In Annapolis, there's a story the pols like to tell. For as long as most can remember, they say, when the gavel hit the podium for the last time at the state house on a Monday, everyone would drift over to Main Street for a few beers and tales at Fran O'Briens's. It was a tradition and all were expected to be there.
Everyone, that is, except the Montgomery County delegates. When their absence was noted, all fingers would point toward the road -- the Montgomery delegation was in its Monday night work session.
"They were like the girl in high school who sat in front of you that always had her notebook lined and her homework done," said Tim Maloney, a delegate from Prince George's.
"They'd be working on some esoteric issue like animal control, or putting a comma on one line and a semicolon on another, while the rest of the world was elsewhere."
Two years ago, after much ribbing, the 19 county delegates decided to join the Monday night festivities. Now they meet on Fridays -- at 8 a.m.
"Montgomery County has come a long way, but they're still the butt of a lot of jokes," continued Maloney. "Our offices (in Annapolis) are only a hundred feet down the hall from them, but you'd think you were dealing with two completely different legislatures. Our work sessions are scheduled for 9 on Friday mornings but they usually don't get started until 9:30 or 10. Montgomery schedules their meetings for 8 and they begin at 8.
"It is a tale of two different delegations."
It is also a tale of what some might also call over-earnestness.
Perhaps in no other jurisdiction in the state do legislators spend as much time as the Montgomery County delegation on prepping for the legislature. In Prince George's, delegates will meet next week for one of their first and only sessions before the January legislature. In Montgomery, delegates have been meeting twice a week since September to conduct public hearings and decide whether to endorse nearly 100 local bills. The filing deadline in Montgomery for local bills was in July; in Prince George's the filing deadline is the middle of December.
Most county delegates admit feeling frustration with the lengthy deliberations about local bills, but nonetheless, they quickly defend the process. To be a Montgomery County legislator, they say, is to have a constituency like no other in the state.
"The facts of life are that in Montgomery County citizens expect to be heard and take part in the legislative process," said Democratic Del. Donald Robertson, former Montgomery County delegation chairman from Chevy Chase who is now state majority leader.
"There may be a lot of moaning and groaning, but anyone who offers himself for elected office in Montgomery County has got to know that there are a lot of citizens and organizations that have local bills they want considered that they think are very important for the county."
Still, it's enough to drive some people nuts.
"It's absolutely crazy," said Sen. Victor Crawford of the pre-session deliberations on local bills. Crawford, Democratic chairman of the county's seven-member Senate delegation, said his group, which considers about a quarter of the local bills and must vote on all the delegates' bills, meets only a few times before the opening of the legislature.
"They spend hours and hours and weeks and weeks on bills they know have no chance of passage, or bills that should be statewide, not local bills. Then they pass it and send it over to the Senate, where they expect us to get rid of it."
"They'll come to me privately and say 'Let's get rid of this bill.' And I'll say, 'Well, why did you vote for this bill?' And then they'll have the nerve to say, 'I didn't want to go on record as opposing it.'
"Do you think I want to go on record?" Ida Ruben, current chairwoman of the delegation, says that during the session it is not unusual to find some delegates working 80 hours a week. Before the session, Democrat Ruben said, most delegates spend an average of 40 hours a week on local bills.
This time around, she said, some of the most important local bills include a number that would limit the powers of the county's controversial Housing Opportunities Commission. Also certain to stir debate, Ruben said, are two bills that would change county election procedures. One is a referendum to allow voters to decide whether they want to elect council members by district; the other would list candidates' names on the ballot by party, with the party in power receiving top billing.
Then, says state Sen. Howard Denis from Bethesda, there are the "hearty perennials" -- proposals that come up every year. Bills such as one that would require trucks carrying loose materials to be covered, or another that would limit the assessment of farmland in the county.
"They're almost like a little morality play. We know all the characters who are going to testify in favor. We know all the characters who are going to be opposed. We know who's going to bring the tambourines," said Denis.
"But that's Montgomery County for you. Who's to know what's a good bill or a bad bill. . . . It doesn't really matter if a particular piece of legislation has a chance of passing. The people want to talk and we've got to listen."