Montgomery County officials, who pride themselves on well-managed, well-mannered ways, have gone through a personality change these past few weeks: Tempers are short; words are harsh.
The change has come from an infusion of politics into a policy matter that once was left to planners and engineers to plot and chart. The issue is growth.
It is easy to see what is wrong in the once-rural county now flush with a building boom: There are too many cars in the streets and too many children in its schools. It is also clear that residents' frustrations over those gaps -- and the business community's insistence on the freedom to continue to grow -- have added a certain note of emotion to the discussion. But what has linked the word "growth" to "crisis" and has turned County Council work sessions into shouting matches are the pressures of an election year.
Witness these scenes from the meeting last Tuesday of the County Council, where every member but one, Scott Fosler, will be on the election ballot this fall:
*Council member Esther Gelman pulled on her microphone and shouted over the voice of Council President William Hanna, who was pushing for a vote on a measure to limit building permits, one of several growth issues considered by the council. "I don't give a hoot about caps," she said in a voice that ended in a yelp. For minutes the two sniped at each other with Hanna claiming Gelman was creating an "orchestration of delay" on the building cap proposal. She has voted for, against and even abstained on the proposal.
*Council member Michael Gudis turned to members of the county transportation and planning staffs to ask about some aspects of congestion in the upcounty area. Planning Board President Norman Christeller, to whom the council frequently turns to advice, jumped to answer first, and Gudis angrily told him to be quiet. Gudis told him in a uncomfortable, tense moment that he wanted to hear from others.
*Council member David Scull began what was a lengthy complaint about a measure, proposed by County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist, that would levy extra fees on developers in congested areas. Three council members immediately attacked his logic. Gudis ridiculed Scull's "non sequiturs." Fosler pointed out contradictions, concluding, "There are some people who think if you say something long enough and loud enough, people will believe it." Hanna lamented that Scull was "giving another speech," something that he said days earlier was happening far too often in the debate.
"We've reached a level of rhetoric that is higher than anything I've seen in my time here," he said.
The County Council began wrestling last July with the possibility that the county might curb development in a time of unprecedented growth. The fireworks that followed may well have been the signals that campaigns for county executive and County Council have begun.
Scull, joined by Neal Potter, proposed that the county limit the number of building permits that could be issued during the next three years. Gilchrist quickly opposed the idea, and the community began splintering into factions of those who saw the proposal as a business constraint and those who saw it as a way to preserve a quickly changing countryside.
Sophisticated campaigns of persuasion were launched. Council members began feeling the force of lobbying efforts from every side and the notion that future campaign funds were at risk became clear. How the funding will be affected is still uncertain because the county candidates do not have to file contribution lists until August.
Gilchrist is not running for office again -- he is retiring to study for the Episcopal priesthood -- but he has endorsed state Sen. Sidney Kramer, a self-made millionaire businessman with a history of public service in county and state government, as his successor. Scull, who too has served in state and local government and whose family history runs deep in county politics, also wants the job and has described his campaign as one that will focus on growth issues.
That backdrop has made for sharp and increasingly bitter exchanges between Gilchrist and Scull this year and colored the debate within the council, whose members have questioned Scull's concern during the past 10 months over planning issues that others, such as Fosler, have said for years should be examined.
Since the discussion began, council members one by one have been announcing their intent to run again. Scull opted instead to run for county executive, and Gelman, who in the past has had support from the business community, is running for the seat being vacated by Rep. Michael D. Barnes (D-Md.).
The anxiety Gelman exhibited during recent meetings -- repeatedly asking for financial figures, submitting a last-minute alternative that her colleagues rejected for serious discussion, flip-flopping on her vote for the building cap and then distributing a typewritten rationalization of her support for it -- was an indication of how far political maneuvering and policy making can go.
"Everybody was under pressure," Gelman said last week, rejecting the notion that she vacillated on her decision because of worries over campaign contributions. "I was sweating. Not because of campaign contributions, but because I wanted to do what was right."
Other council members, who acknowledged that the county clearly needed some revisions in growth policies, publicly cited the building cap as a mechanism that had been manipulated to stir political support and polarize the council into stereotypical no-growth or all-growth candidates. One candidate, Hanna, even refused to accept money for reelection until after the issues were decided.
"I am convinced that the issue of a building cap is an election-year bogeyman," said council member Rose Crenca, a Gilchrist ally who nonetheless did not reject the cap until late in the discussion when she described it as "unworkable" and the focus of "a lot of gibberish."
Potter, cosponsor of the building cap, succinctly criticized those from the business community as well as the county who have generated "propaganda" about losses the county would suffer if the bill passed. In a characteristically calm manner, he also took Gilchrist to task for his maneuvers. "Charlie, I think you're better when you're not so political and emotional," Potter said during one public hearing.
Over the months, the building cap proposal was modified and then linked to another proposal, again from Scull, to raise money for new roads through a tax on all development in the county. During the same time, Gilchrist recommended his own proposal to generate more road funds -- a device known as an impact fee that would directly charge developers in the most congested areas to pay for half the cost of new roads -- and continued to deride the Scull proposal.
In the end, Gilchrist came out on top on both issues. He vetoed the building cap proposal when it could only muster narrow support in the council, and he saw a 5-to-1 majority, with Scull dissenting, agree to the impact fee.
On the day the council was to decide the fate of the building cap proposal, and while the council was debating, Scull released a typewritten statement to the media in which he said elected officials who opposed the cap, and specifically Gilchrist, were putting their "heads in the sand."
"I simply do not understand the executive's relentless promotion of more and faster development in the face of a mountain of evidence of the crisis of congestion," Scull said. On the issue of building caps and revenues needed to alleviate congestion, he concluded: "It is abundantly clear that we need new leadership and a fresh start in the office of county executive."
Questioned later about the political nature of the taxpayer-funded statement, Scull said he was simply stating his case on "what is the most important policy question we have today . . . . If government fails to respond to a need, it is time for a change in government."