One day last week, Prince George's Council members Gerard McDonough and William Amonett strolled into the office of fellow council member Frank Casula and closed the door. Although a common occurrence during the council's legislative session, the 30-minute huddle sparked immediate attention.
Coming at a time when Prince George's politicians are speculating about who will become the new chairman of the County Council Dec. 5, the "secret" meeting created an instant rumor - that a deal had been struck among the three men over the future chairmanship.
The rumor was just one of several that have passed through the council corridors in recent weeks. But, according to the three councilmen, no deals had been made. They had just talked about who would be the best chairman to work with County Executive-elect Larry Hogan.
By early this week, the contest for the chairmanship apparently had been narrowed to two council members: Parris Glendening and Amonett. Glendening claimed to have five of the six votes needed for a majority on the 11-member council for the position but neither was proclaiming victory.
It has been years since the council chairmanship has been the subject of speculation, let alone rumor. For the past three council legislative sessions, the chairman and vice chairman positions have gone with great regularity to six council members who had formed their own coalition and divided up slots among themselves.
The coalition was originally put together by McDonough with the backing of County Executive Winfield M. Kelly in order to oust Francis Francois as chairman. The effort succeeded.
Ironically, with Kelly's defeat in the general election, Francois appeared to be the man most heavily influencing the selection of the new chairman. Francois is the council's leading vote-getter and is prominent in regional government affairs. Last week, he sent a memo to several council members and told them he was not interested in the chairmanship this year.
Francois named commitments to the National Association of Counties, of which he will be president in June, and his work on the governing boards of the Council of Governments (COG) and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMAYA). These responsibilities, he said, would not leave him the time to serve as council chairman.
Instead, Francois advanced two other names for the job - those of McDonough and Amonett.
A few council members, already miffed over what they had heard about the "secret" McDonough-Amonett-Casula meeting, said they found the Francois memo "preposterous." Others, who said they had hoped the politicking for chairman would be kept at a minimum - in order to lend at least an appearance of solidarity in the face of any contests with Hogan - were surprised at the Francois memo.
Glendening, who has made no secret of his desire to be chairman this year, had courted Francois for his vote just prior to the circulation of the memo. He said he was stunned by Francois' recommendations.
"It is unclear to me why he did it. He knows I wanted it and so this has just got to cause some divisiveness in the council," Glendening said.
Council member-elect Sue V. Mills, who called the memo "preposterous and presumptuous," said the episode was "just politics as usual. The sheetings, the memo, it's the same game they've been playing all along. Well, I'm not going to do it."
Francois said he issued his memo precisely because Mills had said he did not want to go along with "the game."
"In 1971 and 1974, we had a caucus in an open meeting to decide the chairmanship," Francois said. "One member (Mills) does not want to take part in a caucus until sworn in. I thought this would put my position forward to all in hopes it would have some influence on the decision-making process when it occurs."
Francois said he did not recommend Glendening because, "I thought Bill Amonett and Jerry McDonough were the best qualified. I was seeking someone with experience at handling the council, someone who has been chairman and who was up to speed on water and sewer problems. The only two people I'know who have those qualifications are myself and Amonett. I will not be able to do it so I recommended him."
Francois said he recommended McDonough because of his chairmanship of the Fiscal and Planning Committee.
McDonough said recently he does not wish to be considered for the chairmanship because he will be studying for the bar exam in February. Instead, he is supporting Amonett, who McDonough said is "a proven diplomat. He does not represent a threat to anyone's ambitions in the party and at this time, individual ambitions should be submerged."
Amonett, like Glendening, said he is "available and willing" to be chairman and doesn't view the position "as apersonal steppingstone." He added, "I do pride myself on working well with others and think it is extremely important in setting the tone this year."
Amonett said he favors a plan to select the chairman and vice chairman for the next four years now, a plan that would probably leave the three newcomers out of consideration for the chairmanship and limit their position as powerbrokers in the future. "We can get the work (decision about the chairmanship) done now and get it over with. The decisions have to be made sometime, why not now," he asked.
Mills, joined by council members-elect Ann Landry Lombardi and Deborah Marshall said they would have no part in such an agreement. "The only way I see it," Mills said, "is that there is a coalition here to block out any newcomers. I am opposed to that. They deal out all the women, all the blacks. That's what gives politics a bad name."
"Look, I don't see anything wrong in it at all," Amonett said."All should participate in it but if they don't want to, they don't have to."
With Amonett and Glendening both eager for the chair and neither one with a clear majority, the phone calls and one-on-one lobbying efforts continue. As Amonett said this week, "We just have to line the ducks in a row."