Wednesday, May 7, 2008

New council member likely to play crucial role

Candidates Fennel and Praisner define their priorities ahead of Tuesday’s special District 4 election

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The next District 4 representative on the Montgomery County Council will face the ramifications of the county budget now being finalized and could play a crucial role in shaping policy on a variety of issues including taxes, school-system funding and the pace of development.

Republican Mark Fennel, 42, and Democrat Donald Praisner, 75, will face off in a special election Tuesday to fill the seat last held by Praisner’s wife, former Councilwoman Marilyn Praisner, who died Feb. 1.

Each man offers a platform they say will help the county through rough economic times. Praisner has campaigned as a proponent of slow-growth policies that would not overwhelm the county’s infrastructure, while Fennel has focused his message on limiting property taxes.

Analysts say whoever is elected could play a major role on the nine-member council.

‘‘There are 10 or 20 decisions where this person might be the swing [vote],” said political pollster Keith Haller, president of Potomac Inc. ‘‘Certainly, there seems to be two distinct strands of thought on the council at present, and so there are some big-choice decisions regarding the budget and capital expenditures and how much we should grow.”

‘‘The ninth member is going to be crucial in all the stuff that comes out of planning and economic development,” said Councilman Marc Elrich (D-At large) of Takoma Park, who has endorsed Praisner. Several other council members and County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) endorsed Praisner back in March.

Praisner, a retired CIA analyst, has run on the legacy of his wife, who was elected to the seat four times, and has said that if elected he will serve out only the remainder of her term, which ends in 2010.

‘‘After that, I have no desire to continue in office,” the Calverton resident said last week. ‘‘I think by doing that, it grants me a fair amount of independence.”

Praisner said managing population growth, creating jobs and making sure there is a ‘‘sustainable budget” will be his priorities if elected. In the primary, Praisner received support from many elected Democratic officials, but not unions, who in large part instead supported his closest opponent, school board President Nancy Navarro.

Praisner said he hopes those union supporters will vote for him in the general, but added, ‘‘I don’t feel beholden to them in any way” because they did not vote for him in the primary. School system employees, many of whom also supported Navarro, should not receive special privileges either, he said, especially in ongoing budget discussions.

‘‘I also expect the school system to make some sacrifices as well,” he said. ‘‘They make up half the budget, and I don’t think they should be exempt from cuts of any kind.”

Fennel, who was the 2006 Republican nominee for the District 4 seat and is director of the nonprofit group Citizens Against Government Waste, says Praisner will simply uphold the status quo.

‘‘I think the sense out there is that we need a change,” he said. ‘‘We need a change for Montgomery County. We don’t need a lame-duck place holder.”

Fennel, a Silver Spring resident, said ‘‘there’s a culture of excessive spending in Montgomery County” that needs to end.

‘‘Don Praisner is not going to break it,” he said. ‘‘... The only way it’s going to be broken is if you get one guy in there like me, one conservative like me, who says enough is enough.”

If elected, Fennel said his priority will be to uphold the charter limit established on property taxes, which permits annual growth in the county’s property tax revenue to increase only by the rate of inflation as determined by the consumer price index.

In the 17 years since the limit was established, the council has voted to exceed it only three times, in fiscal years 2003, 2004 and 2005, by increasing amount of $4.3 million, $29.2 million and $37.3 million, according to information from the county.

Leggett’s proposed 2009 budget included a more than 6 percent increase on property taxes and would exceed the charter limit by $137.8 million.

Currently, a supermajority of seven votes is needed to exceed the charter limit.

‘‘If I am not elected, they will surpass the charter limit in fiscal year 2010 and fiscal year 2011 as God made green apples,” Fennel said.

Some observers say that despite all the campaign talk about growth, it may not become much of an issue after the election.

Former County Councilwoman Gail Ewing said the council’s current policy and priorities might not change very much no matter who is elected. Members will want to jumpstart an ailing economy through development, and the current council isn’t exploring ways to change growth policy right now, she said.

Elrich said the council isn’t expected to look at growth or tax policies until next year.

Others say that growth arguments will become moot if the national and local economy continues to struggle.

‘‘Frankly, there is going to be very little growth in the next two years because of the economy,” said Wayne Goldstein, president of the Montgomery County Civic Federation.

Many agree that, if elected, Fennel could serve as a reliable vote against tax increases, but slow growth activist Drew Powell said ‘‘the jury is very much still out given what Mr. Fennel may or may not do,” because he has not previously served in office.

Most observers say Praisner, who has widespread name recognition because of his wife, is almost guaranteed to win in heavily Democratic Montgomery County. Almost four times as many Democrats as Republicans voted in the April 15 primary and every current member of the council is a Democrat.

‘‘The chances of the Republican nominee winning would be one thousand in one,” pollster Haller said. ‘‘It would be one of the hugest upsets in Montgomery County history.”

But some, including Ewing, say that with a low voter turnout expected, anything could happen. About 11 percent of registered voters cast a ballot in the April primary.

‘‘If so few people do come, that can really skew an election,” she said. ‘‘So what you expect might not happen. And it really depends on turnout.”

District 4election Tuesday

Election to fill the County Council seat of the late Marilyn J. Praisner.

Candidates:

*Donald Praisner, 75, of Calverton, retired CIA analyst

*Mark Fennel, 42, of Silver Spring, a marketing analyst

District 4 includes parts of Burtonsville, Silver Spring, Cloverly, Colesville, Wheaton, Aspen Hill, Olney, Sandy Spring and Ashton.

Polling places: Open7 a.m. to 8 p.m. For locations, visit www.777vote.org.

For more information, including video statements by the candidates and a voter’s guide, visit www.gazette.net⁄votersguide08.

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