Council coup

Monday, November 30, 2009

RATHER THAN grappling with a projected budget deficit whose dimensions swell with every new revenue estimate, the Montgomery County Council is seized at the moment by the suburban version of a coup d'etat.

For the better part of 40 years, it has been all but automatic that each council president (in a one-year rotating position) has been succeeded by the council vice president, both having been elected by their seven colleagues the previous year. This orderly script, followed with few exceptions, has helped the council mute its internal politicking and maintain a modicum of stability.

The current crew, which has a reputation for peevish infighting and ever-shifting alliances, seems poised to do things differently. Rather than elevating the incumbent vice president, Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) -- who was chosen by acclamation last year -- five of the nine council members now appear set to block his ascension in favor of Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), a seven-year council veteran. A vote is expected Tuesday.

The council president's power is limited but real; as a first among equals, he or she counts noses, sets the agenda and tends to hog the media's spotlight. In that regard, there's not much to choose between Mr. Berliner and Ms. Floreen. Mr. Berliner's faction (all Democrats) tends to favor slowing the county's rate of growth, but the recession has rendered that issue more or less moot. Ms. Floreen's bloc (also all Democrats) tends to be more in the thrall of Montgomery's public employee unions, but given the county's anemic finances, little new money is likely to materialize for them.

The real root of this unsightly feud is the cliquishness and toxic personal chemistry on the council, whose balance of power shifted last year after an incumbent's death triggered a special election to fill his vacancy. That shift tempted the new majority to throw out precedent on succession just because it can -- not because it's good governance, nor because it will benefit the county, nor because Ms. Floreen would make a better president than Mr. Berliner.

Well, all right. But here's a word of caution for the coup plotters: Beware of voters who, rightly annoyed with political machinations, may well decide to throw the rascals out -- just because they can.

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