It was just another small-town council meeting, Takoma Park style. When the deliberations got around to nuclear war, as they often do, an exuberant resident seized the floor and proclaimed the suburban community "an exciting place to live" and a "model for the whole world."
For the mayor and the seven City Council members it was business as usual. They are eight people out to change the world and, along the way, out to do something about the traffic noise on Maple Avenue. While the councils of the other suburban towns dotting the area debate recreational facilities, flagging shopping districts and other local concerns, their counterparts in Takoma Park often tackle the grander issues of the national immigration policy and the proliferation of nuclear arms.
Some critics charge that the council exaggerates its importance, turning every problem into a crisis, every issue into a cause. Some say its forays into national and international affairs are beyond the proper bounds of municipal government.
But the mayor and council, who can point to a recent six-hour debate over the city's monthly newsletter as evidence that they do not ignore local issues, mostly scoff at such suggestions.
"What are we going to do? Leave it up to Rep. Michael Barnes? Leave it up to Rep. Steny Hoyer?" demanded Mayor Sammie A. Abbott, referring to the Maryland congressmen who represent Takoma Park's residents. Besides, he and the council members said, world events affect Takoma Park, too.
On paper, the city should be little more than an ordinary suburban municipality of 16,000 souls. But besides the city's large proportion of older residents, it has many activists from the 1960s mold -- poets, artists, vegetarians and the like -- and a recent wave of young professionals who are attracted to Takoma Park as much by the city's reputation as by its affordable housing. Adding to this diversity is the city's sense of split identity, resting as it does on the District of Columbia border and divided between Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
The mayor and City Council, who never have been granted control by Montgomery County over planning and zoning that gives larger cities such as Gaithersburg and Rockville real power, should have no reason to think themselves significant.
Many city residents say that is how it used to be. "It was a typical lethargic small community," said Jay Levy, a United Nations employe who has lived in Takoma Park for 10 years. "We had no idea it would evolve to the point where you could really be proud of the mayor and City Council. When people say we are the Berkeley of the East, I'm proud of that."
It was Abbott who started it all with his election four years ago, his fans and his critics say. In the two elections since then, a steady stream of activists have joined the council. By the end of last year not one of the "old guard" remained.
The council members insist that despite their activist streaks, they are independent of Abbott and independent of each other, and their occasional angry public disagreements bear witness to this. But they remain united on most major issues and firm in their enthusiasm for a feisty local government.
"It was like there was a new day dawning," said council member Lynne Bradley, who was elected two years ago. There was no master plan, no political slates, she said in a recent interview. It just sort of "snowballed."
Citizen committees were set up by the dozen. The council clerk knows of at least 15 committees set up by the council; there are at least 20 neighborhood organizations -- more than 10 per square mile -- and too many unofficial committees to document. "Give us an issue," said council member Lou D'Ovidio, "and we'll have a committee on it."
Since Abbott's election, the city has established an open-air market, formed a housing department, imposed strict rent controls, selected the county's first black police chief and appointed a black city administrator. It started seeking block grant money. Courses on subjects such as lobbying by residents were started at the city library.
And the city started taking stands. Last year the council voted to make Takoma Park a nuclear-free zone and vowed the city would no longer issue contracts to firms involved in the nuclear weapons industry.
The council prevented the county from closing a local junior high school, declaring it fine if the percentage of minority students was "too high." And it voted to go on record as opposing the Simpson-Mazzoli immigration bill, then wending its way through Congress.
"What affects the world affects us," said council member Herman Williams. "You have to do what you think is right. We are so small but we are a gutsy little place. We aren't afraid to tackle a problem. And goodness knows, the mayor isn't afraid of a good fight."
It was city resident Charles Horowitz who brought the immigration issue before the council. Horowitz, a lawyer who works with migrant workers, said he did not think many cities would be willing to take on issues like that one. "But because Takoma Park is Takoma Park," he said, "my prospects for success were pretty good . . . .That's what makes Takoma Park great."
The 77-year-old Abbott said the changes in Takoma Park are just part of his lifelong crusade. "I have always been an activist," he declared in a recent interview. He said he organized a union during the Great Depression, and he has been busy organizing people for causes on a regular basis since then. When he sued the FBI to get it to hand over its file on him a few years ago, officials produced seven large cardboard boxes full of material.
"Sam's been the catalyst in many ways," said D'Ovidio. "You can agree with him on an issue, or you can fight him on an issue. But he's been able to generate a lot of activism."
Gail Dalmat is the only City Council member who openly disagrees with D'Ovidio's assessment. "People with personalities like that don't make the best catalysts," she said. Abbott gets his energy from "a good confrontation," she added, which was fine before he was mayor, but not a good quality now. "If there are no enemies in the room," she said, "Sam will make some."
Esther Gelman, former president of the Montgomery County Council, called the mayor a "bully" and said the City Council is "cowed" by him -- something council members deny. The council members are cut from the same cloth, she said. "They like to be taken seriously. They like to shake their fists in everybody's face. They'd like undue influence."
If Abbott cows people, he does it without a gavel. When he became mayor, he hid the mayor's gavel in his desk drawer. "I'm not a stickler for Robert's Rules of Order," he said. "It's a stifler."
Debates, indeed, can be freewheeling, chaotic and long. But when a good argument is expected, a crowd arrives for a piece of the action. The big newsletter debate, for example, guarantees fireworks and late nights. It happens about once a year, when somebody suggests that the mayor (a professional graphic artist) ought not to be editor of the city's cherished multipage monthly newsletter.
This year's newsletter debate lasted through three meetings, culminating on Oct. 22. By that time, Abbott had declared he would not edit the newspaper until the council published a statement saying he had done nothing wrong. The council, saying it had never accused him of doing wrong in the first place, refused to do so.
Tempers flared. "It's a farce! It's a farce!" Abbott bellowed at the council members at one point. "That's all. And although you have stepped off into the swamp, rescue yourselves at this time!"
This is the sort of thing that makes Takoma Park work, some council members said, after the issue was settled with a joint statement by the mayor and council at 3 a.m. "From the process of struggle and the process of participation," council member Rino Aldrighetti said, comes a city that is "democratic and feisty . . . . It's part of the freewheeling nature of democracy."