District 1 council member Tom Dernoga became the new Prince George’s County Council chair this week in the council’s annual gavel exchange ceremony.
Dernoga succeeds at-large Democratic council member Calvin Hawkins as council chair.
Hawkins initially motioned to nominate District 5 council member Jolene Ivey as the council’s next chair. But Ivey substituted the motion to nominate Dernoga for the position, which drew thunderous applause from the meeting’s audience.
“For everything and everyone, there is a season,” Ivey said. “This moment, this season is the one meant for our colleague Tom Dernoga.”
Dernoga, the oldest council member, was the most deserving and qualified council member for the role, Ivey said. The District 1 council member has served on the council for 12 years.
“I know chair Dernoga will be the knowledgeable and trusted pilot through the way before us to smooth the sailing for our county and the residents of Prince George’s County,” Ivey said.
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Dernoga’s nomination, which the council approved unanimously, marks a significant shift from the previous council’s pro-development majority into a new liberal majority. Newly elected council members including Eric Olson, Ingrid Harrison, Wala Blegay and Krystal Oriadha all fall on the more liberal side of council political decisions.
Dernoga, a University of Maryland alum, likened his new leadership role in the council to that of President Joe Biden. While Dernoga emphasized he is grateful for the opportunity, he highlighted he hoped to be the “elder statesman” that eases the transition to the younger council members.
As a transitional leader, Dernoga plans to work with fellow council members to fulfill his promise of shared leadership.
“I see my role as a point guard, starting fast breaks and distributing the ball, so that everyone can score,” he said. “This council is already on a fast break with six bills ready for presentation, more on the way.”
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Newly elected District 6 council member Wala Blegay will also serve as the council’s vice chair, succeeding District 9 council member Sydney Harrison.
In her first remarks to the council as vice chair, Blegay, a former labor rights activist, echoed Ivey’s sentiments about the importance of the council involving county residents in policy decisions.
“This is the people’s council. We are a council dedicated to serving our residents,” Blegay said.
Blegay sharply criticized the council’s recent policymaking actions, including a fierce redistricting battle in January and the passage of tax amendments. She vowed the new council will overcome these past shortcomings. To address this, Blegay hopes to make the council’s website easier to access and more informative. The site could improve by including future council meeting dates and agendas to promote public engagement in the council, Blegay said.
Blegay also gave a glimpse of the council’s future policy priorities and called to expand numerous services provided by the county, including strengthening the affordable housing portfolio, developing a rental assistance process and strengthening programs to assist seniors.