Winfield Kelly's traveling road show of officialdom came to Parkdale High School in Riverdale one night recently. After playing to hostile crowds in Camp Springs and Glenarden, the Riverdale audience was almost a pushover. They didn't cheer him in the aisles, but then, they didn't boo him much either.
"If President Carter wants to meet the people," suggested the Prince George's County executive, "my system is the most open that's been developed."
Kelly calls his system "town meetings," but one skeptical citizen likened it the other night to television's "Gong Show." "If you don't say what he wants, you get sat down," complained Geneva Jenkins, of Riverdale.
Kelly, of course, would sharply dispute such a characterization of the monthly meetings he has held throughout the county since he took office two years ago. What has concerned him recently, however, has been the frequently reappearance from month to month of what he and his aides call "repeaters," a few people they say have "personal problems with the establishment."
"They travel all over the county, disrupting what was intended to be unfettered dialogue in the neighborhoods," Kelly complained over lunch the other week. "It's becoming a happening. what I don't want to see happening is a circus. Thye're not going to force me to kill what I think has been a fantastic part of the administration."
The people lined up at a central microphone and spoke on a first-come, first-heard basis. The woman who invariably complains about the Maryland Park and Planning Commission's Patuxent River park proposal was there, as was another woman alleging Mafia activities in the county, and other individuals with more personalized complaints.
For four hours, Kelly, County Council members, state legislators and congresspersons served as metaphorical punching bags, rolling with the punches of people overwhelmed by taxes and other ills - necessary or otherwise - of the system.
"They are very tough sessions. I feel drained after every one," Kelly said. "You can't stand up for four or five hours and be the recipient of all the frustrations of community without being drained, unless you didn't listen and didn't care."
Kelly, his wife, Barbara, and his close aides huddle after each meeting over beer and pizza, assessing the night's events. Recently they decided to head off the "repeaters" by requiring that people in the immediate neighborhood get first crack at the officials. The other night, from Kelly's perspective, it worked.
The 22d monthly town meeting at Parkdale High School in Riversdale drew some 200 residents. "If this were a political meeting, I'd say about 350," Kelly aide John Lally jested.
The 21st meeting at Roger B. Taney Junior High in Camp Springs had drawn in excess of 800, according to a county press release, even bigger than the full house the months before had turned out to protest - successfully - a proposed correctional facility in Glenarden.
It was a generally orderly crowd at Parkdale however. When Herb Newman, of Riverdale, attempted to relinquish the microphone to Diane McClary, a vocal patuxent River resident, Kelly stopped him. By the time Mrs. McClary had her say, it was 12:30 a.m. and the large auditorium was almost empty.
The entire proceeding were taped. "There won't be any 18-minute gap," Kelly promised. "We do this to respond to questions you raise," There was also a sign language interpreter present for the deaf.
The questions, for the most part, were not hostile, and Kelly and other officials present were able to field them. When someone asked why apartment assessments hadn't risen like homeowners', Kelly was clearly elated.
"That's a nice high fast ball I'd like to hit out of the Park," he said, explaining that he too, feels the tax structure is unfair.
Michael Gifford wanted to know what could be done about the loss of federal agencies from Prince George's. Kelly noted the "good news" that Health Education & Welfare employees are moving from Rockville to Prince George's Plaza.
Why did the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission levy a $2 service charge? Kelly was able to deflect that one to WSSC Chairperson Johanna Norris, who rose from the audience to regret that inflation made such things necessary.
There were more tax questions. "I want to know when you're going to lower taxes?" someone asked. Kelly talked about the need to reform the entire system. Rep. Gladys Spellman (D-Md.) was also confronted with the tax question.
"Of course, we on the federal level don't control local taxes," said Spellman, who was munching a hamburger she said was her breakfast. "They're having real problems with regressive property taxes all over the United States." That's why she said, she is co-sponsoring a bill to create "one good star-studded commission with some of the best minds in the country" to come up with a solution.
There was just no mollifying Mrs. B. M. Onda, of Lanham, who rose waving a red-covered hook containing the motor vehicle laws of the state of Maryland. Her son had unfairly received a ticket in a traffic accident, she said. "The police on the scene seemed to be the judge and jury," she said." I don't mean to be cute. I'm serious."
By 10:45 p.m., Patrick Kane, 53, of Riverdale, had had enough of his first town meeting, at which he spoken against increased tax aeeseements.
"Everything is, "We're going to sit down and talk about it, we're going to look at it', and in the meantime they' re going to raise our taxes until we move out of the damn county," he said as he walked out.
But he softened toward Kelly. "I think he tries hard, but he's got a system here 25-50 years old. He's trying to beat it, improve on it, and he's having a hell of a time," Kane said.
After it was all over, Kelly and his small entourage went to Ledo's, a shopping center pizza place on University Boulevard in Adelphi. "I was generally very, very pleased with the questions raised and the diversity of issues," he said the day after. "Last night, I felt almost recharged.