Four-term Ward 1 Laurel City Council member Janis Robison, whose final term ended at Monday's City Council meeting, credits an argument with the formidable Frank Casula as launching her into political office.
Casula, whose three-decade political career included being elected mayor of Laurel in 1994, didn't see eye-to-eye with Robison on the development of a corner of Montgomery Street and Sandy Spring Road. Robison, a Montgomery Street resident, was in favor of a proposal to build townhouses; Casula, who lived in the upscale Villages of Wellington development, was in favor of allowing a strip shopping center with a liquor store. Robison said she asked Casula if he would want a strip mall in his neighborhood.
"We had a heated discussion," Robison, 61, said. "I said (to Casula), you know what, I think I'm going to run for City Council and just drive you insane."
Robison said Casula encouraged her to do just that.
"He died before I could run," Robison said. But run she did, winning her first seat in Ward 1 in March 2002.
At Monday's meeting, Robison, who decided not to run for re-election this year because of health problems, was lauded by Mayor Craig Moe and council members, who commended her dedication to improving the city, and her friendliness and sense of humor.
"She is one of the most dedicated people I know," Moe said before the meeting. "She works behind the scenes and quietly — without the fanfare."
Moe said Robison called him during a winter snowstorm, while she was not feeling well, to ask him how she could help the city's efforts. She created friendships by swapping books she had read with city employees, and would call and check on city workers and constituents who might be sick, Moe said.
While he and Robison didn't always agree, Moe said they could talk things out and come to a compromise.
"I'll miss Jan," he said.
On the road
Early in her council career, Robison formed a partnership with Ward 2 Council member Frederick Smalls, a partnership they humorously called the "Fred and Jan on the road show."
Smalls said he enjoyed working with Robison.
"She and I did a lot of things, not just in the city, but around the county together," he said. "We worked together as a great pair."
Smalls said they traveled together to neighboring municipalities when they both served on the Prince George's County Municipal Association, a chapter of the Maryland Municipal League.
Smalls said Robison drafted him to work on her "Keep Kids Alive, Drive 25" safety campaign, and the pair visited schools in Laurel to pitch the program.
Shortly after Robison was elected, Smalls said the two worked together to build a bridge between Laurel's growing Latino community and the city government, which led the pair to encourage changes in the city, such as hiring a bilingual, Spanish-speaking receptionist for the Laurel Municipal Center.
"Jan genuinely cares about the city; her heart is really in the city of Laurel," Smalls said. "She has been committed for nine years to making our city a better place. And it's not just Ward 1 but the entire city."
Robison moved to Laurel in the early 1970s with her husband, John, after he finished a career in the Navy. They moved into a house that her husband's grandfather had built.
"I was mostly unhappy when we got here," Robison said. She said her mother told her she needed to get involved.
"Now I can't image living any place else," Robison said.
She and her husband have been married 39 years and have a son, John.
Robison suffers from amyloidosis, a non-cancerous bone marrow disease that has a diagnosis and treatment similar to cancer and has required her to take chemotherapy treatment.
She said when first elected, being a council member "wasn't a bit like I thought it would be. There were a few things I wanted to do, and thought I could just make a proposal and get it done."
Now, she says she is leaving with things still to be done.
"I'm leaving before I really want to, but my health is so, that it has to be," Robison said.
After city department heads, council members and the mayor had presented Robison with plaques and gifts at her final council meeting, including a framed portrait of Avondale Mill, a teary-eyed Robison addressed the near-capacity crowd in the council chambers.
"It's not a choice I made easily," Robison said. "The support I've gotten from council members and the city staff has been absolutely wonderful."