When William Steed stood up to complain about a state highway project, he introduced himself as the president of a mortgage company and the kind of man who does a lot of entertaining. That is why, he said, he bought a $120,000 home and spent $40,000 fixing it up for guests. Now a proposal to make his street a majoy artery is threatening his tranquility and property values. He plans to sue.
Another speaker who made some unpleasant remarks about the same project noted that the state highway official in charge had been "less than warm, in our interface." The official had scheduled a community briefing on the street project for the night before New Year's Eve. "Certainly no one with social commitments could have attended."
These are two of the people represented by the Montgomery County delegation to Annapolis. They come in all sizes and shapes but they are usually "professional" in their civic roles. They come to citizen's hearings armed with maps, cost-benefit estimates and complaints about "social commitments."
If anyone ever wondered how Montgomery earned its reputation for having the "boring long-winded and dull" delegation in Annapolis, a night at a citizen's hearing gives the answer.
Every fourth speaker claims a PhD before his or her name. Speakers bring their own theories and try to give the benefit of all of their knowledge in the time allotted: 5 minutes for group representatives, 3 minutes for individuals.
In Prince George's County, citizen's hearings take on a more relaxed tone. Like Montgomery. Prince George's legislators held a number of public meetings before they packed their bags for the state capital. But their meetings didn't last half so long, and no one used the word "interface" for "conversation."
Prince George's wrapped it all up before Christmas. At that hearing the first resolution, in fact, congratulated the fine folks who had decorated the room with blinking lights and "holiday spirit."
Prince George's - that's the delegation with a machine, with a party organization that makes deals to get what it wants, and makes promises and pledges with other delegations around the state. They are an awesome group in some minds.
Fewer people trudged to the final hearing in Prince George's than in Montgomery. Possibly the only honest-to-goodness citizen speaker was Georgie Holden, a representative of a senior citizen group trying to get better legislation to regulate prescription drugs.
Unlike her Montgomery County counterparts, Ms. Holden (the white-haired woman prefers Ms. to Mrs.) seemed frightened standing before her delegation. The county representatives were seated around a long narrow table and Ms. Holden stood at one end, acting as if she had interrupted a stranger's dinner party.
At the other end of the table, Frederick Rummage the head of the delegation, pounded his gavel and told Ms. Holden she'd have to cut it short. Her hands shaking. Ms. Holden backed away and took her seat. True to form, other delegates shook her hand and said that they had already decided to support the bill. She really hadn't done anything wrong.
Ms. Holden differs from the Montgomery County citizen in an even more crucial way. She is a member of BUS - (Betterment for United Seniors) - which is part of NUP - (Neighbor Uniting Project). NUP hires activists to advise its members on the art of lobbying.
Citizens of five Prince George's towns near the District line hired about half a dozen professionals to help them sort out their problems, make demands and then win. They will never become an important political force but they've pretty much received what they asked for.
Hire a consultant in Montgomery County? There, citizens are better prepared than the average state officials. At the last hearing, all seven civic leaders who stood up to make demands had their lobbying angle down to a fine program.
They rattled off how many voters live in their subdivision and alluded to the wealth in their area ("premium priced homes - private streets - exclusive neighborhood"). They not only have the specifications for their favorite projects computed; they also have the graphs and charts and fallback proposals A and B.
The Montgomery County delegation has been called many things - including antiseptic which is to say that they regard themselves as too clean to make deals to get what they want.
But it is the Prince George's delegation that accomplishes something in Annapolis. Maryland is more like Prince George's and politics in Annapolis is closer to Upper Marlboro than Rockville. Which may be the way Rockville prefers things.
It is not the way to influence the state, however. And this year, like last year, Prince George's will continue to increase its clout through its understanding of political realities in the state while Montgomery, with the best of intentions, will labor longer for fewer results. The rarefied Montgomery air doesn't travel well.