Six months into the term as the second County Council under Frederick County’s charter government, neither productivity nor civility has been an issue.
There’s quite a bit to talk about with a legislative body that serves more than a quarter million people and has already undertaken several large pieces of legislation. This can lead to extensive phone conversations and interviews of council members.
That’s what happened in a call with council President M.C. Keegan-Ayer (D) when she was walking her dog Thursday morning. But this time, the subject was broader than just key pieces of legislation. It was an evaluation of this new council.
At one point, I asked her what it’s been like “being the captain of a ship” of the council for that time.
“Oh, thanks. So if we go over the waterfall, it’s my fault?” she joked.
Then she gave a more measured response.
“It’s different in that basically, I’ll go back to the old adage, the buck stops here,” she said. “If it’s not done properly, in essence, it rests on my shoulders.”
This term, the council has passed long-term bills concerning an update to school and library impact fees and a tweak to negotiating rights between developers and the county, and it approved the Monocacy Scenic River Management Plan after more than two years of deliberations.
They also voted 7-0 to approve the fiscal 2020 budget, the first time that has happened in the council’s five-year history.
Keegan-Ayer and other council members said this week this activity is because the council has kept their office doors open to colleagues.
Council Vice President Michael Blue (R), a newcomer to local politics, repeated the same idea multiple times.
County residents have compared this council with the county’s first-ever County Council. Those residents said the second council appears to be more civil and cooperative, Blue said.
“I know a couple members really, really like to voice opinions and some of us are quieter, but I think the way we’ve been communicating behind the scenes related to any legislation that’s coming before us ... it’s all been very professional,” Blue said.
Councilman Phil Dacey (R) cited an example of that professionalism right away when asked about the last six months: the Monocacy Scenic River Management Plan.
Dacey said the ability to find common ground on a plan that has been debated, discussed and amended in a sometimes hostile atmosphere for more than two years was important. He noted the unanimous 6-0 vote as proof of that — Councilwoman Jessica Fitzwater (D) was absent.
“I really think there’s where the council’s spirit kind of shined,” Dacey said. “We were all able to work toward that common goal in the middle and I think that really was emblematic of where we’ve been for six months.”
A reporter being told that local government business is all peaches and cream raises skepticism, to say the least.
But no reporter can be in every meeting with individual council members, or behind the scenes when legislation and policy is being considered or worked on.
The closest the casual observer can probably get to that is every Tuesday evening, in the first-floor chambers at Winchester Hall.
Disagreement has occurred — but it’s about differences in policy, not the character of other people. The atmosphere appears to be friendly, as council members are frequently whispering apparent jokes in others’ ears. It would be tough to pinpoint a moment when discussions have escalated to shouting and yelling.
That was commonplace from the start in the last term, Councilman Jerry Donald (D) said.
“Things were just so personal from day one on the last council,” Donald said. “Really, if you go back and listen to the speeches people gave where we were sworn in, it got combative really quickly. And this time we’ve just tried to really keep the personal out of it.”
The infighting prompted a critical piece from The Washington Post in January 2015, less than two months into the first council.
Now, conflict is about policy. One example: Blue feels the Livable Frederick Master Plan, the comprehensive planning document, is overreaching. Specifically, he feels sections about health, bullying in schools, and other topics not related to zoning and core parts of a comprehensive plan are unfocused.
“There’s some stuff in Livable Frederick that I don’t understand. ... I understand it might have to do with the health and well-being of the citizens in the county, but it’s not a [comprehensive] plan,” Blue said. “It’s way too broad of a plan. It puts too much power in the hands of people that aren’t even elected.”
One area that has multiple council members concerned is enacting an ordinance for Question D, the ballot issue that passed last November requiring a neutral arbitrator between the local firefighters union and county officials, if they can’t reach a deal on pay and working conditions. The arbitrator’s ruling would be required to be funded in the county budget.
Councilwoman Jessica Fitzwater (D) will craft a work group that will draft the ordinance that will be codified into law in the next few weeks, Keegan-Ayer said.
“The scope of that work group and what they’re going to be looking at … all that is going to be very important and how it’s going to be impacted by the legislation that’s going to be crafted,” she said.
No matter what happens with that, however, Keegan-Ayer is going to enjoy the cooperation among council members while it lasts.
“It actually has been a surprise,” Keegan-Ayer said. “I look at what’s going on elsewhere at the state and the national level ... and I’m like OK, Frederick County is like this little hub of bliss. I don’t know how long it’s going to last, but for as long as it’s here, I’m going to enjoy it, because it’s a big change from what we had before.”