Council has GOP majority but predicts little change


Having a Republican majority on the County Council for the first time won't alter Howard County much, if at all, council members say.

Even Darrel Drown, the most optimistic of the three-member GOP bloc, said the best the party can hope for is to "nudge things in a certain direction."

That direction, hopes Mr. Drown, is toward simplifying government. "All the rules and regulations don't make our quality of life any better," he said. "I think we need to see what less government does.

It is a bipartisan theme.

"I hope we can have a task force look at county regulations and the county code as a first step toward streamlining government," said Democrat C. Vernon Gray, the outgoing council chairman ** who will begin his fourth council term Dec. 5.

"The issues confronting county government cannot be neatly packaged into Democratic issues and Republican issues," Mr. Gray said. "Those issues are county issues, and the votes are all over the place."

Mr. Gray noted, for example, that his bill prohibiting smoking in enclosed malls won support from the Republicans on the council two years ago, but not from Democrats. "I was able to work well with the executive and the Republicans on the council [the past four years] and I expect to continue to do that," he said.

Republican County Executive Charles I. Ecker said he does not expect a Republican council to be any more compliant than the Democratic council he worked with the past four years. "Local government is too important to be influenced by partisan politics," he said. "The Republicans on the last council didn't always agree with me and I don't expect unanimity on this one."

Newcomer Dennis Schrader, a 3rd District Republican, said his votes won't necessarily be based on partisan politics.

"During the campaign I worked with coalitions that transcended party lines and I expect to do the same thing on the council," Mr. Schrader said. "My style is to try to find answers to questions that affect citizens. No one said to me, 'Please run so we can have three Republicans on the council.' "

But the ability of council members to work together may be severely tested when the lawmakers begin work on the education portion of the county budget next spring. In the current fiscal year, public school spending accounts for 55 percent of the county's $315 million budget.

Mr. Drown and fellow Republican Charles C. Feaga may be more willing to cut the administrative portion of the school budget than Democrats Gray and Mary C. Lorsung -- leaving Mr. Schrader as a possible swing vote.

Mr. Schrader, who is director of operations of the University of Maryland Medical System, would like to apply some knowledge gained there to the county's education budget. "We in the health care industry have been involved in a process of unprecedented change in which we have sought to improve quality while lowering cost," he said.

Mr. Schrader would like the council and the Board of Education to work together more closely at the beginning of the budget process, rather than at the end. "The county has to do a five-year financial plan," he said. "We need to talk about the county's financial projections and our ability to fund [things such as schools] from our budget."

School Board Chairman Dana F. Hanna said he expects the budget process with the council to be more contentious next spring than last, but not because of a Republican majority on the council.

"Whenever there's a new council, it takes time to shake things out," he said. "They need to ask the hard questions and the citizens expect them to ask the hard questions."

Mr. Hanna said he believes the board can answer those questions to council members' satisfaction and that "the net effect will be little if any change in the bottom line."

But Mr. Feaga, a two-term incumbent expected to succeed Mr. Gray as council chairman Dec. 5, is not sure the bottom line will stay the same.

"I think it's important the education people know what kind of dollars we have to spend," he said. "We have great teachers and great employees [in other branches of county government] and we have to consider the needs of both."

Mr. Drown agreed. "Education will continue to be the highest percentage of our budget," he said, "but we will look closely at administrative and workshop expenditures."

The message that new council members heard from the voters " last week may not have been partisan, but it was a message of change, Mr. Drown said. "People nationwide were saying the system is broken and that you can't just tinker around the edges. They're saying, 'We want something done, and we want it done pronto.' "

One of the changes the new council is likely to make, members said, is to alter the public hearing process to make it, in Mr. Drown's words, "more effective, more user-friendly and less obtrusive."

The council needs to find a better way of listening to people, he said. "They want to be listened to, but they don't want to be listened to at 2 a.m.," during hours-long council sessions, he said.

If Mr. Feaga becomes council chairman as expected, he hopes to end late-night meetings by setting a deadline, limiting repetitive testimony and eliminating "grandstanding" on the part council members.

"We have a council that is going to get along well," he said. "If the council opts to make me chairman, I will see first that every council member has a good opportunity to express themselves and I will encourage council members not to do any grandstanding. It slowed down our process considerably [on the last council] in legislation, during zoning, and when we worked on the budget."

Mr. Feaga said he believes that the council can hear from more people in a shorter period of time if the council limits repetitive testimony. "We can speed the process up and have more people talking," he said.

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