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Council Freshmen Quick to Speak Up

"It is unrealistic to support projects of this magnitude without recognizing the financial realities," Berliner said in his appeal to fellow council members.

By the end of their second meeting last week, all four newcomers had delved into an ongoing controversy over how the council divvies up grants to local nonprofit groups. Critics have long compared the process with congressional pork barrel spending, with decisions historically made behind closed doors and influenced by political connections. Last year, the council awarded $3.5 million in grants after reviewing requests by 211 organizations for $17.8 million.

As a result, Praisner and George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) have spent the past two years working to create a formal application process overseen by a citizens advisory group. What was intended as a noncontroversial vote last week to appoint the group and formalize this year's application process quickly erupted into a heated exchange.

Before the meeting, Ervin circulated a memo urging colleagues to give the advisory group -- not the council -- final say in the awarding of grants. Past practice, she wrote, put members in the "precarious position of being either a hero or a villain depending on what types of awards are made and which groups receive funding."

Berliner echoed those concerns when the issue came up on the agenda, saying, "Many of us are uncomfortable as newbies moving forward quickly." Trachtenberg, the co-president of Maryland NOW, added that she, too, planned to raise alternatives to the current system.

When it was Leventhal's turn to speak, he remarked on finding himself in the odd position of seeming to defend the status quo after having been a critic of the process in the past. He then reminded his "new colleagues and friends" that any five of the nine council members can appropriate money for any purpose.

"I so hope I don't sound patronizing now," he said, but "I would caution my new colleagues not to disempower themselves too quickly" by delegating the power to a group of citizens.

"Thank you for the lecture on counting," replied Ervin, who was an aide to Leventhal before being elected to the council. "I think all four of us that were elected count really well, and we understand that it takes five votes to do anything on this council. But I also know that five votes taken in private did not exactly make the grants process transparent."

Council members seem to be taking their cues from voters, said Bobbie Walton, who has returned to the council to work for Trachtenberg after seven years at Common Cause.

"There is an air of expectation," she said. "They want to see action."

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