James Michael Herl, 49, whose one-month term as chairman of the Prince George's County Council abruptly ended in 1990 after he passed a half-gram of cocaine to an undercover officer in a College Park bar, died Jan. 21 at Washington Hospital Center. Family members said he had congestive heart failure.
Mr. Herl was stripped of his leadership post by fellow council members in January 1990, four days after his troubles were made public and shortly before D.C. Mayor Marion Barry was arrested on cocaine charges in an undercover investigation in Washington.
Mr. Herl, a popular Democratic politician who served on the council for more than seven years, pleaded guilty the next month to one misdemeanor count of cocaine possession. He was placed on probation for three years, fined $5,000 and ordered to perform 240 hours of community service. He resigned from the council that May. Barry was sentenced to six months in prison.
Holding political power had been a long-held ambition for Mr. Herl, who rose from modest roots in Bladensburg. He served as an errand boy in the Prince George's Democratic Party and was a council aide.
Mr. Herl told the court when he was convicted that alcohol and drugs had played a role in his life for some time. He agreed that as a public official he should be subject to a "higher standard."
After he left office, he was a land acquisition consultant to developers and companies that included Howard Johnson's. For the past five years, he was a project manager for the Maryland Department of Transportation, procuring land for mass transit.
Mr. Herl was born in Miami and raised in Bladensburg, where he graduated from Bladensburg High School. After attending the University of Maryland for a few years, he began working for County Executive Winfield M. Kelly Jr.
Council member Frank P. Casula took him under his wing in 1978, hiring Mr. Herl as his legislative aide. Mr. Herl also served on the county Democratic Central Committee.
At 29, he bucked the political establishment to run for office, defeating a slate-backed candidate by a slight margin. He represented College Park, where he lived, as well as Berwyn Heights, Riverdale and New Carrollton and won reelection in 1986. He was said to be considering a run at county executive. He took over the annually rotating chairmanship at the start of what was to be a critical election year.
Mr. Herl was described at the time as symbolizing the evolution of county politics, which melded the old Democratic establishment with young families concerned about issues such as schools, growth, crime and roads. He was reported to have built a strong base among his constituents and positioned himself as a coalition builder.
He was called on several missteps, however. In 1984, it was reported that he had used county money to eat at a restaurant that featured nude dancers. The next year, about the time he and his wife, Dee Herl, were divorcing, colleagues pressured him to stop working as a bartender at R.J. Bentley's Filling Station, a University of Maryland hangout where he had been employed for a month.
The following year, there were disclosures that he had used more than $8,500 in campaign funds to lease a car. In 1986, he was fined for driving under the influence of alcohol and with an expired driver's license.
In 1989, he received his bachelor's degree from the University of Maryland and began studying for law school entrance exams.
After he left the council, Mr. Herl worked for clients who included Daniel I. Colton, a developer who had contributed to his campaigns. He said the work did not violate the county ethics law because he was not functioning as a lobbyist.
Survivors include his mother, Josephine F. Herl of Bowie, and two brothers, Ron Herl of Laurel and George Herl of Punta Gorda, Fla.