Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Who Will be the Next Council President? Part Two (Updated)

Roger Berliner, the current County Council Vice-President, may be on the verge of becoming President. Why is he in line for the job?

The planned line of succession dates back to two events.

1. The Election of Don Praisner
In February 2008, District 4 County Council Member Marilyn Praisner passed away. Mrs. Praisner was not merely the longest-serving Council Member with seventeen years on the job. She was also a respected (and even feared) leader who helped keep a lid on the tensions that were developing among the Council Members, four of whom were freshmen. Mrs. Praisner’s husband Don announced his candidacy in the ensuing special election and was quickly backed by the County Executive and four Council Members: Phil Andrews, Marc Elrich, Duchy Trachtenberg and Roger Berliner. The four had already operated as a loose coalition around the idea of restricting development, and Elrich and Berliner had worked closely together to reintroduce policy area review in the 2007 growth policy. Backed by the Executive and four incumbents, Mr. Praisner defeated Nancy Navarro in a close race and joined the council in May.

The five Council Members who had cooperated in the special election now had a working majority and set out to govern for the remainder of the term. One question to be answered was who would get to serve as Council President. Phil Andrews was then Vice-President and was thereby scheduled to become President in 2009. Mr. Praisner, who only intended to serve out the rest of his wife’s term, and Marc Elrich were not interested in the office. That left Roger Berliner and Duchy Trachtenberg, both freshmen.

2. Hillmead
Shortly after the 2008 special election, the issue of Hillmead Park in Bethesda came to the County Council. Hillmead Park was a 4.3 acre park off Bradley Boulevard. A departing resident owned a 1.3 acre property adjacent to the park, and after a failed attempt to develop it, decided to sell it to the county so that it could be added to the park. But some in county government believed that the large residence on the property could be used to house homeless people while the remaining land could be added to the park. The neighbors bitterly protested that idea and wanted to tear the house down rather than share the park addition with homeless people in temporary housing. Their District Council Member, Roger Berliner, stood with them. Other Council Members preferred to devote the house to the homeless instead.

Shortly before the issue was decided, word spread in the council building that Berliner had secured five votes for a teardown. One of those votes came from Duchy Trachtenberg, who later received Berliner’s support for her eventual candidacy as a presiding officer. So the next two Presidents were set: Berliner and Trachtenberg, with each backing the other. Berliner, who is better liked by his colleagues than the often difficult Trachtenberg, went first and became Vice-President in December 2008. Trachtenberg was then due to become Vice-President in December 2009 and rise to President in the first year of the next term.

But the plan went awry when Mr. Praisner passed away almost a year to the day after his wife. Now there would be a second special election. The two leading candidates were Nancy Navarro and District 19 Delegate Ben Kramer, who was endorsed by Ike Leggett and Duchy Trachtenberg. Trachtenberg worked hard for Kramer, standing in for him at debates and praising him in mailers, because she knew that her chance to be President rested on his election. Navarro, on the other hand, was endorsed by the four Council Members who were not part of the prior majority: Valerie Ervin, George Leventhal, Nancy Floreen and Mike Knapp. When Navarro won in the tightest of tight races, Trachtenberg emerged as one of the biggest losers. Berliner also lost out since he endorsed Mr. Praisner over Navarro in 2008 and did not endorse Navarro when he had the chance in 2009.

So now Vice-President Berliner may not automatically become Council President next year because he has a potential rival for the job, one who has a leg up on putting together the necessary five votes to win. We will find out who that is in Part Three.

Update: Council Member Berliner called to strongly deny that there was any link between the Hillmead vote and any discussion with Trachtenberg or anyone else about the Council Presidency. “There is not a shred of truth to it,” he told us. “Never, ever, ever was there a conversation about it – implicit, explicit or anything else.”