IN DETROIT, where politics is still of the bare-knuckles variety, Mayor Coleman Young once decided it would be a good thing for the city to raze an entire Polish neighborhood to make way for a new auto plant.
Young, a former state senator never known for subtlety, made the decision, rammed a bill through the City Council giving him the power to do it, and he did it. Within months, Poletown was completely leveled, the bulldozers rumbling right over the cries of outrage from citizens and Ralph Nader activists. When a few hearty citizens staged a sit-in protest at a local church, Young sent in the Detroit police -- also never known for subtlety -- who carted away the protesters in the middle of the night.
That was Detroit, my hometown and principle point of comparison to Montgomery County, which I have covered for this newspaper for the past two years. Of course, the recession-ravaged Motor City is nothing like affluent Montgomery, where unemployment is still just 4 percent. But Detroit, personified by Hizzoner Mayor Young, was my central frame of reference when I made my first reporting foray into the world of two-acre homes and horse farms that make up the Montgomery stereotype.
In Montgomery County, another state senator, Charles W. Gilchrist, was elected to the chief executive's job in 1978. But in Montgomery, things move a lot slower than they did in the Motor City. Decisions which are implemented within weeks in Detroit take, literally, years in Montgomery -- primarily because of the dominance of well-educated citizen-activists who can bring government to a standstill just by showing up at a council meeting waving a dozen handmade signs.
There are other differences: What was commonplace in Detroit -- like putting political allies on the payroll -- is scandal in suburbia. And where hard-pressed Detroiters have looked to Hizzoner to exercise a little power and clout, the political use of power in Montgomery is still considered inherently evil.
The biggest scandal during my time in Montgomery was what has been called "Liquorgate." This essentially boiled down to accusations that County Executive Gilchrist in his first term had actually dared to lobby the county personnel board to get a political ally a county job, in this case as deputy director of the county liquor department.
The county council has expended somewhere between $500,000 and $1 million to determine if the accusation is true. A half- dozen seperate investigations were launched, including a private audit, a seven-month grand jury investigation by the county state's attorney, a separate probe by the state special prosecutor, and a 14-month investigation by the council-appointed Merit System Protection Board.
The result of that massive effort: a finding by the Merit System Protection Board that the county's strict civil service system had indeed been violated -- that is, that Gilchrist and/or his aides exercised "improper influence in the screening and examination process." It was the biggest scandal to come out of squeaky-clean Montgomery in years, and the finding made banner headlines in all the county newspapers. It was also dutifully reported on the Metro page in The Washington Post under the headline, "Liquor Dept. Hiring Abuses Found."
Such charges of political cronyism in Montgomery would barely make a ripple in the Motor City. Take, for instance, Joyce Garrett, who was on the city's payroll as the mayor's press secretary and now as personnel director -- although just about everybody in the city knew that Garret was the mayor's regular female companion. It's hard to remember anyone who even cared.
So for me it was always difficult to get worked up about Montgomery's "Liquorgate" -- a form of "corruption" that would produce little more than yawns in my hometown. In Montgomery, patronage and dispensing political jobs to friends may be considered an unpardonable offense. In Detroit, where patronage makes the political process work, it's part of doing business.
This is the true distinction for me between Montgomery County and most other jurisdictions. Montgomery County has produced a breed of citizen activists who can, and do, make sure that the political simply does not work. This well-educated network of lawyers, engineers and bored housewives -- many of them young homeowners just moved to the county -- understand fully the political process and what it takes to grind any political decision-making to a halt. They exemplify, in a sense, democracy run amok.
Montgomery's citizen activists, with their multilettered degrees and socially progressive tradition, are not the same as the citizen activists in less-enlightened suburbs like those surrounding Detroit or other large cities.
Elsewhere, the suburban drawbridge mentality is blatant: "We're here, on our two-acre lots, so let's circle the wagons and keep the rest of the world out." The intruders threatening that placid suburban way of life could be greedy developers, public-housing tenants, or unsightly public facilities like garbage dumps or incincerators.
In Montgomery, which always dares to do things differently, the alternative is in approach. Well-heeled and well-versed Montgomerians would never argue against a landfill because it stinks -- they'll argue against it on grounds that the water-quality index would be affected.
They'll never argue against a public-housing project because they don't want to live near poor people. Instead, they'll argue against it, as they did in Potomac, by citing intricate zoning specifications.
The ultimate goal is still the same: preserve those sacred property values. But in Montgomery, the rationales are often very complex facades, espoused by citizens with expertise in engineering or law. They frequently have access to highly technical data that allows them to challenge government experts. Perhaps most important, they have the money to wage long and costly battles against government.
The result: a government that is exhaustively slow and often beholden to small and narrow interest groups.
For example, it took Montgomery officials more than a decade of debate and nearly a million dollars in task forces and court battles to open a new garbage landfill. The dump did finally open, but the county has now agreed to pay an unprecedented $95,000 to the vocal civic association that spent nearly twice that much in legal fees in their effort to block the landfill. A Detroiter finds it hard to fathom citizens spending that much money on anything, assuming, that is, that they could even raise such staggering sums.
Or consider the case of the Boyds' Rock Quarry. Rockville Crushed Stone Company has, since the mid-1950s, proposed opening a new quarry in a rural part of the county north of Gaithersburg. Beneath the Boyds community is a valuable deposit of diabase -- a superior type of stone used in concrete and road surfacing.
But residents of the area complained that trucks traveling to and from the facility would clog their normally placid roads and disrupt their peaceful way of life. The debate has dragged on for 20 years. Zoning hearings were held. Studies were ordered. Experts were called in to answer such questions as whether underground digging for the quarry would contaminate underground well water. This current County Council at long last scheduled a final vote on the quarry for Aug. 2 of this year.
But of course things didn't work that way. More than 100 Boyds residents showed up at the council session two weeks ago, holding signs with such slogans "No Need, No Quarry," "Boyd's Shall Overcome," and "We Have Just Begun to Fight."
Council member Michael Gudis, looking out at the angry throng, proposed that the whole matter be delayed until after the council's month-long summer recess. "It's obvious that we don't have enough information to make a decision," said Gudis, and the rest of the council quickly agreed.
Of course it is always argued that the politicians are responding to "the people." But as many of these cases show, the politicians are usually responding to that small handful of "the people" who bother to show up at their hearings and know how to work through the system. It is a technique that is only now being perfected in those faraway upcounty areas like Laytonsville and Boyds. They were once easy dumping grounds for unwanted public projects like landfills. But not the new influx there of educated professionals has adopted the same tactics that has kept Potomac pristine.
Other projects being challenged by well-organized citizens include a now-delayed incinerator in Washington Grove near Gaithersburg, a proposed new wastewater treatment plant for Poolesville, and most recently the plans for an outer beltway to connect I-270 with I-95, that would cut directly through the upcounty.
Said William E. Hanna Jr., the county council's newest member who was formerly the mayor of Rockville, "I expected to be frustrated (on the council) by the inability to make decisions. But many things I expected were different in terms of degree. If there is any way to talk about it, or defer it, we'll do it." The reason? "We have a highly sensitized population here that gets involved in every issue."
That concept of citizens holding up government is about as alien to a native Detroiter as a Toyota or a quiche. If Montgomery is true democracy, perhaps what that place needs is a little dose of dictatorship, and maybe a mayor like Hizzoner, Coleman Young.