By Adam Pagnucco.
No one knows exactly when the worst dump fire in Montgomery County history started. It was first reported to authorities on October 22, 1994. A 40-foot high pile of trash at the Travilah Road dump had ignited and begun spreading airborne foulness throughout the vicinity. The Washington City Paper reported, “The slow smolder spewed clouds of acrid smoke—filled with floating ashes and shreds of trash—and a putrid odor that engulfed the North Potomac area for miles around. The noxious fumes temporarily shut down Stone Mill Elementary School and forced residents from their homes; some had to take temporary refuge in motels.” More than 200 people reported respiratory problems.
Incredibly, the county government did not act immediately to put the fire out. Rather, it wanted dump owner Billy Mossburg and his family to put it out themselves despite their long history of bad blood with both the county and their neighbors. The Washington Post reported, “The county doesn’t have the equipment to do the job, and it’s better for the company to spend its money under county supervision than for the county to spend tax money and bill Travilah Recovery later, said Capt. Ray Mulhall, a fire department spokesman.” The county posted two environmental inspectors and three fire officials to the site to “ensure everything is done right.”
Internally, the administration of outgoing County Executive Neal Potter debated what to do. Meetings of county officials went on for two hours or more without resolution. Some in the administration worried about liability. Others were concerned about who would pay to put out the fire. Some worried about the difficulty of getting trucks into the dump or whether lights could be installed for night-time fire-fighting. Just as a course of direction seemed in reach, someone would bring up more questions and the meetings would resume. And the fire kept burning.
It was Paralysis by Analysis, then and now.
County Executive Ike Leggett has a dump fire, too. It is otherwise known as the Department of Liquor Control (DLC). Maligned for many years for its poor service to licensees and consumers, it was the subject of a landmark Washington City Paper story during Leggett’s first year in office. The DLC is not a threat to public safety as Billy Mossburg’s dump once was. But it chases away consumers, stunts the county’s restaurant industry and costs the county and state nearly $200 million a year in economic activity. After a number of scandals including employee theft, employees drinking and driving on the job and use of an inventory system run with sticky notes, the County Council proposed a bill allowing private distributors to fulfill some special orders. Delegate Bill Frick (D-16) went further, proposing a bill that would have allowed voters to decide whether to continue the liquor monopoly. After initially supporting the council’s bill, Leggett opposed both of them and promised that he would fix the DLC through a task force.
The result of the task force? Paralysis by Analysis, of course. The task force’s eleven members included just two licensees and no consumers. It had three meetings during which invited speakers extolled the benefits of government liquor monopolies. It concluded with no task force statement and no proposal. The administration completely ignored a proposal to recover DLC’s profits and pretended for months that the proposal never existed. The Executive offered a tweak that no one else supported and later withdrew it, alleging that DLC’s problems were solved. This is despite the fact that DLC suffered massive supply failures during the Christmas and New Year’s Eve week the prior two years. On each occasion, Leggett defended the liquor monopoly just prior to its meltdowns.
The pattern here is the same as the reaction of County Executive Neal Potter to the Travilah dump fire. Be cautious. Worry about money. Pretend that things aren’t so bad. Play for time. Maybe the problem will go away by itself. Maybe public interest will move on to something else.
In the end, the Travilah dump fire was undone by an event it could not burn away: an election. Incoming County Executive Doug Duncan raced from his inauguration directly to the Executive Office Building and demanded that county officials do everything possible to put out the fire. Eight days later and roughly seven weeks after it was first reported, the fire was out. The county later sued the dump owner to recover the cost of fighting the fire.
Here is the great lesson of the Travilah dump fire for today’s dump fire at the DLC. Meetings and task forces won’t put it out. Neither will consultants, financial analyses, promises, tweaks, defensive blog posts or PR campaigns. One thing is needed to deal with the liquor monopoly.
Bold action. From a new County Executive.