In Montgomery County, where the County Council spends days discussing everything from the placement of commas to the placement of landfills, council President Scott Fosler this week came up with a heretical idea:
Fosler harbored the iconoclastic belief that council members "ramble" too much during "Council Comments," a 25-minute interval in the council's Tuesday program when members take turns saying whatever they want about whatever issue they want.
In a memo to council members, Fosler suggested that they spend less time commenting during Council Comments. He said he would like to call on only two council members each week, instead of all seven. In a conciliatory gesture, however, Fosler added that other members could ask to speak if they have "important matters that they wish to bring up."
At Council Comments this week, and during a break of the council session, members were quick to protest Fosler's idea.
"I would feel like I was under some kind of gag rule if I couldn't speak my mind," said veteran council member Elizabeth Scull. "All of my housing ideas first surfaced in Council Comments."
"We really have a need for time when we can talk spontaneously among ourselves," said council member Mike Gudis.
The only member who likes the idea is Neal Potter, who "would like to see an increase in brevity."
The 25-minute interval for "spontaneous" comments by council members has existed since 1971. Most council members use their "comment" time to state their positions on issues that their constituents have been calling about, such as the location of low-income housing or potholes in Poolesville roads.
Sometimes their comments bring up new issues that are added to future agendas, or result in requests for the county executive to take some action. Other times, their comments are simply observations, like one made recently that county engineers had marked a "measured mile" along Rte. 29 near the Montgomery-Howard county line.
Fosler does not like spending time on such observations. He wants less discussion and more analysis. "We get tons of information and just ounces of analysis," he said. "I'm trying to get more analysis by establishing good rules of procedure."
Indeed, in Montgomery County, council members constantly and self-consciously examine not only the issues but the way they are handling them.
In January, the council established guidelines for such submissions. From now on, the information must be in a certain, clearly labelled format, complete with a statement of issues, a statement of fiscal implications, and, or course, the proper indexes and appendices.
Recently, for example, Fosler and a few other members felt that the council was wasting too much time sorting through the stacks of information that residents and county workers presented to them for action.
In another attempt to streamline the slow process of government in Montgomery County, Fosler asked council members to list the issues that they felt were most important in the county.
"We need priorities and goals," Fosler said. "When you get lost in details, you lose your sense of direction."
But Fosler isn't sure he'll be able to keep council members from getting lost in details during Council Comments. At the end of yesterday's segment, he said wearily, "Maybe we need more time for Council Comments rather than less."