County Executive Douglas M. Duncan made much this week of the symbolic significance of the first action taken by the newly constituted County Council.

That action: passage of a resolution in support of the long-debated intercounty connector, the proposed east-west highway that would link Interstates 270 and 95. But before that vote, the members of the County Council held a brief session Tuesday morning to confirm Duncan's appointment of Melanie L. Wenger as the county's new lobbyist in Annapolis.

If the vote on the ICC serves as a symbol of unity for Montgomery County, the brief discussion about the upcoming legislative session in Annapolis was a reminder that political struggles still loom on the horizon.

Wenger's primary responsibility during the upcoming General Assembly session will be to help Montgomery County squeeze every dime possible out of what's expected to be an excruciatingly tight budget.

Unlike in recent years, when Montgomery's Democratic delegation enjoyed the benefits of a strong economy and a friendly governor, Wenger will be wading into this battle during lean times, and with Republican Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. at the helm.

Ehrlich has not forgotten he won just 38 percent of the vote in Montgomery County, while his opponent, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D), took more than 60 percent.He also knows that Duncan is among the small group of Democratic politicians who may run against him in 2006.

Wenger told the council that, despite those obvious challenges, she's suited to the task.

A Kansas native who now lives in Annapolis, Wenger spent more than a decade working in key staffing jobs on both the state House and Senate budget committees. She was a favorite of Senate Budget and Taxation Committee Chairman Barbara A. Hoffman (D-Baltimore), and vaulted from that committee into the premier staff job in Annapolis, serving as chief of staff to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's).

Wenger, said former Montgomery state senator Larry Levitan, "brings just what Montgomery County needs."

Her warm relationship with both the Senate president and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Howard P. Rawlings (D-Baltimore) won't hurt, Levitan said.

"But what's most important is that this is a time when you're really going to be needing budget expertise," Levitan said.

Why? Suppose a lawmaker proposes drawing revenue from a source that "is not appetizing to Montgomery County," Levitan said. "Melanie has the creativity and the skill to quickly come up with an alternative."

County Council members agreed, telling her they have concerns that Ehrlich could make Montgomery County a prime target for budget cuts.

The perception among many in Annapolis, said County Council member Marilyn Praisner (D-Eastern County), is that Montgomery County is wealthier and therefore ripe for cuts.

"I've never shared the view that Montgomery is wealthy and everyone else is poor," Wenger told Praisner. "And I think I can disabuse [budget officials in Annapolis] of that notion."

Subin Takes the Reins Last week marked a changing of the guard on the Montgomery County Council, with Michael L. Subin assuming the president's gavel and Steven A. Silverman stepping aside to become vice president.

As he stepped aside, Silverman took a moment to recount a few of the council's accomplishments of the past year. Making light of the periodic infighting among members, he described the last council as a family that "probably fell somewhere on the continuum between 'The Brady Bunch' and 'The Sopranos.' "

Subin donned a railway engineer's cap as he took the president's chair, and accepted a gift from council colleague Howard A. Denis: a biography of Gen. George Patton.

"I'll read this by next Tuesday," Subin pledged, "and make use of what I learn."