Prince George's County in the past decade became identified with progress. Economic development soared, its long-neglected public schools improved steadily and county leaders promoted a new vision of clean, responsive government.
But a year of unprecedented ethical, social and economic turmoil has left a dramatic mark on the county, a suburb that worked throughout the 1980s to shed itself of its "ugly stepsister" image.
President Reagan in 1986 proclaimed it a county in "renaissance," and it was seen as a model of desegregation, with the nation's most affluent black middle class. But critics say a series of jarring events in the past year is spawning a spiritual malaise in the county, a decline in public confidence not seen since the ethics uproar that followed the 1971 conviction of then-County Commissioner Jesse Baggett in a bribery scandal.
"Much of the feeling that life had improved tremendously in this county was a giant publicity job," said Richard Steven Brown, head of the county's NAACP chapter. "Education, especially for the average black, has not improved that much. Job opportunity was another myth. All in all, the publicity about a so-called renaissance far outdistanced the reality."
But others say residents are still proud of the accomplishments of the county and optimistic about the future. The recent election -- in which County Executive Parris N. Glendening won a third term, which begins Monday, and most other incumbents easily won reelection -- is an example of public confidence.
"There's very little negative sentiment out there," said Del. Charles J. Ryan, a Bowie Democrat. "I've been active here in politics for years and there's always been a little cadre of people out there, the naysayers. If things were so bad, they would have tossed the bastards out.
"The truth is, the educational system will be better in the 1990s than it was in the 1980s. There's been a genuine attempt by the administration to improve the quality of life."
Within the past year, the county has seen:
Two on its nine-member County Council convicted of criminal charges: James Herl for cocaine possession and Anthony Cicoria for theft of campaign money and income tax fraud.
An uproar over allegations of favoritism in county land deals -- accusations that prompted ongoing federal and state investigations.
The theft indictment of Hugh "Reds" Robey, longtime administrator of the county's prized park system, as part of an ongoing investigation into bidding irregularities and misuse of money at the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.
The cocaine arrest of Mark Vogel, one of the county's most prominent developers, whose legal problems and subsequent guilty plea escalated a financial crisis that threatens his premier project, the long-awaited Bowie New Town Center, and may force the sale of his Oxon Hill harness track, Rosecroft Raceway.
A racially divisive controversy over the contract renewal of much-touted school Superintendent John A. Murphy, whose decision to leave the job has raised fears of decline in the quality of public schools.
Economic conditions affecting the Washington area have further wounded Prince George's. The county is laying off 190 workers and leaving more than 600 jobs vacant to deal with a predicted $49.9 million revenue shortfall. Although county officials say the moves show their foresight as the first local jurisdiction to deal with area-wide problems, critics say the trend shows the county's dependence on a short-lived real estate boom.
Residential and business movement into the county, touted several years ago as the last frontier of close-in suburban development, has slowed. Billion-dollar projects such as PortAmerica in Oxon Hill and Konterra in Laurel -- heralded as signs of the county's emerging prosperity and sophistication -- have stalled. The string of events has soured many longtime residents who moved to Prince George's County for its affordable houses and easy commute to downtown Washington.
"If it weren't for my kids and grandkids, I'd get the hell out of this county," said Charles Snyder, of Brandywine, a longtime resident whose opinion of the county deteriorated after he served on a grand jury that spent six months this year investigating county land deals. "There's nothing to tie me to it now except a desire to see some of these people go to jail."
County leaders say Snyder's is a minority view. They see recent negative developments as the result of a series of unrelated factors and say attempts to link them to a general malaise are unfair.
The legal tangles of Herl and Cicoria were "individual problems," said Louis Cohen, a county builder and former president of the Suburban Maryland Building Industry Association.
"Jim Herl was convicted of doing something that apparently half the population of Washington does. Tony Cicoria's problems -- that was almost an opera comedy that took place there," he said. "None of these highly visible things, including the legal problems of Mark Vogel, has resulted in any major discovery of malfeasance in office or corruption in this county. What it came down to was the weakness of a few individuals."
Overall, county boosters say, progress continues, though not in the leaps and bounds of the early 1980s, when Prince George's was playing a catch-up game to improve funding for its schools, public works and social programs.
"We've had some problems, and some of them have been resolved, unfortunately, in the courts," said County Council member Anne T. MacKinnon. "Maybe on some of the glitz stuff, we've peaked, but on the day-to-day issues that affect real people, we've surged."
A Washington Post poll conducted in September showed overall satisfaction with the quality of life in the county, although many residents expressed concern about the ethics and integrity of government officials. Forty-five percent of the 810 residents sampled rated the county government "about the same" as always; 25 percent said it is getting worse; and 24 percent said it is getting better.
Glendening said recent controversies, while troubling, have pulled a diverse county of 720,000 residents together to deal with difficult times.
"We had some difficulties with several council members, and look what the voters did. They've elected three new members who are extraordinarily talented, squeaky-clean individuals. In my mind, there's a major qualitative jump in the overall ability and background of council. It's just unfortunate that those headlines and embarrassing incidents were there."
The three new members are MacKinnon, Glenarden Mayor James C. Fletcher Jr. and Takoma Park Mayor Stephen J. Del Giudice.
Glendening, who met this week with Chamber of Commerce leaders to assess the county's economic situation, said the county will "not decline nearly as fast or as deep as some other jurisdictions will," partly because it moved quickly to overhaul the county's spending priorities.
State Sen. Albert R. Wynn (D-Prince George's), a sometime critic of Glendening policies, said he agrees with the executive that "for every bad thing that's happened here, you can just as fast tick off a good thing. It's a case of 'Is the glass half empty or half full?' There are no crumbling institutions here or decaying school systems. The problems we've seen tend to be individual problems that do not reflect institutional or broad governmental failings."
"This is a very strong county, a multiracial community, that has made immense progress in a very short period of time," Glendening said. "The pace of our progress was so extraordinary that it should not be expected to be duplicated every couple of years. Sure, we will have controversies. But the strength of a community is not how well you avoid them, but how well you deal with them and move on."