Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and the County Council have reached a political detente after a bruising budget season that left both sides eager to find better ways of working together.
Duncan (D) has used the council as a foil during much of his five years in office, particularly to contrast his own do-it-now governing style with the more deliberate methods of the legislative branch. In recent weeks, however, he has toned down the criticism and made rare overtures toward the nine-member council.
Two weeks ago, he attended a council hearing for only the second time in his tenure, joining the council on the dais and telling them, "This is the new Doug Duncan." He has promised to work with the council--instead of criticizing it from afar--on several controversial issues, including a proposal to impose a tax on new home construction.
And he is sounding out members on issues important to him in an effort to make them part of the policy-making process earlier than he has in the past. During a recent breakfast with the group, Duncan told council members he wanted to add a position to his overworked executive staff, a move that would eventually need council approval. He began the briefing by saying: "I want to run something by you."
"People were surprised and delighted," said Patrick Lacefield, the council spokesman. "Those were words nobody could remember hearing from him before."
The peace between Duncan and the council may be temporary, but it has implications for policy-making over the next few months and for Duncan's possible long-range plans.
For example, Duncan's cooperation could make it far easier for the council to pass domestic partners legislation--a bill that would extend health insurance benefits to the homosexual partners of county employees--and a new tax on development to pay for transportation projects.
Duncan also is preparing for a possible run for the 2002 Democratic nomination for governor. A cooperative council could help him build his record and, perhaps, assist his campaign by testifying to his skills as he tries to get his message out statewide.
In a recent interview, Duncan said he fell into the political doldrums after the especially cantankerous budget season with the council, which has three new members since last November's elections. Duncan placed much of the blame on himself for not understanding the council's new dynamics quickly enough.
"It was too hostile," Duncan said. "I decided we had to change things because the arguing was unproductive. This council needs a lot more attention than the last one, so that's what I'm giving it."
He added: "I have three years and I want to get a lot done. It is in everybody's best interest for me and the council to get along."
At recent public appearances, Duncan and the council have composed something of a mutual admiration society, each giving the other credit for things gone right.
Last month, Marriott International Inc. announced its decision to take more than $31 million in state and county subsidies to expand its headquarters in Bethesda. The event, held before hundreds of Marriott employees in the cafeteria, culminated several years of trying to keep the company from moving to Virginia.
As Duncan began a speech to thank Marriott, council President Isiah Leggett (D-At Large) took his seat on the stage. Interrupting his remarks, Duncan praised Leggett for his role in helping to persuade the company to stay in Montgomery. When it was his turn to speak, Leggett returned the compliment by showering Duncan with praise.
"Doug in the past has demonstrated that he is a strong county executive and not the 10th member of the council," Leggett said. "What I have told him is that he also has to be a diplomat and a statesman. I think he has the skills to do that and I've been surprised in the past he hasn't done it more. He's very good at it."
During budget talks this spring, council members blamed Duncan for sending over requests for parks, child-safety seat inspectors and other items late in the process and with little explanation. The result was delay by the council, which angered Duncan. That lack of communication, both sides say, has changed.
"For four years, the administration had one way of dealing with the council, but now you have new members, new leadership, and there hadn't been much communication on mutual goals," said council member Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large). "He wasn't talking to us and we weren't talking to him. On the other hand, no one on our end picked up the phone and called him either."
Silverman said Duncan has now "made a decision that he is a more effective county executive if he gets along with the council. And you know what? He's right."
"The reality is I think he'll have the council's support if he runs for governor because it's in our interests to have someone from our county as the governor," Silverman said. "We agree on 99 percent of things. His politics and . . . the council's politics are basically in the same place."