The County Council's unanimous decision this week to approve tough new standards for the local taxicab industry prompted quite a debate.

Before the final vote Tuesday, the council spent nearly four hours debating the bill, which seeks to increase competition and improve service to customers. In recent years, hundreds of taxicab customers have complained to the county about long waits, rude drivers and excessive charges.

The legislation says that taxicab drivers should strive to respond to a call for service within 20 minutes. The bill also increases the number of available taxi licenses, opens the market to taxicab companies based outside of the county and sets new rules to ensure drivers have passed a criminal background check and drivers' exam.

The biggest point of controversy surrounds the 20-minute standard on calls for service. The standard will be used to evaluate the companies' overall performance but does not necessarily mean every customer will be picked up within 20 minutes.

The leaders of Action in Montgomery (AIM), a coalition of 28 churches and religious organizations, fought for the limit, saying it is essential to holding Barwood Inc., the largest taxicab company in the county, accountable.

"It's like the airline industry, where you have on-time arrivals and on-time arrival goals," said council member Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring), who agreed with AIM.

But the taxicab industry, backed by several other council members, said it was risky to establish time standards in a large county known for its traffic congestion and unpredictable weather.

The discussion caused council member Michael L. Subin (D-At Large), who is known to be unpredictable and prone to outbursts, to go on a bit of a rant.

"To put a time standard on legislation is really going in with eyes wide shut," Subin said.

Subin went on to accuse his colleagues of supporting the 20-minute standard because they fear a backlash from AIM members. "It's a number pulled out of thin air and provides an expectation to the people of this county that is either naive or cynical or simply political. . . . It is purely 100 percent unadulterated politics," Subin said.

Before he ended, Subin had a tip for the taxicab company lawyers. "If I owned a taxicab and I had to go from Rockville to Dickerson at a quarter to six in five minutes, I would take you guys to court," Subin said. "It's a farce; you are making a mockery of the law and the process."

But after it became clear there were not enough votes to change the time provision, Subin joined his eight other colleagues in approving the legislation.

Regardless, the debate now goes back to Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), whose office must write regulations to implement and enforce the legislation.

Heart-Smart Legislation

The odds of surviving a heart attack in a Montgomery County gym or health club are about to improve.

On Tuesday, the council unanimously approved a bill requiring that the 126 health clubs in the county contain at least one defibrillator and one staff person trained in how to use it.

The units are designed to shock a person's heart to keep it pumping until medical help arrives.

Even so, council member Marilyn Praisner (D-Eastern County), the sponsor of this bill, had some morbid news for residents. She said statistics show that less than 10 percent of people who suffer a cardiac arrest outside of a hospital survive.

"Their chances get worse every moment the defibrillation is delayed," Praisner said in a statement.

Bill Snowed Under

Pedestrians in the county should feel a little safer this winter after a snowfall.

The council rejected a bill this week by council members George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) and Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty) that would have exempted homeowners associations from having to clear sidewalks under their control when it snows three inches or less.

Knapp and Leventhal said the county's snow removal policy, which instructs residents and homeowners associations to clear sidewalks of snowfall within 24 hours, is costing some associations too much money.

But a majority of council members decided the change would undermine pedestrian safety.

"This would have created a patchwork of some clear and some uncleared sidewalks," said council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg), who voted against the legislation. "The idea that less than three inches of snow isn't hazardous is just wrong."