Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Hard Hats and Small Politics in Rockville

What does the mock hard hat below have to do with the current relationship between Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett and the County Council? Quite a bit, actually.

At last week’s unveiling of the new Silver Spring library, Executive Branch staff handed out the above hats calling for a pedestrian bridge between the Wayne Avenue parking garage and the library. (Just Up the Pike posted a picture showing the director of the library system holding one of the hats.) Leggett advocated for the bridge to enable greater accessibility for disabled people. The County Council voted down the bridge in July by 8-1, with George Leventhal dissenting, citing the bridge’s $750,000 cost and the fact that the library was ADA-compliant without it. There is no indication that the council will reverse that vote in the near future, if ever. But Leggett made a point of noting that the building’s design would accommodate the bridge and had the above hats passed out to make a point: namely, that he is right and the council is wrong. Advocates for the disabled, who favor the bridge, are no doubt applauding.

We express no opinion on the merits of the bridge, but this episode is part of an evolving pattern of the Executive’s budgetary conduct and his relations with the County Council. On the one hand, Ike Leggett is definitely running for a second term as a fiscal conservative. There is no question that he has moved to limit the growth of spending to match the county’s anemic revenues, as he is required to do by law. The FY 2010 operating budget recently passed by the County Council contains the first tax-supported budget cut since FY 1992. But Leggett also negotiated the most recent union contracts with MCGEO, the Fire Fighters and the Police that have been criticized by Council President Phil Andrews and others as unaffordable. And the council trimmed $20 million from Leggett’s charter-limit-breaking tax increase in 2008 at the behest of Andrews, Duchy Trachtenberg and Roger Berliner, all of whom believed “labor savings” were important at that early stage of the budget crisis.

At the same time that Leggett is preaching fiscal conservatism, he is supporting small but prominent spending items sometimes aimed at noisy constituencies. The Silver Spring library pedestrian bridge, which appeals to the disabled, is one example. Two others include the $150,000 appropriation for Sligo Creek Golf Course, which was approved by the council, and the new police helicopters, which will probably never get council approval. Leggett shows no sign of backing off on the bridge or the helicopters despite their massive unpopularity with the council. This is smart politics since small, highly motivated constituencies make for excellent field soldiers in an election. But some Council Members will see this as little more than posturing that is inconsistent with the Executive’s attempts to acquire the high ground on the issue of fiscal prudence. It is the council, after all, that has the responsibility for deciding the ultimate fate of the budget.

And so when Ike Leggett’s people pass out “Build the Library Bridge” hats, they are poking eight Council Members in the eye over an issue that has already been decided. That has not escaped their notice. Leggett is still the Executive, and likely will still be the Executive after 2010, but his current politics of going small will only shrink his political capital with the council.