"I don't think there's anything I feel worse about that's happened to me in county government," said James P. Gleason, the retiring Montgomery County executive. He was speaking about the County Council's recent decision to slash in half his $400,000 request for services to aid youths, the handicapped, minorities and the elderly - all the people whose problems "fall through the cracks" in county government services.
Gleason sat in the large conference room of his office, wearing the same dour expression he has worn for most of his eight years in office. "I feel very bad," he said in a voice softer than the sharp tone he uses when he is angry. "I don't know what I'm going to do with the appropriation."
Gleason, whom political observers say would have been a formidable incumbent to beat, is three months away from the chosen retirement he announced seven months ago. None of the fights Gleason has waged as county executive compare to the one he fought for funding a staff to develop and coordinate programs for youths, he said.
"I practically got on my knees and begged," Gleason said. "I did everything to make the council part of the review process (for the proposal). I made sure they had all the testimony from the people we heard on the problems of these groups. Then (the council) turns around and listens to other people who have no experience."
Gleason contends that some council members "listened to people with vested interests out there." One of those interests was that of Charles Gilchrist, at the time a Democratic candidate for county executive, who sent the council a letter opposing the appropriation a month and a half ago, according to Gleason. "Did you know that?" he asked, speaking of the letter.
In addition, said Gleason, "there were people outside who wanted to retain their jobs. I'm not going to mention any names. There are people out there who want money renewed to their private contracts."
The county government often asks private youth groups, who contract to the government, to better coordinate their services. Some of these groups could lose their government money if the evaluation unit set up by Gleason's proposal found overlapping or unnecessary services.
Gleason added that "private groups in the handicapped area want to run what's going on."
During the past two months that the council has periodically deliberation on Gleason's proposal, the county executive even pulled aside council member Esther Gelman to ask about the cause of the hesitation. "Oh, she just said the council had been hearing that people didn't want this," said Gleason.
The council also got "caught up in all this super concern and inhumane concern about Proposition 13," said Gleason. "(The youth, handicapped, minorities and elderly) are the people who need the sustenance and help from government. If you have a person who speaks Spanish and needs a job, it's inhumane not to help them."
Instead of a Proposition 13, said Gleason, "there has to be a shift in government. We spend too much money on people who don't need the help and not enough on people who do.
"If you have to spend $10 million to have classroom size lessened to one teacher to 26 kids from one teacher to 27," the money should be spent instead on help for the "thousands of handicapped people who need jobs," he added.
Government officials should spend more time talking with people out in the county, said Gleason. "(The council) ought to spend . . . more time going around to hospitals and nursing homes talking to people instead of in stupid meetings."
In the case of his proposal, the council listened to what Gleason called "the squeaky voice," vocal opponents of the measure. "But that didn't represent everyone," he said. "I heard all these people. I didn't miss one hearing. . . . I would have thought (the council) would have respected my judgment."
The road to Gleason's proposal began with talking to people.
"I saw the kids out there in the alleys and shopping centers. They have problems with the schools," he said. "I went to Social Services and watched the people who went in, and listened to them. I'd just sit there. The receptionists would get a little uptight, but I'd just sit there. I'd hear the Outreach workers saying they were trying to get a kid a blue card so he could work. His parents had thrown him out. I'd hear about a person who tried to call the police but spoke Spanish.
Gleason said he and his task force of "exceptional middle management people" indentified problems of employment, transportation and communication as the ones that encompassed all of the special interest groups he was looking at. To solve these, he proposed two voluntary commissions - one on youth and one on the handicapped - composed of youths and handicapped people and those who work with these groups. The commissions would try to solve specific problems Gleason and his task force enumerated, based on the reams of data collected during seven public hearings on youths, more on handicapped and many meetings with all segments of the community, according to the proposal.
In addition, there would be people to evaluate programs and the present volunteer bureau of county government would get more staff.
The proposed staffs of these offices and commissions were cut back by the council action. Gleason said the council action. Gleason said the council seems to feel the commissions should be studying problems. "But you don't want the commissions to tell you what you already know and have been studying for the past year," he said. "I visited a guy in a nursing home who has MS (multiple sclerosis). He can't use his hands but he has a marvelous brain. What the hell is the council going to do with him? Have the commission study it?"
"The problem have been identified, he continued. "The teams sit and say let's solve them. Let's take employment of the young. There are restrictions of that now. There are laws that need to be changed, altitudes that need to be changed. A team could be working on this."
Gleason said testimony [WORD ILLEGIBLE] that more youths than ever before want to work now.
"But nobody is facing up to doing anything about it," he continued. "The school system laughed at this. (School board member) Blair Ewing criticized the report. I'd like to know what Mr. Ewing is doing. I'd like to know what the school board is doing about it. . . . the school system doesn't even evaluate the effectiveness of the teachers, the rapport teachers have with students. They have a lousy follow-up on drug use in schools."
Asked why he did not start this project sooner, he said, "I had a new government to work with (eight years ago). I was the first county executive. I had to establish the government. I'm not saying people shouldn't criticize me for not doing it earlier. That's alright, but better later than never."