Monday, February 05, 2007

Learning To Listen With Nancy Floreen

The first stop on Just Up The Pike's "County Government Head-to-Head Tour."
"Montgomery County people cannot come to any collective agreement - and probably never will - on whether we will be urban or suburban." - Nancy Floreen
County Councilwoman Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) says there are about a hundred people who show up in her office on a regular basis, and a handful that stop by each and every day. They are the "advocates," she calls them, a very small but very vocal minority representing a few select interests (cough cough NeighborsPAC) in Montgomery County.

And their input in County government, while valued, can be frustrating. "It's complicated once you get past the spin that people put on things," Floreen notes. "But advocacy is advocacy. You gotta respect it, and listen to it." There's still quite a lot of spin. "That's why I keep this," Floreen adds, picking up a copy of Harry G. Frankfurt's On Bullshit on the table next to her desk.

Also in her office is a photocopy of an old New Yorker article, "The Slow Road." In it is a statistic: since 1970, the United States population has grown forty percent; the number of registered vehicles, one hundred percent; and the number of roads, six percent. "Duh!" Floreen spits, emphasizing her point: when it comes to new roads - or any form of transportation, we've fallen way behind.

Montgomery County's a pretty well-educated place, home to the smartest city in America and one of the country's best school systems. One could even argue that the County's lavish spending on schools over the past thirty years has sucked money away from roads. A map from Marylanders for a Second Crossing shows a slew of proposed highways for Montgomery County that were all cancelled, including the Outer Beltway, a precursor to the InterCounty Connector.

A lot of those cancelled roads are in still-rural or transitioning parts of the County, like Boyds or Ashton. "You don't build a lot of roads where they're not wanted," Floreen notes. But school funding can't be all to blame. (It really isn't. Unlike our neighbors Fairfax or Howard counties, we put our emphasis on mass transit. As a result, we have over a dozen Metro stations, and unlike a lot of suburbs or even cities, we know what to do with them.) "That's what I like to tell myself when I want to simplify it," she says, adding, "It's more fun to cut a ribbon for a new school than it is to open a road that people have been haranguing you about."

(Yeah, just tell that to Bobby Haircut.)

Of course, Nancy Floreen listens to each harangue, tirade and plea, from suddenly homeless families (Christy's my sixth-grade math teacher, by the way) to the disgruntled residents of Longmead Crossing.
"I approved Longmead Crossing . . . it was a mistake we made."
It's the Longmead Crossing folks who especially worry Floreen. In the 1980's, as a member of the Montgomery County Planning Board (which she served on until joining the County Council in 2002), she approved the Layhill development straddling the ICC right-of-way. "It was a mistake we made," Floreen says. "I said 'these people are going to be very upset'" if the ICC was built, despite planners' assertions that notifying homebuyers in advance would keep them quiet. Instead, they've mounted a multi-year campaign to stop the ICC, despite signs from Governor O'Malley that there's no turning back.

If you listen to Duchy Trachtenberg, Montgomery voters are pissed off about growth and traffic. But Floreen argues that relief, albeit slow, is on the way. "[We're experiencing the] growing pains of a county fulfilling its master plan," she says, pointing out that the County has increased transportation funding by 72 percent without burdening taxpayers. The traffic is still there, and the people are still coming, but Montgomery County has to keep going.

"It's very difficult to say 'no, we don't want you here,'" Floreen says, adding: "I refuse to be part of a county that shuts its door on people." And as a former planner, Nancy Floreen is committed to making sure new people are taken care of - and, most importantly of all, listened to.

Crossposted at Just Up The Pike.

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