Clerks who track the Baltimore County Council's decisions ventured into uncharted territory this week - the side of the tally sheet where "no" votes are recorded.
For the first time in recent memory, the council rejected a bill offered by one of its members, turning down a proposal by Councilman T. Bryan McIntire to limit the locations of gas stations near residential areas. The measure failed on a 4-3 vote Tuesday night.
"One person was supposed to be 100 percent behind it, and wound up being against it, and that was a surprise," said McIntire, a north county-Owings Mills Republican. "Obviously if I thought it was going to be defeated, I would have withdrawn it."
He would not identify the council member who he said switched sides.
It was a rare display of division among a panel known for its backroom agreements, brief public meetings and unanimous decisions.
From September last year to last month , council members voted 2,078 times on matters large and small, from adopting a $1.6 billion budget to approving minutes from previous meetings. During that period, councilmen voted "no" nine times.
To be sure, many of the council's decisions are routine. Still, observers say a lack of vigorous debate on many issues points to a broader worry: If problems and questions are smoothed out in behind-the-scenes discussions between County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger and council members, the public never gets a true picture of what its elected representatives are doing.
"We're concerned about it. I think it's a big issue," said Marjorie Slater-Kaplan, president of the Baltimore County League of Women Voters. "The more we know, the better off we are. We want as much information out there to as many people as possible."
McIntire's proposal - prompted by neighborhood complaints about trash and noise from 24-hour gas stations - went down without debate Tuesday. Only careful observers of county government would know that several lawyers representing developers raised questions about it during a work session last week.
"It was a very onerous bill that, as introduced, would have in essence prohibited any new fuel service stations in the county," said Deborah Dopkin, a Towson attorney. "It was a very harsh bill against a single industry."
McIntire sponsored several amendments that he said addressed those concerns. While the changes were approved unanimously, the bill failed.
Monday's Labor Day holiday, McIntire said, prevented him from chatting with his colleagues in the hallway of the county government center, explaining how his proposed alterations would address their worries.
Douglas B. Riley, an attorney and former councilman who left office in 1998, said he noticed a decline in debate among council members - who are all male, all white, and frequently dine together before meetings - during his final years.
"The administration tends to line up all its votes ahead of time and does not go forward unless it has unanimous or near-unanimous support from the council," Riley said. "Council members usually don't go forward with a bill unless they have lined up their votes."
As a result, the council often whips through its twice-a-month public meetings with lightning speed. According to county records, the Feb. 7 meeting began at 7:35 p.m. and ended at 7:45 p.m. The April 17 meeting began at 7:30 p.m. and ended at 7:50 p.m. On Aug. 7, the council voted on 41 issues in 50 minutes.
Council members say the time for public debate is at work sessions, which are held on the Tuesday before the regular Monday meeting at 2 p.m., when many people are at work.
"My problem is, I think there is a whole lot that goes on before the work session, and it's not in the sunshine," said Slater-Kaplan of the League of Women Voters.
Councilman Wayne M. Skinner, a Towson Republican, said he would have liked more debate on the gas-station proposal.
He said he voted against the bill - along with Democrats John A. Olszewski Sr. of Dundalk, Joseph Bartenfelder of Fullerton and Vincent J. Gardina of Perry Hall - because he feared squelching investment in older properties.
"One of the unintended consequences of Bryan's bill would have been to paralyze efforts to redevelop areas in my district," Skinner said.
McIntire said he is considering re-introducing his proposal as a request for the planning board to study.