FONDA — The Montgomery County Legislature will be led this year by District 9 Legislator Robert Purtell following his selection as chairman this week at the annual organizational meeting.
Purtell, a Democrat, was elected chairman with five affirmative votes from among the eight legislators present for the organizational meeting on Tuesday.
“I was interested in having the opportunity to engage other legislators to move Montgomery County forward,” Purtell said Thursday.
District 2 Legislator Bryan Sweet, a Republican, nominated Purtell for the top seat. Sweet was joined in supporting Purtell’s appointment by two fellow Republicans, District 1 Legislator Martin Kelly and newly seated District 3 Legislator Herbert Allen.
Newly seated District 8 Legislator Maria Kowalczyk was the only Democrat aside from Purtell present at the meeting. They both voted for his appointment.
District 4 Legislator Robert Headwell, Jr., District 5 Legislator Daniel Wilson and District 7 Legislator Michael Pepe, all Republicans, voted against Purtell’s appointment.
Before voting on Purtell’s nomination, Headwell named Sweet as a second nominee. The measure failed after receiving support solely from the three Purtell opponents.
There are no hard feelings over the votes cast against him, according to Purtell, who committed to working with all legislators throughout the coming year.
“I didn’t take it personally,” Purtell said. “That lack of support is not going to make any difference in my working with those that didn’t support me.”
Similarly, Purtell indicated that political partisanship will not impact his approach to working with his fellow legislators. He nominated Sweet as deputy chairman and the appointment was confirmed with support from all eight members present at the meeting.
“I’m confident that Bryan Sweet will do a good job and I work well with him,” Purtell said. “Political parties at this point are not the important thing, the important thing is the ability to legislate properly.”
Assuming the leadership position, Purtell has already laid out a series of priorities for his 12 month term as chairman.
Among the objectives will be a review of the Montgomery County Charter that established the Legislature and set the roles and powers of officials when it was adopted in 2012. Purtell said it would be an opportunity to refamiliarize legislators with their duties. He has no plans to seek any amendments to the charter.
“I don’t think everybody is clear what the duties or responsibilities of the Legislature are, I would like to be clearer on what our responsibilities are,” Purtell said. “It’s just important sometimes to revisit what your duties are, as well as what your goals should be.”
While officials brush up on their roles, Purtell wants legislators to bring into sharper focus the county’s finances through detailed monthly reports featuring the expenses, income and reimbursements of each department.
Regular financial updates are provided through a digital dashboard, but Purtell said the system is limited in scope and officials scramble to assemble detailed figures every budget season.
“As financial stewards we should always know what our financial position is,” Purtell said. “Making decisions based on info just received at budget time is really shortsighted.”
Strengthening the communication among county officials and the broader community is another priority for Purtell.
“There is always room for better communication and better communication makes better relationships,” Purtell said.
To that end, Purtell is asking officials to participate in a community project in partnership with the Red Cross and local fire departments installing free smoke detectors in local homes.
“We’ve never done any community events as a group, it takes no level of investment from the county,” Purtell said.
Legislators could connect residents within their wards to the program and potentially assist firefighters installing the devices provided by the Red Cross.
“Often smoke detectors are not a priority to families, although they should be, maybe that family cannot afford smoke detectors or don’t have the skills to install them,” Purtell said.
Lastly, Purtell is encouraging legislators to engage in “spirited” discussions moving forward, rather than skipping potential debates and simply agreeing with one another.
“The best discussions we’ve had in the Legislature were discussions where we didn’t agree on the subject or the question,” Purtell said. “After listening to someone’s discussion I might change my mind, but if we don’t have the discussion I don’t have the opportunity to change my mind.”
Basic matters that are “no-brainers” don’t need to become the subject of exhaustive discussions, according to Purtell. But he said legislators should feel welcome to share their thoughts.
“I think sometimes people are uncomfortable presenting their opinion for fear of how others might view it,” Purtell said. “My goal is a team building experience and I’m not going to let personalities or political affiliations jeopardize the success of that.”
After years of working alongside Purtell, Montgomery County Executive Matthew Ossenfort is looking forward to working more closely with him as the chairman on the laid out goals that align with longstanding efforts to move the county forward.
“I think we have a good understanding of where we’d like to go this year and I’m looking forward to getting to work,” Ossenfort said. “There is a great spirit of teamwork amongst the organization, we’re going to use that attitude and mantra to focus on the details and accomplish what we need to.”
Reach Ashley Onyon at [email protected] or @AshleyOnyon on Twitter.