The Montgomery County Council unanimously approved regulations this week limiting what tow companies can charge motorists on police-ordered tows.
After delaying a final vote for several weeks because of pressure from tow-truck operators, the measure establishes a flat $110 fee for all police-ordered tows. The fee, which will be indexed to inflation, replaces the previous system that some motorists said resulted in exorbitant towing bills.
Those regulations, established in 1997, allowed a towing company to charge drivers $75 when towing a wrecked or abandoned car to the firm's lot. But when an owner asks that a vehicle be taken to an alternative location -- such as a home or repair shop -- private operators can set prices as high as they want.
Motorists had to sign consent forms absolving the county for any responsibility for what they were charged for the tow. Some motorists later reported shock at receiving towing bills as high as $500.
County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) attempted to eliminate the consent form by proposing a flat $95 fee for police-ordered tows. The executive's regulations would also have prohibited single-truck towing operators from registering to respond to police-ordered tows.
But that effort was stymied six weeks ago when tow-truck operators flexed their political muscle. On the day the council was expected to vote, nearly two dozen tow-truck operators packed the council chamber to protest the legislation, causing the vote to be delayed.
The next night, about 20 tow trucks crammed the parking lot of the Kensington Library to make a statement during the County Council's town hall meeting there.
Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg), who is chairman of the public safety committee, said the council got the message.
Besides increasing the flat fee to $110, the legislation approved this week allows companies with one tow truck to be registered in up to two police districts. Larger companies can register in several districts.
"The changes strike the right balance," Andrews said. "We've done away with the consent form, which assures drivers won't be gouged. We've insured that towing companies can make a living. . . . Everybody gets treated fairly."
Some Solace for Democrats
While still glum over Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry's nationwide loss to President Bush, Montgomery County Democrats say they couldn't be happier with the local election results and are even taking partial credit for Kerry's victory in Pennsylvania.
According to unofficial results, Kerry beat Bush 66 percent to 33 percent in Montgomery County. And despite an organized GOP effort in the county in support of the president, Kerry's 134,000-vote victory margin was even greater than Democrat Al Gore's edge over Bush during the 2000 election.
"This was an excellent victory for us," said Milton Minneman, spokesman for the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee.
Other Democratic candidates also racked up huge victories in Montgomery County. U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D) got 72 percent of the vote against state Sen. E.J. Pipkin, her Republican challenger. Rep. Albert Wynn (D) beat Republican John McKinnis 60 percent to 36 percent in the Montgomery County part of the 4th District. And Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) bested Republican Chuck Floyd by 3 to 1. And while Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett (R) got 60 percent of the vote in the small part of the county in his district, Minneman said Democrat Kenneth T. Bosley got more votes than expected in the heavily Republican part of the county.
Although Democrats outnumber Republicans by 2 to 1 in Montgomery, Minneman said the vote totals prove many of the county's 105,000 registered independents sided with Democratic candidates this year. This election, Minneman said, should put Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) on notice that he faces a tough fight for reelection in 2006 should Montgomery voters turn out to vote.
"There are no signs in these results that Ehrlich is going to have an easy time in 2006," Minneman said.
Adding to the Democrats' glee was Kerry's victory in Montgomery County, Pa. Confident Kerry would easily win Maryland, Duncan and other local Democrats took several trips to that county to boost the Democratic ticket in hotly-contested Pennsylvania.
Kerry went on to win Montgomery County, Pa. -- a vote-rich county outside of Philadelphia -- by about 45,000 votes.
Although he acknowledged Republicans' poor showing locally this year, County GOP Chairman Stephen N. Abrams had his own spin on the results.
Abrams said Republicans were successful this year because 8 percent more registered Republicans in the county turned out to vote than in 2000. And with Bush in the White House, Abrams said, local Republicans will be more energized than the Democrats in 2006.
"They are going to be somewhat disheartened by having a Pyrrhic victory this year," Abrams said.
Media Scare Off Voters?
Could the media be responsible for suppressing the vote in the Nov. 2 election?
In the days before the balloting, Montgomery County Board of Elections officials were predicting a near-record turnout. Their predictions were based on frenzied calls from voters wanting to check their registration status and requests for about 40,000 absentee ballots, about twice as many as were requested in 2000.
The day before the election, Election Director Margaret Jurgensen predicted 80 to 90 percent of registered Montgomery County voters would show up to vote. The previous county turnout record was 85.2 percent in 1992.
When polls opened, the county appeared on track to eclipse that record. Voters waited for more than an hour in many locations to cast their ballots.
But as the day progressed, those lines largely evaporated. Even as the television and print media were reporting on the morning's crush of voters, many Montgomery County precincts were relatively calm during the afternoon and evening hours.
At the end of the day, only 72 percent of registered votes had cast their ballots.
The turnout figures reached 78.6 percent this week after domestic absentee ballots were counted. That figure will climb further once the overseas and provisional ballots are counted, said Marjorie Roher, administrative specialist for the Montgomery County Board of Elections.
Even so, it appears turnout will be lower than it was in 2000, when turnout reached 80.8 percent, and well short of the 1992 record.
Why were the predictions so off?
Roher said she thinks a lot of people were scared away from voting during the afternoon and evening hours because of media reports and office chatter of long lines during the morning hours.