Monday, August 09, 2010

Isn’t it Time for a Change?

Take a group of intelligent, caring and ambitious people. Throw them in a room and watch them rip each other to pieces. When they come out, see them explain that there’s nothing wrong and everything is great. Then send them back into the room and watch them go absolutely banana-cakes. Is this Reality TV?

No folks, it’s the Montgomery County Council! And the four at-large incumbents want you to watch this episode one more time.

Sit down with any member of the County Council. When you do, you will be likely to find a smart person with principles, at least a couple genuine policy objectives and a desire to perform well in the job. When you ask about why this Council Member entered politics, he or she will cite noble reasons – perhaps serving their neighbors, or helping the county grow intelligently, or seeking social justice. And this person will be telling the truth. Aside from perhaps one or two, the Council Members are not faking their beliefs.

But as a group, they are definitely less – MUCH less – than the sum of their parts. In public, the behavior of several of these Council Members has been appalling. Anyone who has regularly attended council sessions over the last four years knows this to be true. When one Council Member speaks, one or more of the others roll their eyes, make faces or exchange snickering whispers. The feuding of some members and their staffs, organized as nine wary fiefdoms, has been petty enough to shock thirteen-year-olds. The pitched wars that they waged over the special elections made the Battle of the Bulge look like a water-gun fight. Some will hold up each other’s good ideas just out of personal dislike or insecurity. On one occasion, one Council Member became so irritated by another that she actually walked out on a vote. And they richly deserved the label “Drama Queens of Rockville” after the hysteria of last year’s Council Presidency vote.

It was not always this way. Consider the last council, which served from 2002 through 2006. That council was borne of an ugly election in which two slates exchanged some of the most negative propaganda in county history. But after the election, the Council Members quickly found a way to work together. Consider who populated their ranks. Republican Howie Denis was a happy warrior who was liked by nearly everybody. Tom Perez was ambitious and clearly moving up, but he was also charismatic, pragmatic and focused on a liberal agenda that he truly believed in. Marilyn Praisner was a paragon of ethics and hard work. She may not have been universally liked, but she was universally respected. And while Steve Silverman was resented by some in the civic community, he was also an agile deal-maker who could step up and lead. Now all of them are gone. And for all their strengths as individuals, today’s incumbents have not found a way to continue the collegiality of the past. Instead, some of them (but not all) have repeatedly descended into the trenches of mud in ways that have heaped disrepute on their institution. Nearly everyone who deals with them has noticed.

Why did some Council Members behave the way they did? Because nobody could stop them: not the County Executive, not the staff, not the advocates, not anybody. There was no accountability and they ran wild. But those days are over because accountability is finally here: to the voters. And suddenly, the at-large incumbents are standing shoulder to shoulder. All the disputes of the past that were, according to them, never about personality or ego but rather about policy and grand principle are now forgotten. So were they not fighting over principle back then or have they sacrificed their principles now on the altar of re-election?

There is one huge problem with the at-large incumbents’ image of harmony: it’s an illusion. At least three of them want to run for County Executive in 2014. If all four are re-elected, they will be at each other’s throats the day after the primary. That means things could actually be worse in the next term than they have been in this one. Albert Einstein once defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Do the incumbents know something that Einstein did not?

All of the at-large incumbents have their fans. All have something to offer. (Well, OK, most of them.) And depending on your point of view, each can mount a credible case for re-election. Perhaps most of them deserve to return. But your favorite incumbent, whoever it is, will never be able to maximize his or her effectiveness on a future council as dominated – or maybe even more dominated – by pettiness, feuding, politics, back-stabbing and turf wars as the current one. This cycle must be broken and we are skeptical that this group of incumbents is capable of doing it without new blood.

Isn’t it time for a change? Think about it.