It's no secret that passions over this year's presidential race are running high, but Montgomery County Republicans say a few Bush haters are going too far.

In the past week, several large Bush-Cheney signs have been defaced or stolen in the county.

Bill Prunka, president of Tri-State Stone near River and Seven Locks roads in Potomac, said someone defaced a Bush sign on his property Friday night. Prunka said he reported it to police, but the sign was defaced again Saturday night.

Another Bush-Cheney sign in front of a law office on South Frederick Road in Gaithersburg was also "destroyed" over the weekend, said Robert Doyle, a member of the Young Republicans who lives in Montgomery Village.

"I've heard from different people who have said they have had their signs taken down or parts of their bumper stickers ripped off," Doyle said. "I think it is disgraceful. It's distasteful, and it shows a really bad sign of integrity. You don't see people going around tearing down Kerry-Edwards signs."

Milton Minneman, spokesman for the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee, condemned the destruction. "We certainly have no policy of burning down or tearing down signs," he said.

But Minneman put the Republicans on notice that the Democrats are looking for yard signs of GOP candidates that violate the county's sign ordinance. Violators will be reported to state and local officials, he said.

Ficker Makes Offer to Duncan

Anti-tax activist Robin Ficker is hoping an act of charity will persuade Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) to debate him on Question A on the November ballot.

Ficker, who has been needling elected officials in the county for more than a decade, is the main proponent behind the measure asking voters to eliminate the County Council's ability to override a property tax cap with seven votes.

Two weeks ago, Ficker challenged Duncan, who opposes the question, to a debate on the issue. Duncan declined.

Ficker is scheduled to debate Cheryl Kagan (D), a former state delegate from Montgomery County, next Thursday at a forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters.

But Ficker still wants to face off with Duncan, and this week he sent the county executive a letter offering to donate $1,000 to the Rockville library if he agrees to a debate.

"I think the students need to read more. Here is a chance to do something about it," Ficker said. "Everyone else is debating. Why doesn't Duncan want to contribute to the public discourse?"

Ficker said Duncan has until this week to respond. "If he hasn't accepted, I am going to raise the ante," he said.

Duncan spokesman David Weaver said Tuesday that the county executive has no plans to debate Ficker.

Duncan's Travels

Duncan hasn't said yet whether he plans to run for governor in 2006. But how often does a Montgomery County executive travel to the Eastern Shore to talk about ways to keep suburban sprawl from encroaching on farmland on that side of the Chesapeake Bay?

The Associated Press reports Duncan made those remarks Sunday night during an address to Democrats in Caroline County.

Duncan told the crowd that "politicians in Annapolis are too concerned with reelection and not concerned enough about long planning for the state," the AP reported. Duncan also reiterated his opposition to gambling and said farmers need support to help them preserve their way of life.

Carr Approved as Fire Chief

On Tuesday, the County Council unanimously approved the appointment of Thomas W. Carr Jr. as chief of the county's new unified Fire and Rescue Service.

Carr, 50, a 31-year veteran of the county's fire service, was named fire chief Sept. 21 by Duncan. The council's confirmation was largely expected to be unanimous -- and it was, on an 8 to 0 vote. Council member Michael L. Subin (D) was not present for the vote.

Praise for Carr was unanimous and effusive.

"We've very luck to have Tom Carr as our new fire chief," said council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg).

Council member Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring) called Duncan's selection of Carr "a home run."

"Congratulations, Tom," said George L. Leventhal (D-At large). "We think you're terrific."

And so the hard work begins. Carr will face the challenge of uniting what for many decades has been a department split between volunteer and paid firefighters. The fire service in Montgomery has been governed for years by a tangled web of authority that includes 19 volunteer chiefs, a career chief, a seven-member fire commission and a civilian fire administrator.

The County Council changed that in May, voting unanimously to create a single career fire chief to oversee the department's 1,000 career firefighters and several hundred volunteers. (County officials say the number of volunteers who regularly participate is about 400; volunteers say the number is closer to 900.)

Carr has been chief of the county's career firefighters since last year. He takes over the new job at a time when the county is struggling with aging fire engines, the potential threat of terrorist attacks and recent attention to the fact that, in an increasingly diverse county, white men make up 89 percent of its recent firefighting recruit class.

"You didn't give me a chance to say no," Carr said jokingly after the council approved him.

Carr will start Jan. 1, and his salary will be $161,000.

Unsolicited Advice

The Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee had plenty of people and organizations urging it to oppose all three ballot questions that county voters will vote on next month.

Duncan, Leventhal, the Montgomery County chapter of the NAACP, the African American Club of Montgomery and several unions expressed their opposition two weeks ago before committee members voted to oppose the ballot questions.

But party officials said the decision was made solely on the recommendation of the party's advisory committee, which made its recommendation Sept. 10.