Early support from members outside the majority, ones who had no particular affection for the current Council president, Richard A. Fontana, turned out to be key for Pridgen.
“I think you need a Council president that is his own person, who understands that the Council is an independent branch of government and won’t be afraid to stand up for that,” said LoCurto. “I think he’s demonstrated that in the past two years.”
Fontana had broken with the former majority, which included LoCurto and Franczyk, to become president two years ago, and did not have the support of his colleagues for another two-year term.
Niagara Council Member David A. Rivera, who will become the next president pro tempore, said the question wasn’t whether Pridgen would have support of the Council, but whether Pridgen, whose responsibilities include being pastor of True Bethel Baptist Church, would want to do it.
“We were happy to hear that he would seek the office,” Rivera said. “It was an easy decision for most of us.”
Pridgen chose to approach his Council colleagues first to seek their support, before letting City Hall’s second floor know what was happening, he said.
“Once I had the votes, I informed the chief executive,” Pridgen said.
He hopes to have the Council presidency for at least the next two years, he said.
The city charter dictates that if the mayor were to leave office at mid-term, the Council president assumes the mayor’s office until the next general election.
A theory floating in City Hall had been that if there was a change in the Council presidency, it would indicate that Brown was looking to leave. But Pridgen said that he sought the presidency independent of the administration, and there is no relationship between his ambitions and any plans Brown might have for the future.
Council members are elected every four years, but a reorganization is held every two years, and gives lawmakers an opportunity to choose their leader, change committee assignments and hire and fire Council staff.
Smith, who is expected to retain his position as majority leader, said the impending changes mark “a peaceful turnover of power,” and said he expects that Fontana will remain a member of the majority. “We have a unified Council where everybody is working together,” Smith said. “That’s important.”
North Council Member Joseph Golombek said he will retain his chairmanship of the Community Development Committee, and said he expects there will be more unity.
“I don’t think you need to fight with people for the sake of fighting,” he said.
Smith said he’s “hoping to have a nine-member majority,” which would comprise the entire Council.
Franczyk reiterated this week that he is supporting Pridgen, but he didn’t seem on board with Smith’s statement, saying he didn’t know what he meant.
“I’m not changing the way I vote,” Franczyk said.
Russell is leaving public office to work for newly elected Family Court Judge Mary G. Carney, and it will be up to the Council to appoint a new member. Russell said she expects her last day to be Jan. 7, and Pridgen said he would like to move quickly in appointing a replacement.
In addition to being one of the Council’s longest-serving members and its president pro tempore, Russell is also the only woman on the Council.
Pridgen said he is looking forward to improving the technology used by the Council, from live broadcasts of its meetings to digitizing Council records. Lawmakers carrying hundreds of pages of documents in manila folders into meetings is an everyday occurrence. Digitizing resolutions and agendas, and making them searchable online, would create efficiencies and make Council business more transparent to the public, he said.