Attempts to severely limit the authority of Montgomery County's embattled public housing agency appeared to lose steam this week as the sponsors of a number of state bills agreed to consider less restrictive legislation.
The unexpected move came after County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist and Councilman David Scull warned the state delegates that the 15 bills, if passed, could seriously impede the Housing Opportunities Commission's ability to function.
The independent agency, which oversees the county's subsidized housing, has been the subject of intense scrutiny this year by residents who claim the commission habitually disregards neighborhood opinion in deciding where housing projects should be placed. Currently, more than 6,000 families and individuals receive some type of housing assistance from the agency; another 9,500 households are on the waiting lists.
The housing commission, with an annual budget of $14 million -- from federal, state and local sources -- has denied the charges that it is unresponsive to local views.
Instead of state legislation, Gilchrist and Scull suggested that the county's 19 members of the House of Delegates develop rules that the commission could adopt by resolution, thus allowing the authority to maintain its independence and remain free of political pressures.
Both Gilchrist and Scull recommended that the delegation move away from bills that would place the agency's budget under council review and require the commission to base its decisions solely on testimony presented in public hearings. Instead, he recommended legislative-type hearings that were not legally binding.
"This approach has the benefit of increased accountability while sparing HOC the demoralizing effect of state-enacted sanctions," Gilchrist told delegates last week in a public hearing, where more than 90 persons signed up to address the delegation.
"Clearly, the housing commission, largely because it has a difficult and controversial job, has lost the confidence of a significant number of citizens . . . but I believe we need to continue the activities of the housing commission . . . if we are truly determined to address our severe housing problem."
Gilchrist urged the delegates to meet with county and housing commission officials to work out the differences that have been behind one of the county's most bitter battles this year. Since introduction of the 15 bills last summer, both supporters and opponents of the legislation have been locked in verbal combat, charging each other with everything from trying to rid the county of its poor to secret deliberations and impudence.
Earlier this week, several days after the public hearing, delegates heeded Gilchrist's advice and committed the bills to the negotiating table.
The committee, which will be chaired by vice-chairman Del. Jerry Hyatt (D-Damascus), will return to the full delegation with its findings. The bills then will go to the county's Senate delegation for approval before introduction in the state legislature.
Among the more controversial bills to be discussed by the delegate committee in coming weeks are bills that could require quasi-judicial public hearings at least 60 days before approval of housing projects, budget review by the County Council, public hearings before appointment of commission members, and notification of each property owner within one mile.
Members of the commission argue that public housing will never be a popular issue and that the proposed legislation was intended to attack classes of people -- low- and middle-income -- rather than to reform the agency's procedures.
News that the delegation had agreed to negotiate stirred guarded optimism among commission members this week.
"The commission is willing to work with the committee and meet with the county executive," said HOC spokesperson Joyce Siegal after polling the commissioners about the decision to form a study committee on the bills.
No deadline has been set, but the principal sponsor of several of the bills, Del. Joel Chasnoff (D-Olney), said after Monday night's hearing that he would not accept any county proposal that is not completed and agreed to by the housing commission by mid-December. The General Assembly convenes in January. More surprisingly, however, Chasnoff said that if the negotiations were successful he would be willing to withdraw his bills for substitute county regulations.
"Contrary to popular belief, this is not a war on public housing," Chasnoff said in his opening remarks at the public hearing. "If it was, I would immediately withdraw my sponsorship." Chasnoff, who added that he lived in public housing as a child and his mother still does, said his aim was not eradication, but agency accountability.
Most in the audience, however, did not look upon Chasnoff's remarks with benevolence.
"There is great concern among my friends and myself that the mean-mindedness introduced into Washington by Mr. Reagan and Mr. Stockman might also creep into Montgomery County," said county planning director Norman Christeller. "We can't always put people in public housing into someone else's backyard."
"My first plea to you, then, is that you not join in the community propensity to beat HOC over the head. Try to step back and take an objective look at the literally thankless task they are asked to do, and at the real record of responsiveness to community concern."