When the new Montgomery County Council holds its first meeting on Tuesday, its seven members are expected to elect David L. Scull as council president, signaling the start of a new activist council majority that will take a stronger, more independent hand in its dealings with the county executive.
"I think you can expect to see a continued flow of initiatives," said Scull, a former state delegate in Annapolis who as a council member has proposed bills on every subject from gun control to equality in the workplace.
The council, once the most powerful body in the county, has been trying to define its role ever since the position of county executive was created in Montgomery in 1970. Councils since then have wrestled with the philosophical question of whether the legislative body should merely ratify the initiatives of a powerful, big-city style executive, or whether the council should set the policy and reduce the executive to the position of a glorified county manager.
The uncertain division of power between council and executive was put to its most serious test under County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist, who was reelected in November. In 1978 he became the first Democrat to hold the executive's job, and the all-Democratic council tended to defer to him on most key issues and appointments. But that deference produced the charges that the council had become a "rubber stamp," and led to this year's bitter primary feud.
The council, barring any last-minute changes, is also expected to select veteran council member Esther P. Gelman as council vice president, which would put her in a good position to become president next year. Scull and Gelman together led the "Merit Team" slate for council during this fall's bitter Democratic primary. They touted the "Merit Team" members as issue-oriented activists who introduced most of the council's major legislation and were willing to do battle with the executive over appointments and civil service protections.
The "Merit Team" won four of the seven seats on the all-Democratic council, wrestling the majority from the four council members they labeled "rubber stamps" for Gilchrist.
The shift would seem to presage four years of acrimony between the council and the executive, since Gilchrist endorsed the opponents of the "Merit Team." But Gilchrist, recognizing that the new council will be more independent, has been holding regular weekly breakfast meetings with the council. Gilchrist acknowledged after his primary victory that he could have spent more time meeting with the council during his first term, to avoid the bloodletting.
Said Scull, "We campaigned on a platform of a strong and independent council, but I think we can do that harmoniously."
The only new council member will be former Rockville mayor William E. Hanna Jr., who ran with Scull and Gelman and whose primary election victory over Gilchrist ally Ruth Spector assured the "Merit Team" of a new majority.
"The past council was reactive," said Hanna. "I think this council will be more pro-active."
The new council is likely to take on tough issues such as gun control and housing, without waiting for proposals from the executive. But its advocacy is likely to be a laundry list of large problems without the liberal/conservative, growth/no-growth splits of earlier councils.
The shift is reflected in the divergent styles of Scull and the man he is to replace as council president, Neal Potter. Potter, 67, a member of the council for 12 years, was known as an administrator, a cautious and low-keyed mediator who was a stickler for detail and procedure. He often expressed annoyance when the runaway council fell behind schedule, and during a previous term as president, fined his colleagues 10 cents a minute for being late.
Scull, on the other hand, is a boyish-looking 39, elected in November to his first full council term after being appointed in June 1981. Where Potter is cautious, Scull charges ahead, introducing legislation where he sees problems and often finding ways to work around legal barriers. When he was told it was illegal for the council to ban handguns in the county, he introduced a bill to ban bullets. And during a budget discussion last Tuesday, when Potter said that Metro costs were outside the council's jurisdiction, Scull immediately asked "Why?" and asked for a study of soaring Metro costs.
"Neal was a good presiding officer," Hanna said. "David will be a different person in the chair. Neal was cautious, more of a steady hand. I think David won't hesitate to do things -- and more than likely he'll make some mistakes. But I'd rather make mistakes as long as we're taking action."
"Neal was more even-handed," said member Rose Crenca, a Potter ally during the primary. Scull, she said, "seems to be running all over the place. 'Off-the-wall' is the term the citizens use. There's a lot of playing to the grandstand. There's a style that just isn't the style for the usually staid council. It will be a lot less predictable."
Crenca added, "Although it livens things up, it could also unnerve people -- like our county employes." She was referring to one controversial Scull proposal to reexamine the pay compensation package for county employes, to see if they are being overpaid in a time of fiscal restraint.
Potter said he thinks Scull's activism and advocacy may be tempered by the administrative workload of council president, the body's chief spokesman who must preside over meetings, arrange schedules and administer the council's staff. But Scull pointed to his term as chairman of the Annapolis delegation for three years, and said, "I still managed to introduce many new proposals."
Scull said his top priority will be to deal with the slow pace of legislative sessions. He said he favors strengthening the committee system, packaging more information in succinct reports, and involving the council earlier in the budget process.