A majority of Montgomery County Council members tentatively endorsed a proposal yesterday to reform the way the council hands out community grants, a process that members have criticized as overly politicized and opaque.
For the current fiscal year, which began July 1, council members authorized 45 grants totaling $2.3 million.
No one questions the value of the community groups' work: Most provide services to immigrants, the elderly and disabled people. But concerns have been raised about how the money is distributed.
During the annual budget cycle, council members back certain applications and then work out among themselves which groups get funding. Some of the discussion occurs during public sessions, but by tradition it falls to the council president, in the final hours of the annual review of the county budget, to decide which groups get money.
In a memo to council colleagues, George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) and Marilyn Praisner (D-Eastern County) said the council and county executive "direct funding to many groups simply because they request it." While this process is "sometimes effective," the memo said, "it can also be arbitrary and unfair, for it does not give all organizations a clear and understandable procedure to follow."
At a joint session of two county committees yesterday, Leventhal said he was not advocating a radical revision, "but I do think we can do it better than we've done it before."
Six council members offered initial support to a proposal to create a nine-member review panel to vet grant applications. Each council member would appoint someone.
Council President Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large), who is running an undeclared campaign for county executive in 2006, said he had no "gut negative reaction" to the reform idea, but he also sounded more skeptical than his colleagues. "How do you do anything other than replace the nine of us with nine proxies?" he asked.
In the review for the 2005 budget, grant applications backed by Silverman received $447,000, more than any other council member's projects received.
Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg) was the only council member who abstained from supporting grant applications in the 2005 budget, citing a selection method that he called "extremely political." Yesterday, he supported the reform measure, as did Howard A. Denis (R-Potomac-Bethesda), Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring), Leventhal, Praisner and Silverman, but their endorsement came in a nonbinding straw vote.
If approved, the panel proposed by Leventhal and Praisner would review only applications for community or "human service" grants. The council has directed a county Arts Council to review the applications of arts groups seeking county funding.
Council members also directed the county's Office of Legislative Oversight to study the process that the county executive's staff uses to review human-service grant applications, many of which are examined by outside panels.
An additional $1.6 million in community grants were awarded as part of the 2005 budget submitted by County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D). But most of those came in response to "private agency requests" that receive no panel review. Duncan has said he favors a more transparent process on the council side, and his spokesman, David Weaver, echoed that view yesterday.
"Some form of review or scrutiny by an outside panel makes a lot of sense," Weaver said.