Friday, December 04, 2009

Drama Queens of Rockville

Following is the transcript of the nominations, discussion and election of the new Council President on Tuesday and an editor’s note.

Marc Elrich

I’m happy to nominate my colleague and friend, Roger Berliner, for the office of Council President. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Roger for three years now and I see Roger as the best possible candidate in the worst possible year. Roger brings to this office, I think, a commitment to work with all of the Council Members and to further communication and cooperation among all of the Council Members, which I think is going to be critical as we face what is sure to be a daunting fiscal challenge. Hard times often lead to enormous amounts of stress and, I think, Roger is one of the most unflappable and calmest people that I’ve had the pleasure of working with. And I think that is a quality and a skill that will be really needed in the next council.

We need leadership without regard to factions or groups and what I see in Roger is that his words and deeds qualify him for that role. From the beginning, his M.O. has been to strive to bring people together and I’m confident that if he’s our Council President he’ll bring us the leadership we need so we do all come together. There’s long been a council precedent that the previous year’s Vice President succeeds to be President and I see no reason not to continue that tradition and certainly no reason has been offered why we should not. Three years ago, I supported Mike Knapp to be Vice-President and two years ago I supported him for President. I didn’t do that because Mike was a member of a faction. I did it regardless of political differences because I recognized that he was both capable and qualified for the job. More importantly, I think I and my colleagues recognize it was more important to move beyond factionalism, particularly as the challenges we faced deepened. And I think the council is well-served by that decision.

In the same spirit, I nominate Roger, not because he is a member of a faction. And I think realistically, what do factions mean when 90% of the votes on this council are unanimous? And when they aren’t unanimous, you’d be hard put to figure out how the five-member majority or the six-member majority ever got put together out of the factions which are more fluid than real. I think Roger is a person we can trust, that we can trust him to work with all of us, and that he will put the good of the county above all else. And that in these difficult times is what I think we need from a President. And with that, I am happy to put his name in nomination.

Phil Andrews

Thank you Council Member Elrich. Council Member Ervin’s light was on for the previous comment, so before I call on Council Member Knapp, lust let me recognize that Joan Kleinman is here from Congressman Van Hollen’s office. Nice to see you. And we have the Mayor of Kensington, Pete Fosselman, here as well. And there may be other elected officials, I’ll keep an eye out for them as I look around. But Council Member Knapp is next.

Mike Knapp

Thank you, Mr. President. I would like to Council Member Floreen to serve as the Council President. It has been my pleasure over the last seven years to have served with Nancy in a variety of roles. Nancy has served this county for the better part of the last thirty years, serving as Mayor of Garrett Park, serving two terms on the Planning Board, serving seven years on the County Council and being just an all-around civic activist when she wasn’t actually elected to something. I have always been impressed with Nancy’s focus in that when you get to this side of the dais, there are lots and lots of issues. There are lots of things that can distract, lots of things that can deter.

And Nancy was elected, her interests were in transportation, her interests were in planning, her interests were in economic development. She became the Chair of the Transportation and Environment, Infrastructure, Energy… there we go, that one… because she knew that was the place where she could make the most difference as it related to transportation. She’s been dogged in her pursuits of that as a goal. She is current serving as the Vice-Chair for Transit for the National Association of Counties for Transportation Steering Committee. She has served on COG in various transportation capacities. She has served in our state to advocate at the state legislature. She has served to advocate at the federal government to make sure that people understand the needs of transportation in Montgomery County and the needs of transportation more broadly. Nancy also recognized the importance of making sure that what we’re doing is sustainable and focusing on the environment and she has, as I was Chair of the Council of Governments, she served as the Chair of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments Climate Change Steering Committee, which tried to make sure that we as a region have a set of priorities and principles that will guide us moving into the future. She has focused very broadly on these issues that she knows are important and these issues that she knows are critical to our county.

But she also takes time to look at those other things. A woman who has raised her family, has held a career, she also understood the importance of making sure that… how do we make sure that we set the path for those who are coming behind us? And so she chaired the Girls and Technology Task Force a few years ago to make sure that girls who were growing up in this environment are prepared to be leaders going into the future. In addition to that, she focuses on her efforts on the Jewish Council on Aging, Habitat for Humanity and Strathmore Hall Foundation to make sure that we’re looking at not just transportation and planning but we’re also looking at the quality of life for our residents. Nancy has been committed to this community for a long time and the leadership that she brings and the focus that she has I think will serve us very, very well in the year to come given the challenges that we will face. And so with that, it is my pleasure to nominate Nancy Floreen for Council President.

Phil Andrews

Thank you very much, Council Member Knapp. Are there any other nominations for Council President? Seeing none, the nominations are closed and I’ll call on Council Members who would like to make any comments. Council Member Trachtenberg.

Duchy Trachtenberg

Thank you, President Andrews. I’m offering this morning public support for my friend and colleague, Vice-President Berliner for the Presidency of the Montgomery County Council. Council Member Berliner has represented District 1, my home town, with distinction and character. He has been gracious, collegial and productive in all his endeavors here at the council. Council Vice-President Berliner has earned his place as an officer on this dais and he should be afforded the opportunity to serve as our Council President. Several weeks back, when interviewed by the media, I stated that it was my belief that the council would come together during this election process. I had truly hoped that we would, embracing the institution and respecting the urgency of the people’s business.

Sadly, I was mistaken, because I believe that political ambition apparently has replaced the fundamental civility and congenial dialogue that were always hallmarks of this County Council for forty years. Instead, some decisions apparently today that will be made will forever change the manner in which the people’s business is addressed. At a time when the public has a right to expect responsible and responsive leadership, in an unprecedented time of fiscal peril, apparently, there are some that are more concerned at unelecting certain other colleagues.

I am so, so disappointed with those who think that a council seat or a leadership slot is designed for political punishment of political opponents rather than constructive and effective representation of the public at large. There are very important implications of today’s potential rejection of a forty year tradition of electing a sitting Vice-President as the new Council President the first Tuesday in December.

First off, the abuse of this process will undoubtedly convince the voters in this county to start electing the Council President every four years in a general election. Why leave it in the hands of squabbling Council Members who will flap in the winds of political expediency? Secondly, having access to raw political power is not equal to exercising real leadership. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.

We are at a serious moment in the history of this council that has been served by many giants, Norman Christeller, Idamae Garrott, Sid Kramer, Neal Potter, Esther Gelman, Ike Leggett and Marilyn Praisner among them. I recall quite vividly the care and thoughtfulness that went into Council President Praisner’s decisions about the committees here at the council on key leadership roles right at the beginning of this present term. Marilyn, in a five to four council configuration, after an electoral battle centered on growth and development, could have easily played the power cards handed her with the new majority. Instead, she exercised leadership with a firm but fair hand. She chose to unify this council by making sure that each Council Member had opportunities to shine no matter their political or policy stripes. In fact, I recall the effort that she put into the selection of the Vice-President, offering the opportunity not to a political ally, but rather to a colleague with very divergent views from her own.

I often refer to the large stack of papers, articles and hand-written notes that Marilyn left to me the night before her surgery. I rarely share these treasures as I’ve saved them for special times. They are used sparingly and in moments of crisis. Over the weekend, I read one more time the following words inscribed on page eleven of Marilyn’s testament. “Don’t give in to petty and cruel politics. Keep smiling and don’t forget why you came to the council office building.” That’s kept me going through today and will keep me going tomorrow as well. I will reach deep into my soul to continue my work on behalf of the people of Montgomery County. And Mr. Vice-President, Roger, I know you will too. I am pleased and proud to support your nomination this morning.

Phil Andrews

Thank you, Council Member Trachtenberg, and I’ll make a brief comment and then we’ll vote on the nominations. I believe that every member of this body has the potential and could serve well as Council President. I’m going to vote for my colleague, Council Vice-President Berliner. He has served very ably as Council Vice-President. As I described a little earlier, he is very well positioned to take the council through a very difficult year and I believe that it would be better for the council to follow the precedent that it has followed over the years, barring an extraordinary reason not to, which I do not see present at all in this case. So my vote is a vote for, not a vote against, and I would just say that.

With that, we are ready to vote on the nominations. All those… we’ll take them in the order they were nominated. All those in favor of Council Vice-President Roger Berliner to serve as Council President, please raise your hand. And that is Council Member Elrich, Council Member Trachtenberg, myself as Council Vice-President Berliner. All those in favor of Council Member Floreen to serve as President, please raise your hands. That is Council Member Navarro, Council Member Floreen, Council Member Knapp, Council Member Ervin and Council Member Leventhal. Council Member Floreen is elected Council President. Congratulations. And now Council Member Floreen will Chair…

Nancy Floreen

According to the script…

Phil Andrews

Yes, you’re now the Chair. I don’t think we have to change seats yet, you conduct the next nomination…

Nancy Floreen

The next item on the agenda is the…

Roger Berliner

Madam Chair, if I could, before we get to the nominations for Vice-President?

Nancy Floreen

Of course.

Roger Berliner

Thanks. Thank you, Madam Chair. President. My colleagues, the majority has spoken. The majority rules, but regrettably, not always wisely. And I do believe abandoning a fifty year tradition that has served us well is most unwise. I am not alone in thinking this way. Our council has received strong protests from homeowner associations, Democratic precinct chairs, and scores of individuals from throughout the county urging my colleagues to set aside their individual grievances to the larger, common good. And the Washington Post and the Gazette have both expressed their strong views that the majority has taken us into dangerous waters where might is right.

That has not been Montgomery County’s way. We take understandable pride in a different kind of politics here. Not this kind. This is bad politics and even worse governance. I certainly appreciate that our first three years have been marked by unprecedented tragedies. First, Marilyn’s death, from which we never recovered. Then her husband’s. And with Council Member Navarro’s election, it is said, and this vote appears to confirm, that there is a new majority. Elections matter, I am told. And I agree.

But the election that matters in this context is not the special election of my colleague but rather the earlier election when we elected a Vice-President. It is that election that had always determined our Council Presidency. Today’s vote was always a formality. Abandoning that tradition and effectively overturning that unanimous decision destabilizes and further politicizes this institution we serve and does a disservice to our county.

Moreover, it is not as though the new majority is without ample means to demonstrate that elections matter, whether on how or where we grow, or other issues. Legislation requires five votes. They have five votes. They have the power. Already, four of the five members hold powerful committee chairmanships. That’s power. And today, they could have used their power to elect a Vice-President that more closely reflects their point of view, someone who would become Council President in the first year of a new term. That’s power. But apparently, that is not enough power. And that’s where I believe the majority errs. It should have been enough.

A number of my colleagues have expressed their unhappiness with me before standing up in defense of the tradition that has served us so well. I do not apologize for it. I did not seek this debate, I did not want this division, I have a deep and abiding commitment to finding common ground, which my record on this council reflects. But this is wrong. And I have a fundamentally different view from those of my colleagues who have suggested abandoning a fifty year practice that determines the leadership of our council as a private matter. It is most assuredly not a private matter. It is by definition a very public issue. And if the light cast by the public nature of this debate has not been flattering, please do not blame the messengers.

And one message that has come through loud and clear is that this is an issue that many of my constituents in District 1 feel strongly about. They have never had a Council President since districts were first created more than twenty years ago. This was their turn too. So I am not sorry, I am not sorry for standing my ground and fighting for what so many perceive to be the long-term welfare of our institution or simple fairness for my constituents. This clearly is not an auspicious beginning for what is going to be a very difficult year. Going forward, my commitment is the same as it has always been: to represent the good people of District 1 and all of our county to the best of my ability, to fight hard for a sustainable future for all of us, and to work in good spirit, to find common ground. I thank my colleagues and the many residents of our county who hoped for a different outcome. Thank you.

Editor’s Note: The reason why no District 1 (Bethesda-Potomac-Chevy Chase) Council Member has been Council President since districts were created in 1990 is that it was served by two Republicans - Betty Ann Krahnke (1990-2000) and Howard Denis (2000-2006) - prior to Roger Berliner’s election. District 1 residents knew neither Republican would be President and voted for them anyway. Numerous at-large Council Members who have lived in District 1 have served as Council President, including Chevy Chase resident Neal Potter (1974, 1979, 1982), Bethesda resident Norman Christeller (1976), Chevy Chase resident Scott Fosler (1980), Potomac resident Esther Gelman (1984), Bethesda resident Bruce Adams (1992) and Potomac resident Gail Ewing (1996). Nancy Floreen, who lives in Garrett Park, is a District 1 resident.

In any event, the argument that a district must claim the Presidency for its parochial interest is an unusual one for a Council Member to make. The job of Council President is to represent the entire county. None of the recent District Council Members who became President - including Tom Perez, Marilyn Praisner, Mike Knapp and Phil Andrews - made a case for their assuming the office based on where they lived, and none tried to use the office to bring special benefits to their districts.

Also, we find Berliner’s invocation of "bad politics" ironic considering what has gone on in the past. In 2000, Berliner ran against former Planning Board Member Pat Baptiste in a District 1 Democratic special election primary. Baptiste defeated Berliner, but was in turn defeated by Denis for the council seat. Berliner’s allies ran a tough campaign against Baptiste that was lambasted by none other than Neal Potter, a six-term County Council Member and former County Executive with an unimpeachable record of integrity. According to the Gazette:

"I have never known a Democratic candidate to be so desperate as to wage a hatchet job against a fellow Democrat," Potter wrote, referring to Berliner. "And after 38 years of public service, I hope that this is not the future of politics in Montgomery County."