John L. Menke entered politics in 1972 when he organized upcounty residents in Montgomery County to fight a proposed sewage treatment plant at Dickerson and a related expansion of the Potomac Electric Power Co. generating plant at Dickerson.
Now, four years later, Menke is president of the Montgomery County Council and sewage treatment problems are among his major official concerns. He also remains deeply concerned with environmental matters.
"The county is a treasure that we just shouldn't throw away," he said in a recent interview. "In my opinion, one of the responsibilities of the county government is to try to anticipate the problems that are coming and to take steps to prevent them from happening."
He added: "The basic problem that I see is that in the long run we have no choice but to redirect the use of the automobile. The dollar cost of fuel is going to be rising. We've got to have an alternative to the automobile.
"At the same time, we are following land use policies that were developed before the energy problem. I think we're out of joint."
One key issue looming before the council is the development of alternatives to the huge sewage treatment plant that was planned for Dickerson - the same project that brought Menke into county politics. Earlier this year, the Environmental Protection Agency failed to approve it, saying it would cost too much for the benefits received.
On that subject, Menke told the council in a speech last month, "We have the choice of allowing the county to drift into sewer moratoria five years from now which will make the recent moratoria look like minor market aberrations or we can do all in our power to develop a set of sewage treatment alternatives to meet our growth needs for the next 20 years. In practice, this will probably mean developing proposals for one or more moderate-sized plants and choosing one or more for construction."
Despite Menke's strong opinions on such subjects, the 36-year-old official says he does not intend to use his office as a platform from which to publicize his views. The $22,279-a-year job carries a one-year term and involves being a moderator at council meetings, acting as a council spokesman and doing administrative work for the council.
Menke views his role as one of expediting the council's work. "Maybe it's politically naive," he said. "But I don't think it's appropriate to use that (job) to build support for my particular position. I don't see the position (as a means) to push unfairly a particular point of view.
"On the other hand, I certainly shall continue to say what I feel."
Menke also says he does not anticipate politics will play a role in the council's relationship with County Executive James P. Gleason, a Republican.
"This council had tried very hard and so has the executive to work closely together. It doesn't mean there aren't differences of opinion. But what we have tried to do is keep the issues separated," he said.
Although Menke has disagreed with Gleason over such major issues as the Dickerson plant proposal, he said that, "Overall, I think we work well together."
Already, some people have suggested to Menke that he run for county executive. Menke has downplayed the suggestion but left the door open by saying it's too early to make a decision.
"Just as when you're in a civic group, people say, 'Why don't you run for county executive?'" Menke said.
There have also been suggestions that Menke run for Congress. "I wouldn't rule it out," Menke said. But I'm far more interested in local issues. What impact can one congressman have?" I know I can have a significant impact wht never have entered politics at all if it had not been for an incident in fall of 1972 when an excited neighbor told him that Montgomery County "wants to store sewage in the lake behind your backyard," as Menke recalled.
Then a physicist at the Bureau of Standards, Menke was not disturbed by the prospect, which county officials had listed as one of several altenatives. Instead, he showed the detachment he would use later after being elected to the county council.
"It was very obvious to me that there was zero chance, absolutely zero chance the whole proposal would be adopted. It was essentially a straw man to be knocked down," Menke reminisced.
But what did upset him was what he saw as the most reasonable alternative listed-a plan to treat 66 million gallons of sewage a day at Dickerson.
To Menke, the projected cost seemed too low and the amount of sewage to be treated seemed too high.He pored over hundreds of pages of data on the project. Then, satisfied the plan was unrealistic, he helped launch citizens' efforts against it, one of the first time residents in rural northwestern Montgomery County had been so organized.
That led to his candidacy for the county council in 1974.
Menke, who lives in a log cabin in the rural community of Barnesville with his wife Susan, their 9-year-old son Gregory and 6-year-old son Matthew, says his political campaign was the first time he had really been involved in party politics.
Born in Kensington, he spent almost all of his life in Barnesville except for the four years he spent at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York. He graduated in 1962, just before the civil rights movement took fire and just at the end of the "beat generation."
Although he and his wife participated in a peace march on Washington and were "sympathetic" to civil rights efforts, Menke says they were not leaders in such activities.
The first time he became a political organizer was at age 33 when he began to oppose the sewer plant and power plant expansion.
Menke admits that his current 60 hour work week as council president is trying. "I have tried to encourage other council members not to try to get to every single meeting, every single hearing," he said, during an interview which was punctuated by calls from citizens and officials who wanted to talk with him "for just a few minutes."
When asked whether he longs for the days at the Bureau of Standards, Menke replied that his personal satisfaction now is greater.
But he added, "I long ago decided that until I was 34 I lived without being on the council and without being in politics and I can go back to that. There are other things in my life other than power."