You'd be pressed to find a place where the froth of political flaps gets any headier than it does in Montgomery County -- a county that sometimes seems to be the creation of a puckish mastermind who wants to warn the world that too much graduate school can do to local government.
The latest fusillade of memos over the county plan to buy a horse farm and run it for the public says a lot about the arduous choices facing Montgomery officials in these hard times. While Prince George's chiefs scrimp under TRIM, and the District totters at the edge of a deficit, the leaders of this affluent enclave bicker over the sort of flowers they'll set in the county's bouquet of recreational opportunities.
"It makes me wonder," muses county spokesman Charlie Maier. "Do we have any problems at all?"
The object of controversy in question is $1.1 million on Montgomery's list of capital improvements to buy a place called the Potomac Horse Center, a 48-acre spread of trails, barns, outbuildings, a swimming pool and riding rings.
The county already operates two much smaller stables in other spots. Under the newest proposal, the county would buy the financially ailing farm from the owner, and then lease it back to him. He would run the farm, make some of his horses available to the public and pay a percentage of his receipts to the public coffer. Without such an arrangement, the owner, Frederick (Stretch) Harding, says the horse farm, where the esoteric techniques of dressage are taught, will be sold to developers.
Oy vey, the trouble that started. The plan's principal champion, Dr. Royce Hanson, chairman of county planning board, thought at the very least the farm would be a good deal financially, since it was appraised at much more than the asking price. The county Council agreed once, and then agreed again by a closer vote.
Hanson mustered reasons other than money. Without a public facility for horseback riding (which he says is more popular than indoor tennis), only the well-to-do would be able to waltz around on horseback. A "high quality, equestrian facility," Hanson says in a recent memo, would "democratize a sport that would otherwise be elitist and restricted."
Rather than risk whatever dangers are inherent in democratizing equestrianism. County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist would as soon skip the whole business. Gilchrist, who had recently sliced $4 million, including the money for the wave-making machine, out of the county's proposed $8 million aquatic center, wonders how "appropriate" it is to "make a substantial investment in a permanent facility that will have a relatively narrow appeal."
Hanson, one of Gilchrist's rivals for county executive in 1978, termed that sort of view "myopic." Other Gilchrist critics say the executive is just jumpy because it wouldn't look good if all at once you talked hard times, pared the education budget and opened a place where the public could horse around.
In one sense the whole debate in Montgomery County is frivolous, not because the essential question of whether the government should fund what will only be enjoyed by few is frivolous, but because the arguments of both sides turn on images.
And some of arguments have nothing to do with horses or recreation or elites. They have more to do with the public's new found ability to assert executive control through devices such as TRIM. They have more to do with Montgomery County's reputation for affluence, education, the notion of the county in sum as constituting an elite. After all, as one council member points out, "You can't build a tax base on poor people." And thouth Gilchrist would demur, some say the appearance of power is at the heart of all this -- that Gilchrist is trying to avenge a defeat Hanson inflicted when the planning chief successfully thwarted the executive's effort to move the planning board from Silver Spring to Rockville.
How wonderful though, how typical of Montgomery tizzies, to find a horsey image at the center of the cyclone, especially because the horse as an emblem of baronial life with all its associations of wealth, power, prestige, character and individuality is probably obsolete. It would be another thing though if the county wanted to fund daytrips on Lear jets.
If Gilchrist's creed is that recreation needs should be allocated on the basis of what is most popular, it may or may not be myopic, as Hanson asserts. But it runs the risk of being too vulgar for Montgomerians, who pride themselves on their ability to distinguish the best solutions, the soundest ideas and so forth. In that sense, Gilchrist's criterion is patronizing, but these may not be the times to ally yourself with the majority by affirming the virtues of individual leadership.
Times aren't so hard, though, that there are no comic aspects. The best thing about the whole flap over the Potomac Horse Center is that the Potomac Horse Center is actually in Gaithersburg.