Civility is aim of political officials

Democrats, GOP say County Council mood cooperative this term

May 30, 1999|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Although Wednesday's budget vote highlighted a tax increase dispute between Democrats and Republicans on the Howard County Council, the theme for this four-year term is civility, members say.

That willingness to bypass partisan rhetoric may have been hard to detect in the televised voting session, with the two new Republicans voting against any Democrat-proposed tax increase. But a smaller meeting a bit earlier was more revealing.

The three first-term members and Chairman C. Vernon Gray -- two Republicans and two Democrats -- talked about asking County Executive James N. Robey for more than $200,000 in unbudgeted contingency funds to hire five more council staffers. But it was veteran Democrat Mary C. Lorsung -- not a fiscally conservative Republican -- who quashed the impulse.

"The idea of asking for money for creating new positions outside the budget shouldn't be done, period. It's extremely bad public policy," she said, especially when the county's contingency fund is normally used for urgent things such as storm emergency cleanups.

It's not about politics this time, says Howard's freshman-heavy class of elected officials. This term, they say, will be kinder, gentler and with less rancor than before.

So far, that seems to be working for all the players, including Howard County's sacred cow -- its vaunted school system -- which again this year had politicians of both parties competing for ways to provide more money for class reduction and special education programs.

As a result, school officials can brag about the $22.2 million, 10 percent funding increase they got, council members can crow about their dedication to education, and Robey can talk of his attempt to provide for all county needs while trying to prevent tax increases.

The enduring outcome, all hope, will be a quieter, calmer political process than Howard has been used to.

"I really don't think we're being political," said Ellicott City Republican Christopher J. Merdon. "We're not saying the Democrats are bad people. It was important for us to stay on the issues and not launch any personal attacks. That's a goal of ours for the next four years."

Guy J. Guzzone, a Laurel-Savage Democrat and another freshman, is striving for the same.

"I can tell you I have been pleading with everyone to face issues as issues and not as party rhetoric," he said. "I really want to work with them [Republicans]."

Even Gray, an east Columbia Democrat and veteran political warrior, says the mood has changed since the last term. "I was a little surprised with the nonconfrontational stance they [the GOP] took. When you're in the minority, you have to work together."

Robey, another newcomer, agrees that cooperation, not acrimony, is everyone's goal, including his.

Behind the public-spirited sentiments lurk the old political instincts, however.

Merdon and Allan H. Kittleman, a western county Republican, opposed the Democrats' plan to increase the property tax 2 cents to raise $1.6 million more for schools. They proposed cutting other departments to raise the money. But they also voted against Robey's proposal to raise the county's separate fire property tax 3 cents to make the fire service self-supporting again, arguing that the general budget should be cut if the fire tax is going up.

Democrats griped privately that the GOP plan was purely a political ploy because even Kittleman acknowledged a majority was lacking, making it an academic exercise at best. And voting against raising the fire tax would have meant another $2 million hole in the county budget.

Besides, Democrats argue that cutting other department budgets is wrong because they're still recovering from recession-driven cutbacks. They add that Republicans aren't immune to raising taxes either, noting then-Republican County Executive Charles I. Ecker's $125 annual trash fee, enacted in 1996. Ecker also pushed through an income tax cut last year, however, that will help offset most of this year's property tax increases.

Merdon said the Republicans felt they had to propose an alternative to the tax increase to show they weren't political opportunists. "Too many times politicians don't offer a plan," he said.

Ultimately, the council unanimously approved a $685 million budget Wednesday, though votes on the tax increases to fund it were partisan 3-2 splits.

Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a former county executive and council member and a loyal Democrat, thinks the new GOP attitude "might be a wise strategy for getting back into the majority," given the unpopularity of the vitriolic relations over the past four to eight years.

County Republican Chairman Louis M. Pope has just that in mind.

"I don't think the public wants to see a rancorous debate between the parties," he said, noting that the Republicans had internal disputes as well.

"That was the No. 1 thing that cost us the election -- the nonunified party," he said, referring to the divisive primary contest for county executive last year between former Councilmen Dennis R. Schrader and Charles C. Feaga. "I don't think you'll see that in 2002," he said.

When all is said and done, former executive and county school administrator Ecker said, the seeds of conflict aren't political, but are embedded in an independent school board that depends financially on the county government.

"I don't think it's party -- it's the state law that sets up an adversarial situation," he said.

County residents, of course, have to decide what is a principled stand and what is political rhetoric. Sometimes, that's a tough call.

"Who knows? How do you ever know the answer?" Bobo said.

Pub Date: 5/30/99

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