Members of County Executive-Elect Charles I. Ecker's transition team say the talk around Howard County these days suggests that Ecker's honeymoon with the voters won't last long after he is sworn in Monday.

"Probably the toughest job he faces is managing people's expectations," said lawyer Michael Davis, co-chairman of Ecker's transition team. "He's going to have to make some decisions that don't work well in a consensus environment."

"We've had political leadership in this county that has tried to appease everyone. Getting ourselves out of that box might be difficult," said co-chairman Beverly Wilhide, a county businesswoman who has agreed to serve as Ecker's chief administrative aide.

"I've already heard people say Mr. Ecker is indecisive because heads are not rolling. But he hasn't even taken office yet," she said.

Tempering residents' impatience would be hard enough in good times for the 61-year-old Beaverbrook resident who has never held elected office and who, as a Republican, must learn to deal with a 3 to 2 Democratic majority on the County Council and with the state government's Democratic leadership. But Ecker is assuming office as the county is wrestling with a fiscal crunch brought on by the area's economic downturn, a crunch in which few winners are likely to emerge.

"It's almost unfair in a way," said lawyer Charles Ware, an NAACP activist and member of Ecker's transition team. "The last time we had a transition there was smooth sailing because we had a lot of money to work with. He's taking over at a bad time when he faces a lot of challenges. He's going to have a real short honeymoon."

Ecker said he never expected much breathing room. He said he hopes his ideas for making government more accessible sow the seeds for resolving the prickly growth and financial problems besetting the suburban county of about 181,800 between Baltimore and Washington.

"I look at it not as a problem but as an opportunity for the county to join together and work together," Ecker said. "Tough times give us a chance to see what we are made of."

Most people think Ecker is kidding when he says not sure he will survive more than a single term because of the often contradictory desires of the county's electorate. He's not.

"I've said all during the campaign that I'm not sure the decisions I have to make are going to be the best decisions politically," the retired school administrator said.

Nothing has happened since his election Nov. 6 to change his mind. Residents continue to present him with almost impossible demands.

At a senior citizens center in Columbia this week, some residents told Ecker to cut taxes while others urged him to increase taxes to pay for services for the elderly.

A mother of two in Savage said the new county executive "must" stop development in the county's congested east, "must" cut taxes and "must" find money to reduce school crowding. "I don't know how he can do all those things at the same time, but we've elected him to find a way," said Tracey Gonzales, 36.

Olen Lee Ketterman said the county should have begun to rein in growth long before County Executive Elizabeth Bobo (D) took office four years ago. But the 49-year-old Lisbon resident said Bobo attempted to make up for lost time by trying to do too much too fast.

"I think she pushed the panic button and a lot of people got hurt," Ketterman said. "She gave in to the people {in the suburbs} who think the west is their private parkland, a place where they can drive on Saturday and Sundays and look at cows. We've got to think this out a little."

Meanwhile, Ecker said education spending will be his top funding priority and that he hopes to pare the size of government through attrition. For starters, he said he will not fill an administrative position in his office that will become vacant when Bobo leaves.

Ecker's transition so far has been rich in symbolic gestures to open government. He has talked of putting a window on the door to his new office, doing away with the parking meters near the county office building and holding Saturday business hours.

More important, Ecker said, he has formed a transition team that puts a premium on involving civic leaders, whether they are Democrats or Republicans. He continued in like manner when he created a task force to develop growth-control legislation and included representatives of the various sides in the growth debate.

"I don't think open government means delay. We don't have time to delay decisions," Ecker said. Making budget cuts to compensate for a revenue shortfall of up to $18 million "requires immediate attention. Passing an 'adequate public facilities' law {curbing development near crowded schools and congested roads} is an immediate priority. Public involvement is immediate . . . . I want people to know that this is not my administration -- it's ours."

Civic groups are moving quickly to claim their piece of the administration. The Chamber of Commerce issued a report this week calling for a quasi-public economic development agency to improve the county's business image -- an image it said has been battered by "the recent controversy regarding growth and the publicity that resulted."

Ware said he joined the transition team in the hopes of urging Ecker to "clean up a police department" that has been accused of brutality. Rumors grew so rampant last week that Chief Frederick W. Chaney would be removed that Ecker issued a news release saying no decision had been made about the chief's future.

"Everybody wants everything now," Wilhide said. "And we're just going to have to try to do it our way and hope that's good enough."


Spending Gap: The county's $286.4 million operating budget faces a revenue shortfall of up to $18 million this year. County Executive-Elect Charles I. Ecker has announced he will institute a hiring freeze and put off some capital spending. He says next year's budget may require tax increases and spending reductions. He will ask the County Council to appoint a task force to make spending recommendations.

Taxes: The county is required by the state to adopt a limit on the taxable portion of property assessments before the end of the year. The County Council has introduced two bills, one limiting taxable assessments at 5 percent a year and the other at 10 percent. Ecker supports a 5 percent limit.

Growth and Development: Debate is underway over "adequate public facilities" legislation to curb development near congested roads and crowded schools. Ecker supports extending a controversial limit on building permits until such legislation is adopted. The limit is due to expire in March.

Party Politics: The county faces uncertain prospects in the often partisan General Assembly this year. Republican Ecker and the county's new Republican-led legislative delegation must work with the state's Democratic leadership.

Labor: Ecker and the County Council will begin contract negotiations with labor unions in December. Agreements with public safety and school clerical groups could be complicated by the county's financial trouble.

Landfill: Ecker said he will move quickly to identify options to deal with trash when the community's only landfill reaches capacity.