Followers of this region's local legislatures might well be wondering what has happened to the normally staid Montgomery County Council. Lately these traditionally punctuation-minded citizen-politicians have been going about their business with enough rowdiness and verbal brawling to rival any of their counterparts in other jurisdictions.
The development of clearly defined factions in Montgomery is just part of the growing pains facing this council, once a small- town body that before 1970 really did only meet once a week to set general policy while well-entrenched professional bureaucrats ran the government. The current public brawling underscores a serious, fundamental debate over how this suburban legislature--still constitutionally defined as "part-time"-- should adjust to the growing demands of an increasingly diverse, complex and urbanized county.
In part, it is a tug-of-war between the citizen-politicians and the professional politicians to control the future direction of the county's government--not unlike conflicts in other suburban jurisdictions where small- town values seem to be colliding with the realities of growth.
In many area county governments, particularly the Fairfax board of supervisors, the internal conflict has come in the form of debates over pay for the lawmakers, who now put in full-time work for these "part-time" jobs. If the workload cannot be lessened, shouldn't the pay be raised? But then, would raising the pay amount to an admission that suburban councils really are full-time jobs? That, God forbid, might lead to professional politicians.
In Montgomery, the debate has crystallized into two sides disagreeing not over pay, but over reorganization. One side thinks the council should go the way of other large legislatures, with strong committee systems making near-final decisions. The other side sees the strong committee system as an evil that has led to fragmented policy--something Montgomery has so far managed to avoid.
One side believes the council's large bureaucracy should be responsive to the elected policy-makers, while the other sees it as a staff of professionals objectively running things, safely insulated from the political whims.
In many ways this same debate dogged Montgomery County Executive Charles Gilchrist during much of his first term. Gilchrist came into office wanting to make his own appointments and take control of the government to put his own programs into effect. He quickly ran into opposition from long-entrenched bureaucrats and their council supporters. Instead of a big-city mayor type of executive, many in Montgomery still wanted a small-time county manager.
Now the majority council faction is headed by council president David Lee Scull, the son of two former council presidents who presided over the body during Montgomery's evolution from a largely rural, bedroom community. Scull sees his mandate as taking the council into the 20th century--a plan he calls "New Directions," which includes recodifying the archaic, complex county code into simple language, computerizing many council operations and--herein lies the controversy--reorganizing the council.
The council according to Scull would be bolstered by a system of strong council committees that would review budgets. Currently, individual council members review individual department budgets and often are overwhelmed in the process.
The opposition on the council has come most notably from member Scott Fosler, who has experience in government management. Fosler proudly points out that the hallmark of Montgomery County's traditionally "squeaky clean" government has always been its professional staff of merit-system employees deliberately insulated from the politicians.
Fosler's complaint is not with the committee system per se, but with the role committees should play in a small legislature. While Scull cites Congress, the Annapolis legislature and the District of Columbia Council to point up the advantages of strong committees, Fosler uses the same examples to make the opposite case.
"He is doing two things," Fosler says. "He is politicizing the decision-making process, and secondly he is encouraging fragmentation through this committee system. Those are the two biggest problems facing the so- called big-time legislatures, like Congress and the District of Columbia Council."
Many believe that Scull and Fosler may well end up settling their debate by squaring off against each other for the Democratic nomination for county executive in 1986. In the meantime, the debate in Montgomery rages on. And with Congress as this region's prototype of the big legislature, many small ones are not happy at the prospect of growing up.