The council members were relaxing over coffee last week, exchanging small talk with the county executive, when Rose Crenca got things moving. The Montgomery County Council president said there were just a couple of things she needed to discuss, like the council's schedule and how busy things looked for the summer.
Thirty minutes later, Crenca had won County Executive Sidney Kramer's agreement to put off until September all decisions on controversial development proposals for Silver Spring. The move astonished two absent council members, caught some ranking county officials by surprise, upset the developer who is assembling the land, financing and tenants for a $250 million project, and delighted the residents who are fighting the massive plan of offices, stores and hotel rooms.
"She is silk," Kramer aide Edmond F. Rovner said of Crenca, the three-term council member who made a name for herself almost two decades ago as a civic activist. In securing the delay, the 61-year-old Crenca showed, as one of her fellow council members recently observed, "that she may be the smartest politically of the seven of us."
With no fanfare and little fuss, Crenca defused -- at least for the moment -- the growing controversy over how best to shape the future of downtown Silver Spring.
At stake for Crenca was getting the time she and some of her council colleagues felt was needed to study the technically arcane but emotionally loaded questions of how many new jobs and how much new traffic to allow in Silver Spring.
Of equal importance, Crenca believed, was ensuring that the public get its full opportunity to comment, and a public hearing over the summer was not the answer.
Other considerations were at play. Crenca, who lives in the Silver Spring area, has been under increasing pressure from local civic groups. At last count, seven civic groups formed a coalition over traffic concerns. She needed to respond, particularly considering that there has been some dissatisfaction with her so-far middle-of-the-road position on Silver Spring.
"Crenca agrees with whoever she talks to last," Robert Cordella, president of the Woodside Park civic association, said at a recent civic meeting.
Kramer, going into last week's regular breakfast session with the council, had been pushing for the council to act by June 30 "to demonstrate the county's active and serious commitment to ensuring that the revitalization of Silver Spring continues to move forward."
Silver Spring residents and civic groups -- some fearful that a project planned by developer Lloyd S. Moore is too big for the area and will cause horrendous traffic and other neighborhood problems, some wanting to preserve Art Deco buildings downtown -- were also gearing up for the June 30 deadline. They had earmarked four council members for heavy lobbying and, failing that, had consulted a lawyer for possible legal action.
Crenca had known of the residents' concerns. So, when opportunity presented itself, she took advantage of it.
"If you looked around that room, there were at least three people who had expressed some reservations about the timetable," said council member Isiah Leggett, referring to himself, Crenca and council member Bruce Adams.
At the breakfast meeting, Crenca, who prides herself on having a good relationship with Kramer, mentioned all the other issues facing the council and plans of some council members to be out of town.
Besides, she said, there are three parts of the Silver Spring issue: the number of additional jobs to be created, the creation of a special transportation district and approval of policy guidelines for development. "We need to put all the Silver Spring issues together," she said.
Kramer's initial reaction was to object. "Everything is on hold" in Silver Spring, he said, and things won't improve until the council acts. Leggett said he too was "100 percent for vitality" but he warned the executive, "I don't want to see us rushed or pushed prematurely."
Crenca smoothly interrupted, squashing the sparring before it really took hold. "We're not that far apart," she said, assurring Kramer that she wasn't talking about a big delay but making it clear there would be time for major citizen input.
"I'm talking September," Crenca said.
"September is beautiful . . . no problem," Kramer answered.
Crenca, Rovner later said, "was able to carry it off as if it were on everybody's agenda." He said the result was "a plan of action that is feasible, logical and comfortable to everyone in that room."
Central to getting that accord, however, was who wasn't in that room: council members William E. Hanna Jr. and Michael L. Subin. Both later said they had some concerns about what a delay would mean to the viability of the project. But by then, it was too late.
Crenca objects to any suggestion that she "pulled off anything." She says she simply made a practical and logical suggestion and the practical and logical heads at the meeting agreed. And she thinks but is not sure that she had mentioned her plans in advance to other council members. Hanna and Subin say not so, with Hanna expressing surprise that such a subject of substance was discussed at the breakfast meeting, normally a catch-up session between executive and council.
Said one council member: "Rose tries to give off the impression of 'who, me?' But, believe me, she knows exactly what she is doing."