The council president takes his job so seriously that he fines colleagues 10 cents a minute if they are late.
At a work session recently, the council took a straw vote and realized that a piece of legislation could not pass. Several hours eventually were consumed making sure that the wording was proper and legal for this measure that was about to be rejected.
At another recent meeting, a council member noted that "a very important change had been made" on a bill. "On page two," she said, laughing "a (b) yas been made into an (a)." She then offered the idea that perhaps the (b) should be restored, or, at the very least, turned into a (2).
It was a good question, thought the council, so good that 10 minutes were spent discussing it. Then the council moved onto a more important item - the sentence's punctuation.
When a council member recently asked that the panel hurry up and pass a bill, he was chided with the words, "That would be totally out of keeping with the character of government in..."
Anyone familiar with local politics in this area can finish that sentence.
In Montgomery County these things happen every day.
Here, a case can be made that the government suffers from a peculiar malady. It is too earnest. The council members are so well meaning, so willing to give of their time to the public good, so intent on doing precisely the right thing, that often they take months to do anything at all.
It drove the last county executive into retirement. "Paralysis by analysis," muttered that fellow, James P. Gleason, before he retreated happily into a world where he would not have to deal so often with the good intentions of other people.
There were some people who thought that Gleason's departure last December would change the situation. He was a Republican, after all, and the council consisted of nine Democrats for the last four years of his eight-year term. The battles between the Democratic council and Republican Gleason were intense and constant and their battlegrounds ranged from the profound to the silly.
In December, Charles Gilchrist, a Democrat, came in as county executive to work with the all-Democratic council. "Everyone expected tranquility," said Charles Maier, who served as one of Gleason's top aides and then kept a similar post with Gilchrist. "The feeling was that this would show observers things could run smoothly."
It was perhaps, too much to expect.
The bickering, quibbling, nit-picking, delaying and agonizing have continued apace. In Montgomery, these qualities are not scorned, they are nourished. They are part of a long day's work.
Neal Potter, the council president, estimates that most of the council members work on county issues about 70 hours each week. They meet at 8:30 in the morning and at 8 at night. They meet so often at night that one new council member, Michael Gudis, thinks he may have to withdraw from an active role in Democratic politics because he no longer has time to get to precinct meetings.
Guidis' involvement in party politics is actually unusual for this council that includes economists, a nursery school teacher, an accountant and civic leaders who generally have shunned partisan politics, except when they are running for election themselves.
These council members have spent eight months debating the hot issues of the day and sparring with Gilchrist. They have argues over the volunteer fire departments, the sewers and condominiums. They have almost all criticized Gilchrist's appointments, from both sides. Some say he should have fired Washington Suburgan Sanitary Commissioner Bert Cumby sooner than he did for allegedly not following orders. Others say he should not have fired Cumby at all.$&(WORD ILLEGIBLE
Gilchrist seems well-suited for all this. "I agonize over these personnel problems," he said in a recent interview. "They cause me tremendous..." His voice fell of with the sentence never finished.
Gilchrist's agony in the Cumby case found him first writing a letter dismissing the commissioner, then deciding not to mail it, asking the WSSC to delay for weeks before electing a new chairman, then finally firing Cumby.
On the very next day, the commission elected Cumby as its new chairman.
Perhaps the best example of how the all-Democratic council and Gilchrist interact involves the recent condominium legislation.
For several months, the council considered several condominium bills, but passed none of them. As each month went by, the county's condominium situation grew more serious, as more apartments were being converted, forcing renters to scramble for alternative housing.
On July 3, Elizabeth Scull, who describes herself as the "bleeding heart" of the council, called for a vote on her bill to give tenants the first right to buy a building being converted.
But before the vote, Scull suggested that her colleagues amend out parts of the bill they did not like. The council took her up on that, amending out the entire bill save one minor facet. The measure passed with one dissenting vote: Scull's.
Ten days later, the condominium situation appeared even more urgent, and Gilchrist announced that he would seek a 120-day moratorium on coversions. Scull was delighted. "It's great to cooperate with the Democratic executive," she siad. "But only when he's on the right track."
On Friday, July 20, the moratorium issue reached a climax. Realtors appeared before the council to say they did not seriously oppose the moratorium as long as the council did not enact anything stronger. Gilchrist said much the same thing.
The council approved the moratorium measure without a dissenting vote - but it did not stop there. In a rare burst of activity, the council also passed three other pieces of housing legilation on which Gilchrist had told them to delay.
"Every now and then," said Rose Crenca," a freshman on the council, "we have our good days." CAPTION: Picture, Neal Potter presides over a council that is so earnest, and so eager to do the right thing, that it often takes months to get anything done. By Lucian Perkins - The Washington Post