With a gaping budget short fall looming, the Montgomery County Council's greatest challenge awaits.

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What happens when nine, strong-minded individuals with big egos and different agendas come together for the common good? Not much.

At least that’s what a lot of people think about the Montgomery County Council, which enacts laws and approves budgets for the county’s one million residents. Or as the joke making the rounds in political and business circles goes: “They can do transgender and trans fat,” referring to legislation that bans trans fats in restaurant food and bars discrimination against trans gendered persons, “but they can’t do transportation.”

Council members often seem to reach for what union leader Gino Renne, president of the Municipal & County Government Employees Organization, calls “the low-hanging fruit,” politically correct but not particularly courageous bills that make grand statements and attract media attention without having much, if any, impact on the daily lives of most citizens.

“You say to yourself, these are not bad things to do,” says Nancy Floreen of Garrett Park, an at-large council member in her second term. “I view these as fine issues. They’re all very progressive, but they are interest group issues, not ones I hear from the average person. The only push [by council members] is: How far left can we go? They are not issues on which we should spend the bulk of our time.”

The issues may also be a luxury that the council can indulge in only in economically good times. Which these are not. In fact, how the panel handles things in the months ahead will reflect not only on the members as individuals, but also on an institution that has been in place since the county moved to an elected council in 1948 and added an elected county executive in 1968.

“People don’t run for office to get in power and slash budgets,” says Gus Bauman, the former county planning board chairman who ran Floreen’s campaign. “They like to hand out goodies, not take them away.” Facing a budget shortfall of an estimated $500 million, the council isn’t likely to be handing out goodies anytime soon.

Times and issues have changed dramatically since the current council rode to power in 2006 on a wave of slow growth sentiment—a backlash against an “End Gridlock” pro-growth, pro-highway former council majority closely tied to former County Executive Douglas M. Duncan. In its first year, the current council adopted a policy that limits further development in highly congested areas. But then the economy overtook growth as an issue, bringing new construction to a virtual stand still. While quieting the growth versus no-growth debate, the slump has also deeply affected the county’s coffers. Montgomery is heavily dependent on the taxes it collects on real estate sales. The bottom line: Fewer sales—and at lower prices—mean less revenue. The decline has been striking: from 2007 to 2008, tax collections from these sources fell nearly 25 percent— $179.6 million to $135 million.

“The growth thing is out the window,” says at-large council member George Leventhal of Takoma Park. “There is no growth. The economy has tanked.” On the budget, at-large member Marc Elrich, who has been at odds with Leventhal, agrees. “All bets are off the table,” says Erlich, also a Takoma Park resident. “I don’t see any good news.”

Fractious Group

The council’s formal business is conducted on the upper floors of the Stella B. Werner Council Office Building, built in 1953, in Rockville. There, council members and their staffs—each member gets $387,000 for staff and expenses— are housed on the sixth floor. Council members are paid $94,040 annually, except for the president, who receives $103,444. A $3.5 million renovation of council chambers and meeting rooms was to have been completed in December. One floor below, 35 staffers of the legislative services division—the institutional memory—toil away; 15 have been there for more than 20 years.

“The council has an institutional memory in the staff, but not in the council,” says up-county council member Michael Knapp, now in his second term. “We can’t assume it’s at the dais, that’s the difference” between this and the prior council.

All but one of the current council have been in place for more than two years, or slightly more than half a term. The group, all Democrats, includes four members first elected in 2006, three in 2002, one in 1998 and Donald Praisner, who was elected in 2008 to complete the term of his wife, Marilyn, who died early last year. Many council members and outside observers say it is a fractious group with no clear leader who can forge a consensus.

“The group is very diverse,” observes Raquel Montenegro, associate director of legislative affairs at the Maryland-National Capital Building Industry Association. “It’s been often difficult to understand what the collective objective is. They have different perspectives, bring different experiences to the table, and they do not fall in line on issues as easily as in the past.”

What the panel lacks, observers say, is a center of gravity. “Being the center of gravity doesn’t come easy,” says Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett, who, many say, filled that role during his 16 years on the council. “Number one, you need knowledge of what’s at stake. Number two, you have to have a great deal of credibility. Number three, you need the political acumen to negotiate and navigate through all them in minefields.”

Several members say the sudden death of long-serving member Marilyn Praisner, who was then council president, left a huge void. Though often in the minority, especially on the previous council, she was listened to and widely respected.

“Marilyn was the institutional ballast. It was just such a huge loss. It’s very hard to overestimate the impact of her death,” says council member Roger Berliner, who represents Bethesda, Chevy Chase and Potomac and was elected in 2006.

“The divisions are so deep on [the] council now, I don’t see anyone with the ability to do that,” says Duncan, the former county executive who left an administrative post at the University of Maryland this fall to co-found Civic US, a government advisory firm. “I’m not sure how well they get along with each other. There is no unified vision.” Absent leadership from the county executive, Duncan says, “the council flounders as different council members try to fill the void. It doesn’t really work well, with differences over style, substance and personality. As executive, I knew on certain issues to go to a certain person to get things done. On this council, I couldn’t tell you who is that person.”

“Those of us on the last council were more used to getting issues resolved,” says Floreen, who was elected in 2002 on the Duncan-backed “End Gridlock” slate. “We’ve sunk back to paralysis by analysis. There are not five reliable votes on any issue.”

Floreen considers herself “the last one standing” on the council who remains a strong public supporter of the controversial Intercounty Connector highway. But the issue of transportation, she notes, offers no immediate political paybacks. “The problem is, it’s delayed gratification,” she says. “You start a project and you’re not around for the ribbon-cutting.” Not surprisingly, no notable road projects have begun under this council’s watch.

“My expectations for the council were very high,” says Valerie Ervin of Silver Spring, a union organizer by background who served as Leventhal’s chief of staff and was a member of the Montgomery County Board of Education before being elected to the council in 2006. But it hasn’t quite worked out as she’d hoped. “We’re totally nine cats, and we’re all Democrats,” Ervin says. “You’d never know it in terms of where people end up on significant issues. It seems there’s no rudder, no direction. There are times when council members will have to pull together. It hasn’t happened yet.”

That must change, she says. “The fiscal information from the state every day keeps getting worse,” Ervin says. “There will not be a lot of options going into the next budget.”

J.P. Montelvan, a real estate agent and lifelong county resident who helped lead an effort last year to incorporate the Rollingwood section of Chevy Chase, a bid that was rejected by the council, says, “It’s very sad tome to see a county council operating on the periphery when we have serious economic issues, [housing] affordability, [and are] trying to maintain the quality of our schools, trying to maintain the quality of our roads.”

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