Duncan Finds Change Isn't Easy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 19, 1998; Page A01
He came into office seeking to make Montgomery County's painstakingly studious way of reaching decisions a thing of the past. County Executive Douglas M. Duncan's motto could be summed up by the sign that hangs on his office wall: "When Will It Be Done?"
Four years later, Duncan (D) has won accolades from many residents, business representatives and even some fellow elected officials for bringing a can-do attitude to a county facing a barrage of serious new challenges. Yet changing Montgomery's culture of exhaustive deliberation has proved a difficult task.
As his first term comes to an end, big projects, such as construction of a new jail and a conference center, remain mired in controversy and have been continually threatened by delays. He has had no more success in advancing the intercounty connector commuter route than any of his predecessors in the last three decades. Even his greatest triumph, winning acceptance for a redevelopment plan for Silver Spring, came only after he backed away from a proposal to build the heavily criticized American Dream megamall.
"I think there has been an attitudinal change in the county, which I've worked very hard at," Duncan said. "But I still have a long way to go."
Duncan, 42, has alienated some civic leaders and activists, who say that in his rush to move forward, he is too quick to disregard opinions and evidence that threaten to stall his initiatives.
This election year, Duncan is tacitly acknowledging that his ability to keep projects on track depends in part on future support from the County Council, which bickered with him often during his first term before generally approving his proposals by inconsistent majorities.
Now, as he runs for another term with no apparent opposition from established politicians, Duncan wants to put together a more solid majority on the council and likely will endorse several candidates he believes will "work to get things done." A successful second term as county executive could be crucial for a man who may someday run for governor of Maryland.
"We needed the change. We needed somebody to shake things up. He was the right person for the job," council member Gail Ewing (D-At Large) said of the executive's first term. "But we'll have to wait until his second term for proof of his success."
Duncan argues that his approach a "sense of urgency," he calls it is required medicine for an affluent county he worries would otherwise be in danger of gradually losing ground in the regional rivalry with Northern Virginia for jobs and prestige.
For years, Montgomery officials have followed a tradition of careful planning, avoiding fast and risky decisions. Duncan says he believes the strategy worked well when the Washington suburb was still largely a bedroom community for white-collar federal government workers and other professionals. Now, however, Montgomery is a far larger place of 826,766 people, much more dependent on private-sector jobs and more economically and culturally diverse. The county requires more aggressive leadership, Duncan said.
Since his first day at work in 1994, when he dispatched a large contingent of firefighters and bureaucrats to put out a North Potomac dump fire that had smoldered for months, Duncan has run Montgomery in high gear. He has worked hard to make the county a bigger player in State House politics. He has been praised by business leaders for his efforts to change the perception of Montgomery as a swamp of red tape.
Often, he has rejected the previous practice of building consensus before making choices.
"In the past, it's always been that if you can get someone to scream at something, oppose something, then everything just stops and it's, 'Okay, how do we appease this person? How do we get consensus here?'" Duncan said in an interview last week. "There's a clear role for citizen participation I'm a big believer in that. But I'm also a believer that there's a role up to a point. At a certain point, you've got to make a decision."
From the start, he did not hesitate to make decisions, even if they rankled the county's establishment. He quickly fired 15 department heads in a housecleaning that was unusual for incoming Montgomery executives. His unilateral decision to officially accept the county's controversial garbage incinerator sparked a walkout by council members at a briefing. Later that day, the new administration was compared to once-authoritarian Bulgaria and blasted at a news conference called by all nine council members.
Within his first year in office, Duncan pushed hard for three major capital projects that had been discussed for years: the conference center, the jail and Silver Spring redevelopment.
All three projects have since moved forward, but with varying degrees of success. Ground has not been broken on any of the three, and all have brought Duncan his share of criticism from civic leaders, residents and officials who believe he has ignored valid questions in the rush to get things built.
"What we have here is the leadership style of the Titanic: 'I see the iceberg, but I'm going ahead,'" said John G. Viner, a North Bethesda resident and civic activist who has been a leading opponent of building the conference center near the White Flint Metro station. "He is arrogant, and he is bullying."
"The opposite of paralysis by analysis is running too quickly and blindly into bad situations," said Greg Smith, who leads a coalition of county environmental and civic activists that has tussled with the county executive on various issues.
The conference center offers perhaps the best example of how the executive's get-it-done desire has sometimes run head-on into what some administration officials refer to as "the old way" of doing things. When it was proposed in 1995, the $60 million meeting facility and hotel was scheduled to open for business this year. Duncan called it a key economic development priority that Montgomery needed to get done in "record time."
During the last three years, however, the project has stalled under a series of volleys from the Planning Board, zoning officials and critical County Council members. Yet maybe the biggest reason not a spade of soil has been turned is the opposition from Montgomery's ever-ready cadre of civic leaders and concerned residents, who often have the expertise and the money to put up a good fight.
Viner, for example, is a retired Federal Highway Administration research engineer well versed in traffic engineering. Other residents who have volunteered to fight the conference center include a conference planner and of course more than one lawyer.
They have argued that the project is not feasible at the selected site, that it will further clog traffic on busy Rockville Pike and drain business from other hotels, and that the county's push to put it there has betrayed the spirit of the master plan process intended to provide a blueprint for future development. Next week, the opposition will ask the County Council to yet again consider arguments against the proposal.
According to Duncan, the delay in building the conference center has cost Montgomery not only valuable time in the race for jobs and economic development dollars but also credibility, especially among state lawmakers who allocated $17.5 million for the project two years ago. That same year, the state approved funding for two professional football stadiums. The Washington Redskins stadium opened last year in Prince George's County, and the Ravens stadium is on track to open this year in Baltimore.
"The conference center has been the most frustrating issue I've dealt with here. It's something that's clearly needed in the county. It's something we've gotten state funding for. And while we're still debating it, they're playing football in the Ravens stadium this year," he said. "We haven't even broken ground yet."
As with the $84 million Clarksburg jail and the $321 million Silver Spring town center proposal, if the conference center is ever completed, it will not be before Duncan's first term ends.
"In any other jurisdiction, construction would have been underway by now," Ronald E. Resh, the president of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, said of the conference center. And that, he said, emphasizes the importance of the council election. "You can have Duncan, with all the positive things he's done, but if you don't have a council that sees the big picture, then you're going to have problems."
Nonetheless, Resh credited Duncan for having shown strong leadership skills. "He has made a difference," Resh said. "Now, does that mean everything's been taken care of and we're all fine and dandy? No."
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