Seven months into the job, the first Howard County Council ever to have a Republican majority appears long on symbolism and short on action.
But it is symbolism with clout.
Just before adopting the budget for the new fiscal year, the council managed to alienate the school board, give people the jitters about fire protection and foster angst within the arts community -- all without cutting any money.
"The debate over arts funding, the fire service flap and whatever we did at the end with the Board of Education -- that was not so much a change of the budget as it was the sending of a message," says west Columbia Democrat Mary C. Lorsung. "It was a clear indication of an ideological shift."
And a power shift, as well. The five-member council's three Republicans left no doubt that they now control the county purse strings and know how to pull them. Their message to department heads is this: "Pay attention. We have the power to help you or hurt you."
The arts council budget survived intact this year, but all bets are off for next year, when Republican Darrel Drown of Ellicott City is expected to succeed GOP patriarch Charles C. Feaga of West Friendship as council chairman.
Earlier this year, Mr. Drown warned that he will be examining the Arts Council budget very closely. The Baltimore Museum of Art would have been better off had it never sent him a print of the Andy Warhol painting "Rorschach," Mr. Drown told his colleagues.
He ridiculed the pop artist's depiction of one of the inkblot slides used in the psychological test, saying, "I'm going to have a hard time supporting these grants."
Republican Dennis R. Schrader of Kings Contrivance seems to have his eye on the county's Consumer Affairs office. He wondered aloud in a budget hearing about whether it was necessary.
The office survived, but it will be under scrutiny.
The fire service was Mr. Feaga's target. He objected to a 2-cent increase in the metropolitan fire tax rate, saying the tax might not be needed if the fire service were more efficient.
His suggestion that it might be appropriate to let a building burn sometimes "if there is no risk of loss of life" virtually ensured passage of the new fire tax rate. But he appears to have accomplished his larger goal of putting the Fire Department's future funding requests under a microscope.
All three Republicans are watching the school board. Mr. Drown complained early in the budget cycle that he didn't see a commitment from school board members to reduce administrative positions.
On May 19, the day of the budget vote, the three Republicans moved $85,951 earmarked for a new high school instructional director elsewhere in the schools budget.
School board Chairwoman Susan J. Cook is still smarting. "I'm a Republican, but it is very difficult dealing with this council," she says.
The big difference between this and previous councils is the current panel's "eagerness to tell school board people who we should hire and what positions we should get rid of," Ms. Cook says.
Losing that prerogative was bad enough, she says, but worse was the Republican majority's "accusatory tone" -- the implication that the school board cannot be trusted to manage its budget.
Ms. Cook has been meeting with individual council members recently to change that perception. "What I'm trying to do now," she says, "is find some way to build bridges and develop trust again."
East Columbia Democrat C. Vernon Gray says the Republicans had a right to do what they did with the schools budget, but he objects to the way they did it.
"It was rather egregious after we had decided the school budget to come back two days later and make a decision that no one else knew about and was never discussed in a work session," he says.
"Charlie Feaga has the viewpoint that he and Darrel can decide things and share them with Dennis. If the three of them want to get together and make decisions, that's fine. But do it in public. Do it in a public forum involving all five council members."
Mr. Feaga is amused. He and Mr. Drown could have said the same thing when they were in the minority and Mr. Gray was chairman.
"Politics are politics," Mr. Feaga says. "We don't necessarily have everything planned, but we all talk privately."
Scheduling called improved
"Our scheduling is improved, our meetings run much, much faster and things move more swiftly. . . . We're the first council ready to face up to the [county's mounting] debt. We're a little quicker to tell the public we cannot spend as in the past. It's not something you cure in a hurry."
Telling the public that spending habits must change and actually changing them, however, are two different things, as council members well know. They announced in April their commitment to become a paradigm of frugality, but the example they intended to set has yet to materialize.
The ceiling they planned to impose on the salaries of their appointed aides quickly became the salary minimum. Three council aides now make $38,427 a year -- the ceiling for newly hired aides -- and two earn $39,382. One of the two was hired at the same time last year that the other new aides were hired.
"I'm disappointed that the salaries are not 100 percent within the guidelines" established in April, Mr. Feaga said.
"I really believe the aides should have a salary freeze -- just as council members do. If they can find better-paying jobs, they should take them."
Despite the run-ins with the school board, the Republican council "runs more smoothly, is more open and friendly and is easier to work with" than its Democratic predecessors, says Allan Kittleman, chairman of the county GOP Central Committee.
Feaga's work praised
"Charlie Feaga has done a great job making things fair. And the council had done a good job on the county budget and the school budget. They are working better with [Republican Howard County Executive] Chuck Ecker."
Carole Fisher, Mr. Kittleman's Democratic counterpart, disagrees. She says the council's "confrontation with the school board and negative publicity surrounding the fire tax
have worked against good feelings within the community."
Ms. Lorsung and Mr. Schrader, newcomers who have yet to experience the kind of partisan brawls that characterized the previous council, say their experience on this one is collegial, and differences among members have more to do with personality than politics.
"I don't think in terms of Republicans and Democrats," Mr. Schrader says. "We all have a very good working relationship." He points to the council's unanimous passage last week of all but one of Mr. Gray's many amendments to an administration bill as a sign of the council's harmony.
Ms. Lorsung says the fact that Republicans sometimes don't include her in the decision-making is not a cause for worry.
"There are certain sorts of things that are done with less consultation," she says. "We're still in a shakedown as to how this council's going to work. I do not perceive that as Mary Lorsung, Democrat, I am not being asked about things.
Has no problem
"On a personal level, I have no problem connecting with other council members," she says. "The more collegial you are, the better your product is. I don't see a lot of our dynamics as highly partisan. I might be a little concerned if we were a lot more partisan."
L. Scott Muller, a Marriottsville community activist who has lobbied both this council and the past council to bring public water to his neighborhood, says it is too early to evaluate this council.
"I believe in a concept of responsibility that says you take responsibility for yourself and for society," he says. "The Republican philosophy preached in Washington seems to be that if everybody is responsible for themselves, there is no need to be responsible for society.
"But so far, this council seems willing to think, listen and make their own decisions."