When Rockville's mayoral campaign officially opened last month, candidates began to talk about some new concerns, along with the familiar campaign issues of the city budget, taxes, and the quality of city services.
It is time, said two of the candidates -- council member John Tyner II and Steve Van Grack, a Rockville lawyer -- to give the City Council some of the leadership that has been missing since Mayor John R. Freeland resigned a year ago.
It is time, said Freeland's replacement, Mayor Viola D. Hovsepian, that council members began visiting neighborhoods -- such as the largely black Lincoln Park area, whose residents have complained that their voices go unheard -- to get firsthand information about local problems.
This year, some residents of the Montgomery County seat, the second largest city in Maryland, say they look forward to slightly more heat than is normally felt in Rockville's genteel political circles, with increased emphasis on personality and governing style.
For Rockville, it has been a tumultuous 12 months: Freeland resigned in the wake of a conflict-of-interest controversy, two city police officers were accused of brutality stemming from an incident in Lincoln Park, and a lawsuit was filed against the city by residents of that neighborhood over alleged civil rights violations.
Such events are not common in Rockville, an archetypal all-American city that prides itself on having a model government. The four City Council seats are being sought by candidates representing two nonpartisan factions in the city and two incumbents running as independents, Stephen N. Abrams and Peter R. Hartogensis.
The majority party in Rockville is the Independents for Rockville, a 1,600-member group that has broad support from the local business community. IFR is seeking to retain its 11-year domination of city government with a slate of four council candidates that is headed by Tyner, a four-term council member.
The IFR slate is being challenged by the Alliance of Rockville Citizens, a 500-member organization made up largely of civic groups. The alliance, which is fielding a slate of four council candidates headed by Hovsepian, has won only three council seats since the group was formed seven years ago.
Hovsepian, 63, the wife of former Rockville mayor Dickran Y. Hovsepian, was midway into her second council term when she was selected last October to replace Freeland, who resigned, citing personal reasons, after accepting a job with a developer who does work in Rockville.
Hovsepian, Rockville's first woman mayor, says she has effectively presided at a time when the Freeland controversy bitterly divided the council and diverted the panel's attention from some city business.
She credits herself with bringing council members together to act on a number of pressing issues, such as the decision to conditionally allow commercial development on the 200-acre Westmont property in south Rockville, and allowing a partnership reorganization for the firm overseeing the long-awaited redevelopment of Rockville's Town Center.
"I think I have a real feel for what I'm doing and that I'm on top of the situations and can deal with them," said Hovsepian, a former mathematics teacher. "I deal with them differently than other people might, but I feel that's one of my strengths, what you might say my 'soft leadership' way, rather than a strong, aggressive leadership way."
Hovsepian said she believes that one of the main issues that the new mayor and council will be forced to take up is the revision of the city's 10-year-old master plan, which until now has been amended by neighborhood to conform with democraphic changes.
She said that the plan should look at the city overall and how changes in one neighborhood may affect others.
She also said she wants to encourage better understanding between business owners, particularly developers, and residents, who have frequently been at odds over such issues as increased traffic.
One of her primary goals since assuming the mayor's position, she said, has been to initiate community meetings between city officials and neighborhood representatives to discuss issues. One of her main target areas has been Lincoln Park, where relations have become strained since last year's scuffle between two city police officers and three residents.
Tyner, 47, who is viewed by many to be Hovsepian's stiffest challenger, said in a recent interview that Hovsepian has failed to provide the leadership that the mayoral position requires.
"There's a certain direction I see that this city has taken over the years in which it's really faltering," Tyner said, "faltering not so much in intent, but faltering because there's little direction being given.
"Anybody who has watched the council over the last year can see what happened when you have a weak mayor and a group of people on the council who cannot work together," he added. Tyner contends, for instance, that the council "muddled through" the rezoning of the Westmont tract because "there was little direction given from the mayor's chair."
Tyner stressed his experience on the council and his involvement with the Maryland Municipal League and the National League of Cities in seeking the two-year mayoral post, which pays $8,000 annually.
Tyler said he hopes to bring to fruition a study of Rockville Pike to devise ways to relieve the increased development and traffic along the six-lane corridor.
Van Grack, 37, a longtime Rockville resident, is seeking the mayoral post without affiliation with either political group. He contends that his chances have been bolstered by a strong registration drive that has added hundreds of new voters.
A newcomer to Rockville politics, Van Grack has been active in county politics for more than a decade. He has worked as a campaign manager for both the Montgomery County Democrats and the Committee to Elect the Sitting Judges.
Van Grack maintains that the council has ignored the views of residents on a number of key issues, including the rezoning of the Westmont tract and other matters.
"Over the last years, I have studied the issues affecting Rockville," Van Grack said. "I've concluded that the city lacks comprehensive planning and that many of the vital decisions made by Rockville officials have ignored the views of our citizens."