Four join to form council coalition
Navarro's election could shift board toward development, observers say
Last month, a group of four County Council members pushed for agreements between County Executive Isiah Leggett and the police and fire unions on disability retirement and wage issues.
The intervention was needed to dispel the growing public perception that a stalemate had developed, the council members said at the time.
In March, the same four council members sent Leggett (D) a letter urging a swift decision on his pick for a new economic development director to replace outgoing director Pradeep Ganguly. The county was getting a bad business reputation that had to be corrected, the four said.
The four council members — George L. Leventhal, Michael J. Knapp, Nancy M. Floreen and Valerie Ervin — say their collaboration is about moving county government forward, and not about showing up Leggett or making a power play in the council.
And now, with the recent election of perceived ally Nancy Navarro to the council, the group, which used to be in the minority on a number of issues, could form a council majority.
"I think the biggest thing is a real concern that people are thinking the council is very confused," said Knapp (D-Dist. 2) of Germantown in explaining the group's reasoning.
He, Leventhal and Floreen were elected to the council in 2002 as part of an "End Gridlock" candidates' slate, which was viewed as pro-development. The collaboration has existed in some form since the last election in 2006.
"If at least a large group of us starts to say something that sounds cohesive, at least we can move the others along," Knapp said.
Said Leventhal (D-At large) of Takoma Park, "We need a new approach to government, and we can't be fighting with each other over petty details."
Prior to former council member Marilyn Praisner's death in February 2008, she, Philip M. Andrews, Roger Berliner, Duchy Trachtenberg and March Elrich often were in the majority.
Some of the differences, Leventhal said, could be traced to the 2006 election, when some of the council members in the previous majority ran on platforms to slow growth in the county.
"When the economy tanked, [those] council members had some problems reconciling the way things were in 2006 with the way things were in 2009," Leventhal said.
And, with Navarro's election, the previous 5-4 majority that existed under Marilyn Praisner "just reversed," said Stanton Gildenhorn, former chairman of Montgomery County Democratic Party and an active county Democrat.
When Don Praisner, Marilyn's successor, was on the council, many Democrats expected him to vote with the former End Gridlock members, but he sided with the Trachtenberg coalition on many issues, which was disappointing to many Democrats, Gildenhorn said. Navarro, who was backed by the group of four, will "most certainly" vote with the council quartet that endorsed her, he said.
The new likely majority troubles some members of the civic community.
"This will likely be a more development-friendly council, with more decisions that favor growth and higher densities," said Drew Powell, former president of Neighbors PAC. "I don't have a problem with growth as long as the infrastructure is there or at least planned. Unfortunately, I don't see that happening as much."
But fighting development during the current recession is a moot point, said Floreen (D-At large) of Garrett Park.
"Since we have negative growth and development now, I can't imagine that is an issue," she said. "The real issue for the future will be jobs and the tax base."
Also at issue could be the future of the council's leadership.
At one point, arrangements had been made between council members for Trachtenberg (D-At large) to succeed Roger Berliner, who is expected to become council president in December, in the top spot in 2011. But without the requisite majority votes needed to claim the position, her leadership outlook could be scuttled.
Whatever dynamic develops on the council, Navarro wants it to be a collegial.
"My hope is that we can redefine the way we address issues to get away from the polarization that exists," Navarro said.
Her election demonstrated the need for change and showed that pro- and anti-development stances are outdated, she said.
"I don't identify with a group philosophy with one group or another group," she said. "I hope we can find common ground on things."
But being the swing council member is not always a bad thing, said former council member Gail Ewing, who currently writes columns for the Gazette.
"When I was on the council, I was the person that people had to come to and in the position of having to be courted," said Ewing. "So it will put Navarro in a very powerful position unless she aligns herself with one group or the other."
As for the four-member group that has formed, that too is a smart move, she said.
"You put yourself in better straits because the other four members have usually already aligned themselves on some issues," Ewing said. "This sets the other side up to also work together to get things done."
Staff Writer Amber Parcher contributed to this report.