Despite vows last year to avoid partisan political fights, a nasty one has developed between Howard County's two Republican councilmen and Democratic County Executive James N. Robey that threatens prospects for future cooperation.
The fight started during Friday's voting session on the budget when the council's two Republicans said they felt Robey misled them during budget negotiations and went back on his word several times.
"It's trust, a lack of trust," said Ellicott City Republican Christopher J. Merdon after the meeting in which the council eventually approved the $755 million budget for the next fiscal year.
"We wanted to make it clear to the county executive that we want to work with him and rely on his word," Merdon said about comments from him and fellow Republican Allan H. Kittleman, who represents western Howard.
Kittleman's comment during the voting session that "I don't like going into a room feeling I had to bring a tape recorder" riled Robey the most, but the councilman said later that he was not accusing Robey of lying and hopes they can repair their relationship.
That seemed doubtful, based on Robey's response.
"The gloves are coming off," the angry executive vowed after watching Kittleman and Merdon accuse him of promising one thing and doing another during negotiations over next year's budget.
He accused them of "slandering" him and said, "I'm not going to take those kind of shots" from now on.
How far the hostilities will go isn't clear.
Despite the angry words, all parties said they don't want a political war. But Robey said he'll have a tape recorder running the next time he speaks to either Republican. Robey, who was a county police officer for 32 years, added Friday that "I've been in fights in bars before as a cop where I didn't get beat up as bad as today."
Merdon said he and Kittleman intended no partisan attack, noting cooperation with council Democrats this year. After last year's budget session, Merdon said the GOP wanted to cooperate with the Democrats for better government.
"It was important for us to stay on the issues and not launch any personal attacks. That's a goal of ours," he said last May.
The Republicans denied launching a partisan attack Friday, saying that they were merely standing up for themselves and letting the public know what was happening.
They said they believed Robey had agreed to their proposal to raise development permit fees, to change a spending cap on one category of the education capital budget and to produce a list of potential public works budget cuts so money could be shifted to schools.
Robey denied misleading anyone. He and Budget Director Raymond S. Wacks only agreed they would not oppose the fee increases. They did not agree to support them, he said. Similarly, Wacks said he only agreed to examine the spending cap on school renovations.
Robey said he did get a list of possible public works cuts and gave it to two Democratic council members. But he said he never agreed to amend the budget to include that $1 million worth of cuts.
Merdon said he asked Public Works Director James Irvin about the cuts and never got a list. Irvin said he told Merdon that there would be no amendment to the budget.
"Why didn't he give it to us? Would you do that?" Kittleman said of the list.
Despite the accusations, Kittleman left the door open for a reconciliation. During the meeting, he speculated that he may have misunderstood Robey, and he praised the county executive for proposing a $15 million agricultural preservation program to save rural land in his district.
"I said what I feel is true. I have to be able to trust what an executive said," Kittleman said after the meeting. "I never said [Robey] was lying. I never would call him a liar."
But Councilman C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat, said that was exactly the impression he got, and he chastised the Republicans from the dais.
"I've been on this council for 18 years and I've never witnessed such a dastardly, partisan sneak attack, accusing the county executive of lying," Gray said. "It's unconscionable, and I'm sorry it happened."
The Republicans refused to back down, saying they had to tell the public what they believed had happened and let Robey know that he could not treat them poorly.
Later, Gray said, "the executive did what he was supposed to do." After he presents the budget to the council, the executive can't be expected to go back on his decisions, Gray argued. "It's our budget. We can raise fees if we want to."
Despite eight years under Republican County Executive Charles I. Ecker, Gray said, "I never launched a personal attack on Ecker."
Kittleman said he will call the executive and try to make sure the argument doesn't grow into a running battle.
Council Vice Chairman Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, expressed that hope, too.
"This was such a terrific budget year," he said, referring to cooperation among council members of both parties, the school board and Robey to give schools a 12-percent increase and provide the money to cut all first- and second-grade classes from 25 to 19 children.
"I expect we will continue to do that. Typically, I find that these kind of flare-ups are based on misunderstandings. Our responsibilities are more important than allowing misunderstandings to get in the way," he said.
Council Chairman Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat, summed up her feelings - and perhaps others' thoughts - as the voting session came to an end Friday.
"Frankly, I'm glad this budget process is over."