The Montgomery County Civic Federation is a step closer to reshaping county government. The next step is up to the voters.

On Monday, federation members submitted to county officials petitions signed by 12,500 Montgomery residents in support of a proposed amendment to the county charter that, if approved by the voters Nov. 2, would upend the electoral system.

Currently, there are five electoral districts, and voters elect a single representative to the County Council from each one. The other four seats on the council are filled by at-large members who represent the county as a whole. The federation wants to see nine electoral districts and eliminate the at-large seats.

"It has become so prohibitively expensive" to run an at-large campaign, said federation member Dale Tibbitts, "that special interests and particularly developers and land-use attorneys have figured out that they can effectively buy those top seats." Smaller districts would make it possible for candidates to run cheaper campaigns for public office.

Former federation president Fernando Bren called the submission of the petitions "a turn toward open and responsive government" in the county.

Most council members oppose the reform, saying that the current system allows each voter to elect a majority of the council and that at-large members can rise above parochial interests and legislate on behalf of the county as a whole.

Selective Editing

Call it an attack of council conscience.

During the morning of July 27, the County Council considered proposed amendments to the county charter that are headed for the ballot this fall, including the Montgomery County Civic Federation's effort to create nine district council seats.

At the session, council member Marilyn Praisner (D-Eastern County) proposed a change to the summary of the amendment's impact that will appear on the ballot. The summary, as drafted by council staff members, made clear that the change would divide the county into nine districts and result in the election of all council members by district. Praisner proposed adding a phrase explaining that the change would also "eliminate each voter's ability to vote for a majority of council members by reducing from 5 to 1 the number of council members each voter can vote for."

The added language passed the council 6 to 3, with dissenters complaining that the wording "crossed the line into advocacy," said council member Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring), by making the amendment seem undesirable.

Then came the lunch break. "As lawyers for the county reflected further," Perez said, "their concerns escalated."

In the afternoon session, the council reconsidered and simplified Praisner's language to read: "reduce from 5 to 1 the number of council members each voter can vote for."

"That's a lot better than the original one," said Civic Federation President Dan Wilhelm.

Emergency Vehicle Crisis

The County Council received more bleak news this week about the state of Montgomery's fire and rescue vehicles.

Nearly half of the county's fire engines were out of service for at least a week during one recent month, fire officials told the council's public safety committee Monday. Five of the 11 heavy rescue vehicles -- large trucks filled with rescue equipment -- were also out of service for at least a week in the same period, officials said.

The vehicles were out for repairs -- a common fate for the county's aging fleet of vehicles. Ladder trucks and water tankers fared better, but officials said the county is approaching a crisis of aging vehicles and an inefficient system of maintenance and repair.

"It's clear that there's a big problem that's not getting any smaller," said council member Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty).

Fire Chief Thomas W. Carr Jr. presented statistics showing the status of fire and rescue vehicles over a recent 30-day period. Knapp had requested the figures. He wanted an update on a council study released in January showing that an alarming number of county ambulances and firetrucks were regularly in the shop for repairs.

The January report, by the county's Office of Legislative Oversight, described a fire and rescue service burdened by chronically sidelined equipment, the result of insufficient spending and a poor system for keeping track of breakdowns and making repairs.

For example, the report said, during a 308-day span in 2002 and last year, a full complement of heavy rescue vehicles was available in the county on only two days.

Monday's update showed similar problems. Forty-eight percent of county fire engines were out of service for at least seven days in a 30-day period, the report said. Fire officials said they expend much of their energy moving equipment from one station to another each day to fill gaps.

Fire officials said the problem stems from having old equipment and from the fact that the county has no centralized maintenance facility like most large jurisdictions in the Washington area.

Unlike other large jurisdictions in the area, Montgomery has no systemwide standards for the maintenance of emergency vehicles, no central maintenance facility and no system for quickly determining which vehicles need repair, the report said.

"It's a very sobering presentation," council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg), chairman of the public safety committee, said Monday. "What it shows is that we're at the breaking point."

The January report recommended that the council establish and enforce countywide standards for maintenance.

The report noted that nearly half of the water pumps on county fire engines in 2002 did not meet standards set by the National Fire Protection Association. Last year, that number improved, with 33 percent of the pumps not meeting standards.

Similar recommendations have been made in nearly a dozen studies dating to 1976, but the new study found that few of those recommendations have been heeded.

And Then There Was One

It's getting pretty lonely in the county's inspector general's office.

The three-person staff -- charged with investigating corruption, fraud and abuse in county government -- has dwindled over the past few months to a single employee.

"It's a one-person band," said Mary Meier, the county's assistant inspector general and sole investigator in the office.

The county's first-ever inspector general, Norman D. Butts, resigned in April -- 14 months before his term expired -- to become Leesburg's director of finance. His deputy, David Newcomer, was then appointed acting inspector general.

But last month, Newcomer left the office to become deputy inspector general with the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

The council has expedited the selection process for a new inspector general, but Praisner said it will be at least six months before someone is chosen.

Meier said work in the office will suffer until the council fills the positions.

"We're down two-thirds of our professional staff," she said. "We're continuing to do work, but I'm only one person."

Staff writer Amit R. Paley contributed to this report.

Montgomery Fire Chief Thomas W. Carr Jr.