ANNAPOLIS, JAN. 24 -- Tension between Montgomery County Executive Neal Potter and the county's state legislators boiled over today when lawmakers gave Potter a "wake-up call," urging him to begin cooperating with them.
Sources familiar with the meeting with Potter said legislators were peeved at a series of unexpected statements by the maverick county executive, including his partial endorsement of a proposed $800 million state tax-increase package that legislators consider unfair to the county.
They also were angered that Potter announced support for a state gasoline tax increase without first getting a commitment from Gov. William Donald Schaefer on road funds for Montgomery and that Potter released plans for a $40 million local personal property tax on vehicles without first talking with them.
Legislators told Potter they would not support required state approval for the local tax, thus killing it, and said his administration must work more closely with them if the county is to get the most out of Annapolis.
"We have to have a coordinated game plan . . . otherwise we'll be clobbered," said a source who attended the meeting. "There's a determination not to blow it this year."
Potter could not be reached for comment, but legislators said they think he understood their concerns and will meet with them more regularly.
Friction has been growing between state lawmakers and Potter's office since fall, with legislators saying they were uncomfortable with Potter's penchant for taking public positions on principle alone, and not first weighing what was politically achievable. The ability of Potter, a veteran County Council member often viewed as a gadfly, to govern as an insider was a central issue raised in his successful campaign against incumbent Sidney Kramer.
When Potter recently said he supports parts of a broad tax-restructuring plan because it would help the state's poor people, lawmakers saw it as a political breach of faith. They oppose the plan because of its impact on county taxpayers and on state support of local teacher pensions.
Lawmakers say they also thought that Potter gave up too easily on the $70 million Schaefer had committed for building a light rail trolley in the county. Alhough cost increases appear to have doomed the rail project, local legislators say they want to bargain to keep the $70 million and other road funds in Montgomery before supporting Schaefer's proposal to extend the sales tax to gasoline.
With Montgomery County projecting a $175 million budget shortfall next year -- the largest of any the state's major jurisdictions -- lawmakers say the county's problems could be made worse if local leaders don't work together.
"In recession, Montgomery County is the biggest loser," said Sen. Laurence Levitan (D-Montgomery), chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee and a participant in the meeting. "They can't stick it to Montgomery when it is suffering more than most of the other jurisdictions."
Montgomery legislators have suffered in the past from a lightweight image. With the benefit of new leadership appointments this year and the prospect of more members in years to come, the delegation is hoping that the session today with Potter will mark the beginning of a turnaround.