Last month, Charles County Commissioner Robert J. Fuller was at peace with his decision to retire at the end of his term. Last week, Fuller reversed course, saying he might challenge the board's president -- a fellow Democrat -- out of frustration with what he said was a lack of leadership.
A day later, Fuller was back to where he started.
Although Fuller now says he will retire next year, his hand-wringing highlighted the unsettled state of the county board in the months since the departure of two longtime commissioners.
"There's a serious lack of leadership and ability to get people to get along with one another and work toward a common goal," said Fuller (D-St. Charles), before changing his mind. "There's a lot of consternation and unhappiness with the direction of the board."
The target of Fuller's comments, commissioners President Wayne Cooper (D-At Large), said he was surprised and confused by the criticism. At a board retreat in July, Cooper recalled, his colleagues praised him for what they described as his collaborative style.
"If people are unhappy or want a change, they should come to me and not the media," he said.
Commissioner Edith J. Patterson (D-Pomfret) defended Cooper as an "inclusive and diplomatic leader" and said it was "unfair to point the finger at him as the source of all the problems" on the five-member board.
But Patterson, Cooper and Commissioner Candice Quinn Kelly (R-La Plata) agreed with Fuller's assessment that communication and trust among board members is poor.
"If you want to work as a group, you will," Kelly said. "But you can only do that if there is communication and honesty among commissioners."
Underscoring the issue was a dispute last week over how quickly to build new schools in the fast-growing county and how to pay for them. At a meeting between commissioners and school board members Tuesday, Board of Education Chairman Margaret Young told the commissioners: "We feel we have been getting mixed messages. We need to know, as a board, how the commissioners collectively think."
When the meeting broke up, aides to both boards huddled together, trying to interpret what exactly the commissioners wanted.
The commissioners have searched since December to find a director for the new Economic Development Department. After County Administrator Eugene T. Lauer announced his retirement, it took board members more than two weeks to assemble to pick his short-term replacement, Kelly said.
Del. Sally Y. Jameson (D-Charles), executive director of the Charles County Chamber of Commerce, said she is not surprised that the board is struggling.
"It's not easy to have that many changes on your board and think everything is going to move smoothly," she said. "Until they get a grasp on all the personalities involved, you can't expect cohesiveness."
The changes began in October, when Murray D. Levy (D) resigned as president after 18 years on the board to accept an appointment to the General Assembly. He had also served with the county as finance director and director of public works for a total of 33 years. Levy's departure was followed in January by a second legislative appointment that sent W. Daniel Mayer (R-La Plata) to the House of Delegates after more than a decade as a commissioner.
Patterson and Kelly were appointed to the board and Cooper to the president's post.
"When Murray left, there was a huge, huge void in terms of leadership," said Sen. Thomas M. Middleton (D-Charles). "It's comparing night to day."
Complicating the transition, he said, is the recent introduction of TV cameras in the board room, which he said has led to more theatrics than in the past.
"The hardest time to get anything done is in an election year," Middleton said. "You have all these dynamics that add to this incredibly unsettling situation."
There is no question that Levy and Cooper have different presidential styles. Mayer often clashed with Levy, but he praised him for helping the board stick to its decisions once an agreement was reached. The current board, Mayer said, needs "to be more forceful. The gavel needs to come down more."
Cooper, who was first elected in 2002 after six years on the school board, says he takes a different tack.
"I believe in giving people a fair say, and I don't censor them," he said. "I believe in participation. I don't want to be a dictator president."
Levy, a Democrat, became president in 1994, when Republicans held three of the five seats. There was debate, there were arguments, he said, but "we trained ourselves to focus on the issue and not whether I was a Democrat and they were Republicans.''
In 1995, the board voted unanimously to raise taxes to help pay for schools.
Levy said he is not critical of the current board dynamics.
"It would have been somewhat amazing if it had been totally smooth," he said. "They need to keep moving forward on the issues and the ability to work together."
When former Charles County commissioners president Murray D. Levy, above, resigned in October, "there was a huge, huge void in terms of leadership," said Sen. Thomas M. Middleton (D-Charles).