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December 11, 2006

Mountains and Molehills

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

More Machiavellian than Shakespearean, the question of who should serve as the next president of the Board of County Commissioners is blossoming into a major political brouhaha.

First of all, we're talking about the biggest non-job in politics in the Frederick County. Somehow, some folks have been fooled into thinking this board presidency is akin to a county executive, with broad, sweeping powers to run county government. It isn't!

We're talking about the person who signs letters, and plans at the direction of their other four colleagues. If there's any real power here, it comes from deciding which items make it to the public meeting agenda.

If you think holding a gavel in public meetings represents political power, then maybe this is a job worth fighting for. Otherwise, the board president has the same exact vote that the others have. Looking back, past Board President John "Lennie" Thompson was forced to alter his personal conduct while gripping the gavel. He even dressed better and kept his shoes on in meetings! Just ask Sherry Greenfield of the Frederick Gazette. She checks.

By all measures, Mr. Thompson did a very good job as president of the board. He was fair, reasonable, and patient. Rarely did the flashes of anger and resentment we had become accustomed to bubble up to the surface.

So, why all of the fuss over this job? The Republican State Central Committee has made keeping the presidency in the GOP column a major cause. Newly-elected Chairman Dino Flores has described this mini-skirmish as essential, using language normally reserved for contested partisan elections for this largely ceremonial position.

Most intriguing is the concept that this policy, the selection of the board president as the top voter getter from within the majority party, was designed and pushed by a Democrat, former commissioner, now Delegate Galen R. Clagett (D., 3A).

The present situation introduces several dynamics that require a level of scrutiny beyond strict party politics. First, the vote total garnered by Commissioner Jan Gardner is significant enough to warrant analysis. Clearly, voters were interested in her viewpoint, and both Republicans and Democrats embraced her message. Commissioner Gardner's vote tally separates her from next closest colleague by more than 6,200 votes, a significant number by any measure.

Using the language of the current ordinance, adopted in December 1982, Republican David Gray would be president and Charles Jenkins, the fourth place finisher, would be the vice president by the nature of his finish as the second highest vote getter of the majority party.

Second, this election was about growth, and voters made their preference abundantly clear. They voted for a majority of commissioners who felt that a slower, more methodical approach to residential development was important. The growth issue divided voters in a more direct way than had been seen before.

Having done a good bit of voter contact myself, I saw this tide of slower growth sentiment throughout the southern part of the county. Other Republican candidates, like newly installed Sheriff Chuck Jenkins, embraced the anti-growth message in spite of the traditional view that "real" Republicans are pro-growth.

The inaugural comments offered by the incoming commissioners focused on the need for bi-partisanship in tackling the tough problems they face; well, all except Lennie Thompson, who used his comments to remind us that he doesn't trust developers, lobbyists, and out-of-state land speculators.

Temporary Board President Gray even went so far to include an admonition to the two central committees. Mr. Gray warned that if the parties ignored the voters' call for bi-partisanship, it might spell the end of their influence.

He's in the best position to offer this advice. He ran for commissioner as a Democrat, an Independent, and as a Republican. He pretty well covered the bases.

Into this riptide of bipartisanship swims the Republican State Central Committee, bound and determined to keep the presidency of the Board of County Commissioners in the GOP column.

All this will do is further alienate those Republicans that crossed party lines to cast a vote for Jan Gardner; and thousands did exactly that. Chairman Flores has requested that Republican voters crowd the commissioners' first floor hearing room on December 19th at 7 p.m. to express their strong desire that the Republican Party retain the board presidency.

The problem with that approach is all of those Republicans that crossed party lines, or voted specifically for Republicans like Mr. Gray and Mr. Thompson, solely because of their stance against growth.

Those Republicans are considerably more interested in the question of residential development than they are in the Republican Party retaining the gavel in the Winchester Hall.

If Republican voters had really been that concerned about electing Republicans and retaining power, Mike Cady and/or John Lovell would have retained their seats. In the end, and in spite of the central committee's rallying cry, the commissioners will vote, by a 3-1 majority, to grant Commissioner Gardner the right to preside over the body. Mrs. Gardner has indicated she will recuse herself in this matter.

A simple and elegant solution sits out there on the horizon. Instead of passing ordinance language that specifies that the top vote getter, regardless of party affiliation, will be the president of the board, the commissioners could simply adopt language that specifies that the new board, following their swearing-in, will meet to elect a president and vice president by a simple majority vote.

That forces the aspiring presidents to define a vision for their colleagues that garner enough votes to assume a leadership role. Using the present example, Commissioner Gardner could simply argue that she received a strong, bi-partisan voter mandate.

The larger question is whether the Republican Party will recognize the voting dynamic that led to this outcome. To ignore the influence that the growth debate had on this county commissioners' election bodes ill for future local races.


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