It has been described as a profound shift on transportation policy and the most dramatic change in elected leadership that Montgomery County has witnessed in years.
The Montgomery County Council that County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) helped assemble is a new generation of passionate politicians with grand initiatives for the future. And they are eager to turn their ambitious campaign promises and fresh political ideology into realities despite looming budget difficulties.
Political observers say this new council -- which includes four political newcomers -- is skilled, gutsy and opinionated, and will offer vision and innovative expertise in a number of critical areas.
For the first time in 12 years, the nine-member council includes only one Republican member. And last week's inaugural meeting marked the first time since 1983 that the County Council endorsed the controversial intercounty connector, known as the ICC, which has been talked about and studied for 40 years.
"This is a sea change in Montgomery County," said Derick Berlage, a former County Council member who is now chairman of the Montgomery County Planning Board. "There are four new members, so essentially half the membership has turned over and this is a significant change. This is a council that intends to move forward. It's a no-nonsense council."
Consider the four newcomers.
Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty), the council's youngest member at 36, is also the council's first member from the biotechnology industry. Knapp brings experience in health care and social welfare. He was a U.S. Senate adviser on biotechnology and opened two biotech businesses in New Mexico.
Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), the former mayor of Garrett Park and a former member of the county Planning Board, has worked through the complexities of housing, zoning and land-use issues. She is also a vocal proponent of affordable housing and funding for mental health.
Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring), the first Latino elected to the council, is a civil rights lawyer and advocate for the county's working families. Perez represents District 5 -- Silver Spring, Takoma Park, Kensington and Wheaton -- the only majority-minority council district. He will push for transit systems, such as the Inner Purple Metro Line, to serve low-income residents.
George Leventhal (D-At Large) brings knowledge of consensus building and understands the diverse needs of the county, from education to transportation, having served as chairman of the Montgomery County Democratic Party and on the board of CASA of Maryland, a Silver Spring-based social service agency serving Latino residents. Leventhal just completed a job as an education lobbyist.
In addition, the five incumbent council members -- Philip Andrews, (D-Rockville), Howard A. Denis (R-Potomac-Bethesda), Marilyn Praisner (D-Eastern County), Michael L. Subin (D-At Large) and Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large) -- return with solid experience, likely to come in handy when it is time to tackle the budget.
The County Council is faced with a $300 million budget deficit, and state legislators are poised to cut spending to deal with a state shortfall. Some Montgomery County proposals for transportation improvements, affordable housing and funding for schools could be postponed, restructured or even scrapped as the council will have to make hard financial decisions in the coming months.
"There are tremendous challenges ahead," said Isiah Leggett, a law professor and former County Council member. "New members have a tendency to react to fulfill expectations from their campaign promises, but that may undermine the long-term stability. They must make decisions about cuts and reprioritizing to manage their long-term and short-term goals."
Cary Lamari, president of the Montgomery County Civic Federation, the oldest and largest group of civic associations in the county, said many residents are concerned about the impact of the county's budget shortfall.
"There is a lot of anxiety about the new council," Lamari said. "The council will be limited in what it can do. Mike Subin will be a very good council president, but he's taking the reins at a difficult time in the council's history."
Despite the budget concerns, some members say, the council was elected with a mandate: to reduce traffic congestion and gridlock, the most critical single issue during the 2002 campaign season.
During the new council's first meeting last week, members wasted no time passing resolutions on three major transportation projects, including a resolution supporting the ICC -- an initiative that Duncan says would reduce traffic congestion in Montgomery County. The ICC, which would provide an east-west highway between Interstates 270 and 95, has been in county master plans for decades, but Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) halted the environmental study.
The council resolution was largely symbolic, but county officials hope to attract billions in state and federal funding to build the road. "This council was prepared, and we're moving forward," said Subin, who was elected council president last week.
For most of the inaugural meeting, Subin sported a gray train engineer's cap that symbolized, aides said, organization and solid leadership.
County political observers said the council's first meeting was a telling indication of what's to come: a take-charge council president, strong personalities, and passionate and perhaps spirited debates. "There are no back-benchers on this council," Berlage said.
Leventhal spent several minutes outlining his vision for transportation and explained -- with a touch of county historical perspective -- why he supports the ICC and the Inner Purple Line. Perez made what some described as a compelling case against the ICC and talked of other significant issues facing residents, such as affordable housing, education and giving more aid to working families. Floreen said she is detail-oriented and voted against the Inner Purple Line, saying she needed answers to more questions about it. Knapp talked convincingly about providing sound leadership and improving the quality of life for residents of his upcounty communities.
Berlage, who served on the council for 12 years, said that during most first meetings, council members usually sit back and listen; they don't pass what is considered critical legislation. "We've never seen this before," Berlage said of the transportation resolutions. "The first day is always ceremonial, but they all came out swinging."
The challenge for the council, its members said, will be acquiring money for projects such as transit and roads.
"We have some tough choices to make here in Montgomery County, and it seems to me that the first thing that this council ought to do is pass a resolution that acknowledges that the most important item of business in 2003 will be closing the budget gap and implores our colleagues in Annapolis to ensure that the state budget is not balanced at the expense of local government," Perez said during the council meeting.
Perez also said he believes the ICC will not be built because it will not withstand environmental scrutiny. The Inner Purple Line, he said, could be ready by 2007, while the ICC would take far longer and do little to serve many low-income residents without cars.
The council last week also endorsed the $1.4 billion Inner Purple Metro Line, a proposed above-ground, light-rail project that would connect New Carrollton, College Park, Langley Park, Silver Spring and Bethesda, with two new stops on the University of Maryland campus.
The council also unanimously endorsed construction of the Corridor Cities Transitway, a bus or light-rail line that would run along I-270 south from Clarksburg. Leventhal said it's imperative that the county endorse both road and transit projects.
"Many neighbors oppose the intercounty connector even though it will relieve congestion on northern roads and make it possible finally to drive efficiently from Rockville and Gaithersburg," he said. "We cannot forever be stymied by a handful of opponents who do not speak to the interests of a majority of citizens of this county. This is as true for the Purple Line as it is for the intercounty connector."
The new council includes three new pro-ICC members: Floreen, Knapp and Leventhal. They join Subin, Silverman and Denis in endorsing the project.
"They did exactly what they were elected to do," Duncan said of the council's transportation resolutions. "This is a new day for Montgomery County . . . a sea change in attitude. We've been debating this road for over 40 years. . . . Now we have traffic relief advocates on the County Council. We're all speaking with one voice."
Still, a number of Montgomery County civic and environmental groups are concerned that the council is heading in the wrong direction by backing the ICC and want them to focus on what they see as more realistic solutions to traffic and development problems.
"Along with improvements in our road system, we need to act now to reduce traffic and to tackle the cause of congestion: sprawl development," said Neal Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Audubon Naturalist Society.
His group, and others, including the Montgomery County Civic Federation and the Coalition for Smarter Growth, urged the new County Council to move forward with the previous council's program to improve existing east-west roads between I-270 and I-95, as well as enlarge heavily used intersections and upgrade the bus system with express lanes and more frequent service.
"We want to get Montgomery County moving right now, not 20 or 30 years from now," said Lamari, of the civic federation.
Aside from transportation, the Rev. Donell Peterman, a Takoma Park housing activist who served six months on the council, said he would like to see more minority representation on the council after Leggett, the council's first and only elected African American member, decided not to run for reelection after 16 years.
Perez, a Dominican American, is the council's only minority member. Montgomery County is 40 percent minority.
"There will be a major void on the council," Peterman said. "Ike represented an entire county of African Americans and all residents. But it's important for us to have that kind of presence. I hope this is the last time that Montgomery County inaugurates a council without an African American being a part of it."
Silverman, the council's new vice president, said the council will improve the quality of life for all Montgomery residents -- children, seniors, working families and the county's underprivileged.
"County government is public safety, public schools, public transportation, public health and well-being, public parks, public assistance," Silverman said during the council's inauguration ceremonies last week at Richard Montgomery High School.
"None of this will come easy, especially in the difficult fiscal times ahead," Silverman said. But, he added, "We will roll up our sleeves, work hard and get the job done."