Category Archives: Montgomery County Council

MCEA Issues Council Endorsements

The influential Montgomery County Education Association, the teachers union, has issued its endorsements for the Montgomery County Council. I’ve put the non-incumbents in italics below:

District 1: Andrew Friedson
District 2: Will Roberts
District 3: Sidney Katz
District 4: Kate Stewart
District 5: Fatmata Barrie
District 6: Natali Fani-Gonzalez
District 7: Dawn Luedtke
At-Large: Brandy Brooks, Evan Glass, Laurie-Anne Sayles, Will Jawando

Interestingly, they have chosen not to endorse Council President Gabe Albornoz. This one puzzles me because unions normally endorse well-liked councilmembers who are likely to win even if they have some policy disagreements to avoid alienating them.

MCEA has also placed bets in several hotly contested open seats, including Rep. Raskin’s former Legislative Director Will Roberts in District 2, Takoma Park Mayor Kate Stewart in District 4, Immigration Attorney Fatmata Barrie in District 5, former Planning Board Member Natali Fani-Gonzalez in District 6, and Attorney Dawn Luedtke in District 7.

Five of their eleven endorsements went to African American candidates: Will Roberts, Fatmata Barrie, Brandy Brooks, Laurie-Anne Sayles and Will Jawando. Three have gone to Jewish candidates: Andrew Friedson, Sidney Katz and Evan Glass–all are incumbents. Glass is also the first openly gay councilmember. Natali Fani-Gonzalez is the sole Latina or Latino endorsed. (Correction: I’ve now learned that Brandy Brooks is Afro-Latina.) A majority of endorsements went to women (6 of 11).

(By the way, the Maryland State Board of Elections website appears a little screwed up and not listing candidates properly. Today, it is showing only five districts and candidates not necessarily listed where they are running as far as I can tell.)

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Council Reflects Growing Concern on Thrive 2050

Yesterday, the County Council held a work session on Thrive 2050. Council President Gabe Albornoz set a thoughtful tone by explaining that he doesn’t have an “arbitrary date” for getting Thrive done but hopes and expects that it can be completed by this Council. In other words, he wants to do it right but also wants to move forward.

Dr. Elaine Bonner-Thompson presented in a straightforward manner the initial Racial Equity and Social Justice (RESJ) review for the Office of Legislative Oversight. The RESJ review calls for better consultation of people of color and low-income residents. It also voices concern that the policies proposed would worsen racial and economic disparities.

Representatives from Planning, including Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson and Planning Department Director Gwen Wright presented a PowerPoint in an effort to rebut these claims. But this defensive effort to show proper consultation and support may have backfired. They faced pushback, for example, from Councilmember Nancy Navarro who championed the law requiring a RESJ review and opposed sweeping these concerns aside.

Councilmember Sidney Katz, shown in the clip at the top of this post, crystalized community and Council concerns in his comments. For a start, discussions around Thrive need to be much more upfront about the likely impact on zoning:

I’ve said all along that part of my concern on this is that we don’t always tell the complete story. And I understand that it is a foundational document. But there again, it’s because of that, and we say, well, there’s we’re not changing the zoning. In order for it to happen, zoning will need to be changed. So I think we need, when we discuss it, I’ve said this before, I believe we need to include the entire story. We need to say this doesn’t change zoning but in order for it to happen we need to have zoning changes.

Katz also explained why Planning’s presentation unintentionally validated concerns regarding consultation and inclusion:

As an example of what I think people are going through, for this, and I believe it was Gwen Wright, that had a slide up that showed the organizations that were supportive of the plan. (Am I right?) Well, part of the problem, I believe, is that you didn’t have a slide up that said you had organizations that had issues with the plan. And I believe part of the problem becomes that people believe, rightly or wrongly, that you are only listening to the one side rather than both sides. This is such an important plan. This is such an important document that we need to make certain people are comfortable that they believe—that they know—that we are listening to all sides.

The evidence continues to mount that the process was designed to produce a specific outcome rather than gain and include community input. Councilmembers pushed back on efforts to force them to move full steam ahead notwithstanding these problems as part of an effort to pass Thrive in its current form. Council Vice President Evan Glass, for example, expressed that he’s ready to take a “deep dive” into the document and to engage fully with the community about it.

At this point, the Council laudably wants to take time to improve a troubled process even as they rightly also want to bring it to a conclusion. The question now becomes how they will go about accomplishing this goal. Beyond facing an array of ethical challenges, Planning showed once again that they believe all is well and that it’s fine to include only one side.

The Council is going to have to take an active role.

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Greater Silver Spring Chamber Unhappy with Planning Board, Councilmembers

The Greater Silver Spring Chamber of Commerce’s (GSSCC) county council candidate questionnaire (embedded in full below and also viewable at this link) contains statements revealing deep frustrations with the county’s approach to planning and development extend to the business community.

Though Silver Spring is widely viewed as one of the most vibrant parts of the county, the lack of commercial development outside of restaurants and retail remains a real problem:

The Silver Spring Central Business District was envisioned to become a smart-growth, live, work, and play community.  However, in the past 10-plus years, Silver Spring has evolved into a primarily residential neighborhood (bedroom community), with virtually no commercial office development.  At this point, the County seems to be focused on just the “live” and “play” aspects.  But local retailers and restaurants are feeling the brunt of having fewer and fewer customers during office hours.

If efforts to build what the Planning Board terms “complete communities” with places to live, work and play fall short even in Silver Spring, one wonders how well they can succeed as the model for the whole county as envisioned in Thrive 2050. GSSCC also sees the Planning Board’s approach to this problem as inadequate:

The Planning Board’s Silver Spring Downtown and Adjacent Communities Plan’s sole answer to reviving and expanding Silver Spring’s office market is to simply “improve the public realm (i.e., build more sidewalks, bikeways, parks, etc.).

This is part of GSSCC’s support for a “balanced approach to transportation” that includes roads and parking as well as transit and bike lanes. It clashes with that articulated by the Planning Board in Thrive 2050 as well as some members of the County Council:

The Chamber supports a balanced approach to transportation policies that takes into account the needs of our member businesses, their employees, their customers, and their vendors. That balance must accommodate those who use public transit, drive on our roads, travel by bicycle and on foot, and need sufficient parking options at their destination.

Finally, even in liberal Montgomery County, the focus has shifted from “defund the police” to rising crime:

In recent months, Silver Spring has experienced a dramatic increase in violent crime, which threatens our economy, our business owners, and our residents.  The expansion of our “nighttime economy” has been accompanied by some unintended consequences.  Two recent surveys show that the top concern of most residents is crime and safety.

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Racial Equity and Social Justice Review Slams Thrive

The Office of Legislative Oversight (OLO) has released its preliminary Racial Equity and Social Justice (RESJ) review of Thrive 2050 (text embedded below or click this link). Its analysis attacks Thrive at its core.

Thrive leads with a vision for economic development that focuses on attracting new businesses and workers to the County who can afford to reside and/or work in mixed-use, transit-oriented town centers. Yet, this economic development approach could widen racial and social inequities as it primarily offers benefits to affluent and disproportionately White people.

That’s got to hurt for Thrive 2050 proponents. They routinely tout it as an extremely progressive document and attack people who have concerns with part or all of it as racists or classists. The RESJ review suggests that Thrive supporters have been casting stones from comfortable glass houses.

The RESJ review also creates a huge procedural problem for moving forward with Thrive 2050:

OLO finds that the request to develop a RESJ impact statement for Thrive 2050 was premature as the PHED Committee draft is not yet ready for a comprehensive RESJ review. Instead, this memo offers six sets of observations and recommendations for updating Thrive, so it better aligns with best practices for advancing RESJ.

The Council adopted the RESJ review process with much fanfare and intense commitment. The Council is not supposed to move forward with the matter until it has received an RESJ review. If the Council truly believes in the importance of the process it created, its review process should halt until Thrive is updated so that OLO can undertake a proper RESJ analysis.

It’s not my preference but it’s that or they can ignore their own law.

Contrary to claims made within Thrive, the OLO believes that people of color and low-income residents have not been adequately consulted during its preparation. One of OLO’s key recommendations for updating Thrive for a proper RESJ review is:

Elicit the meaningful input of residents of color from communities of color and low-income residents to co-create and update Thrive so that it reflects a consensus of land use policies and practices aimed at advancing RESJ.

This suggestion was reiterated a second time later in the document. Some who want the Council to move forward might well find fault with the ideological spin underpinning the RESJ review. But this is exactly what the Council asked for with RESJ analyses.

In short, Thrive proponents face quite a conundrum. They have sold this document precisely on racial equity and social justice grounds. Yet the RESJ review says that the process failed to conform to equity standards and that the core approach adopted by the Planning Board and the PHED Committee will worsen these problems.

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Planning Board Proposes to Redefine “Public Hearings” Instead of Holding Them

Yesterday, Montgomery County Council President Gabe Albornoz sent a letter to the Planning Board demanding more transparency, including that they cease abusing their Consent Agenda for discussions of “major amendments” to plans that require public hearings.

They don’t seem to have received the message.

Instead of offering a mea culpa for their past flagrant violations of the zoning code, they excuse themselves, claiming: “Items are placed on the Consent Agenda for votes when they have not generated controversy.” Except that how do you know there is no controversy without holding a public hearing? And if there is no controversy, why not just put it on the regular agenda and just move along if no one wants to testify instead of signalling and pre-judging the question?

Beyond offering no apology, the Planning Board’s proposed “solution” is to redefine “public hearing” to include Consent Agenda items:

“Public Hearing” or “hearing” means a duly-noticed Summary Hearing (emphasis added) or Full Hearing held before the Planning Board, open to the public, and providing an opportunity for any Person, including the general public or Applicant, to appear and present written or oral evidence, cross examination, or rebuttal, all subject to the provisions in these Rules.

Buried in the Rules of Procedure are also new explanations that items can easily be moved from the Consent to Regular Agenda. However, unless a member of the public goes spelunking in the Rules, they are unlikely to know. Meanwhile, the item remains on the Consent Agenda even though the clear intent of the Code is to require genuine public hearings on major amendments.

Poof! Problem solved!

If Planning Board members were really interested in transparency, they could start by providing a tracked changes version of the document, instead of forcing the public to suss out the changes. These legalistic changes might not even solve their problem as they may still violate common law–not to mention common sense–definitions of a “public hearing.”

It is clear that Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson and possibly the rest of the Board have missed Council President Albornoz’s message. After all, Albornoz could have proposed an amendment to the zoning code instead of pushing for transparency. Nevertheless, the Board has chosen the route of less transparency by redefining “public hearing.”

The Planning Board’s statement begins “We take transparency very seriously.” They then proceed to provide excuses for all of their violations of lobbying registration and open meeting requirements along with this “fix” of their Consent Agenda problem. Their response further undercuts confidence in the ability of the Planning Board to conduct the public’s business in a genuinely fair and transparent manner.

If you wish to testify regarding the proposed changes on February 10 at 9am, you can sign up here. Perhaps the Planning Board might consider holding the hearing on this issue before it goes through its lengthy Consent Agenda.

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Council Investigating Planning Complaints

Montgomery County Council President Gabe Albornoz sent a letter to Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson looking for answers on a series of complaints regarding transparency at the Board, including M-NCPPC’s failure to register lobbyists as required under law, and violation of the Open Meetings Act, and inappropriate use of the Board’s Consent Agenda for matters requiring a public hearing.

He concludes by writing:

In isolation, any of these procedural concerns would be troubling. Taken together, it creates an impression that the Planning Board’s procedures are lacking in transparency and public participation. Please outline the specific steps that the Planning Board has undertaken to respond to each of these complaints and create an environment that will encourage transparency and facilitate public participation.

The full letter is posted below (pdf first, images follow):

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Thriving Together

The Tweeters have been active since the Coalition for Smarter Growth (CSG) condemned me. I’ve been threatened with physical violence and another prominent smart growth blogger says I “must be stopped.” Twitter suspended the account of the person who threatened me.

While not pleasant, a friend with good sense reminded me to “ignore the trolls” and that the “Twitter echo chamber is not representative of the real world.” The bile seemed to go far beyond anger at my criticizing a lobbyist for not filing required reports.

What I rapidly learned is that my series of posts about problematic ethics at the Planning Board and lobbying raised the ire of advocates for Thrive 2050 —the county’s general plan that the County Council is set to consider. Apparently, similar treatment has been meted out to others deemed to be critics, though I have literally not written a word on Thrive prior to today.

Well, they got me much more interested. I have not followed the Thrive debate closely. Like many, I’ve been focused on my job and getting through the pandemic, so I stopped blogging completely. Over the weekend, I’ve started to gain a quick education.

The key takeaway so far is that new County Council President Gabe Albornoz and Vice President Evan Glass have their work cut out for them. The intense divisions and acrimony around Thrive mirror the ugly mood and tenor of debate in the country. Confidence isn’t increased by the Planning Board’s failure to register lobbyists, violations of the open meetings law and abuse of the consent calendar to constrain public input on other matters.

The good news is that I cannot think of two people more suited to address it. While I sometimes disagree with them strongly, you won’t find two more fundamentally even-keeled public officials than Councilmembers Albornoz and Glass. As a result, I remain optimistic that they can lead the county to a document that brings people together. Put another way, I hope they can move the process forward to a conclusion but in a way that makes residents feel included and heard.

That doesn’t mean “paralysis by analysis”—the county’s unfortunate moniker for its tendency to study matters into eternity—but it does mean heading towards the end in the right way. How can that be accomplished?

It’s an unfortunate truth of public policy that many people only start to pay greater attention once matters come to a head. (Consider me Exhibit A in this case.) This is especially true because the key parts of the process took place during the pandemic and the 2020 election. So many people still have a lot of questions they would like answered, and many would like to know how the comments they have already provided will be incorporated.

Thrive proponents may be technically correct that the document itself changes nothing with respect to zoning, but it is strongly linked to potential major zoning changes (zoning text amendments) that have also been proposed and are already under discussion. So saying it has no impact on zoning comes across, intentionally or not, as too clever and insincere.

It’s especially important because the Planning Board, led by Casey Anderson, removed certain references to the importance of the Master Planning process. The document is now written to pre-determine outcomes, while simultaneously claiming not to have decided anything. Put another way, we are now being told that it is too early to know its impact on zoning but, once Thrive is passed, it will be too late because “Thrive says . . .”

People want to know what Thrive means for them—how will it affect their home and their neighborhood? What about nearby areas? People care a lot about how changes impact their family and their largest investment or their rent. Using plain language and including specific metrics would go a long way to help residents better understand outcomes Thrive expects to realistically achieve,

In my time as mayor and other leadership positions, I’ve found that listening is far more important than talking. I’m not saying it’s easy or my natural strength, but I work on it. People like to be heard. They also justifiably loathe performative “consultations” where leaders claim to want input, but the outcome has been pre-determined. Councilmembers must incorporate comments from the very broad range of opinion thoughtfully with an open mind.

Which brings me to why this effort is needed to get the process back on track. Many in the community believe that the process has been highly structured to produce a particular outcome supported by a nexus between the Planning Board Chair, activist/business groups like CSG, and certain councilmembers.

The Planning Board staff presented a draft that was amended “in a very surgical way” at the behest of Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson according to insiders. While avowedly done in response to community comment, for example, it’s hard to imagine that this very pro-environment county demanded the excision of Thrive’s specific environmental chapter. Did anyone actually request this? The changes reflect exactly what one would imagine Casey Anderson preferred.

The Thrive appendix outlining planned outreach states:

Blog and vlog: To get involvement from and perspectives of different people in the community — residents, community leaders, business leaders, county officials — we’ll ask different people to be involved in writing or being interviewed for Thrive Montgomery stories to share on the blog.

But the blog is uniformly supportive of Thrive and the concepts behind it. If you do a search for “Thrive” in the blog, almost all of the posts are written by Casey Anderson or other people at the Planning Board. This is what an orchestrated campaign looks like–not an effort to involve diverse voices and different perspectives.

The three-member Council Committee which then reviewed Thrive for the Council is chaired by Hans Riemer, a very good friend and close ally of Casey Anderson. People happier with the original staff document, such as the Civic Federation, understandably see the consultation process as set up to emphasize supporters and limit input from people who might have a contrasting vision.

Former Council President and powerful PHED Committee Chair Riemer’s statement that CSG, a regional organization fiscally sponsored by an out-of-state group with substantial contributions by developers, has been “chairing the conversation” confirms their fears.

Anderson, Riemer and CSG are understandably happy with a document which utterly mirrors their views. That doesn’t make it a bad document in terms of public policy per se, or any of their policy preferences “wrong,” and it certainly doesn’t make any of them remotely bad people. It’s a fine example of structuring a political process to achieve one’s preferred outcome. But it doesn’t provide for an open, transparent, and inclusive process that achieves buy-in from the community.

Finally, as the Council goes through the document, they should go through section by section with both the PHED version and the original Planning Staff version on hand. That will allow the Council to better discuss whether they agree with the changes. Again, they need to discuss how the feedback they’ve received that differs from recommendations is considered and incorporated. This sort of deliberative work session process, conducted in public, will allow for an open process that permits a variety of issues and concerns to be discussed and considered.

There shouldn’t be a complete restart. We need to answer questions, to consult meaningfully, and then the Council can make the decisions we elected them to do. Not everyone will be happy with their decisions, but they’ll likely feel much more included and respected if they are genuinely heard and the document reflects the diverse views in the county.

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Ginsburg hoped to reshape district she looks to represent

Bethesda Beat reports that Friends of White Flint Executive Director Amy Ginsburg is looking at running for the Montgomery County Council from newly crafted District 4.

Prior to announcing her interest in running for the Council, Ginsburg used her position at Friends of White Flint to advocate vocally for a very different version of District 4. Here is one email sent out by Friends of White Flint:

From an email sent by Friends of White Flint on November 18th.

The map configurations promoted by Ginsburg would almost certainly have excluded Takoma Park, home to Mayor Kate Stewart–the other publicly interested candidate–and included more territory in closer proximity to White Flint (a.k.a. North Bethesda).

Friends of White Flint is one of those “neighborhood” organizations that is put together by developers and business to advocate for their interests. A quick glance at the its leadership confirms that business and developer representatives compose two-thirds of the board.

While Ginsburg says her background makes her a natural candidate for “the most progressive district in the county,” Friends of White Flint has consistently argued in favor of business and development interests. Supporters of developer interests regularly repackage them in social justice language, but I suspect Ginsburg’s record at other nonprofits, such as Neediest Kids and Manna Food Center, does more to burnish her progressive credentials.

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Redistricting Plan analysis

Montgomery County’s decennial redistricting not only had to equalize populations but also had to squeeze in two new districts in addition to the existing five. The County additionally elects four at-large members.

Montgomery County Council Districts 2022-2030

All of the districts in the final plan are within 5% of the ideal district population of 151,816. At 4.7% above the ideal, the new Third (Gaithersburg-Rockville) is the most populous. But the new Second (Germantown-Poolsville) is not far behind at 4.6%. The new Fourth (Kensington-Takoma) is the smallest–4.3% undersized–followed closely by the new Sixth (Wheaton), which is 4.2% too small.

The 65% White First (Bethesda-Potomac) is the only district where a single race predominates. The 47% White Fourth and the 43% White Seventh (Olney-Damascus) are the only two other districts where a single group forms more than 40% of the population.

Whites form pluralities in two more districts–the Second and the Third–but Blacks (37%) are the largest group in the Fifth (Burtonsville) and Latinos (35%) in the Sixth. Blacks will likely comprise a much larger share in the open Fifth’s critical Democratic primary due to lopsided Democratic registration rates among African Americans.

On the other hand, the share of Latinos in the primary remains cloudier. Latinos are also disproportionately Democratic, but less so than Blacks. More importantly, immigrant communities have many non-citizens who cannot participate.

Participation rates among Latinos who are citizens is generally lower than for other groups. One reason is that eligible Latino voters skew young, as they are more likely to be citizens, and young people vote at far lower rates than older voters.

A multiplicity of Latino candidates could also split the vote. Former Planning Board Member Natalie Fani-Gonzalez and former Del. Maricé Morales are among the candidates seeking the seat. Councilmember Nancy Navarro currently represents the area.

I’d be careful not to overestimate the extent to which Montgomery voters cast ballots on racial lines. African-American Councilmember Craig Rice now represents the district with the highest share of Whites and lowest share of Blacks in the county. Both Black and Latino candidates won at-large seats in 2018.

Asians are not the most numerous group in any district. The Second has the highest share of Asians at 24%. No Asian American has ever been elected to the Montgomery County Council. Will that change in 2022 with the addition of two new districts?

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Come On Now

By Adam Pagnucco.

MoCo is about to embark on one of its most important tasks of the decade: redrawing county council districts. The county’s charter mandates redistricting every ten years in line with the release of new U.S. Census data. The charter also states that the council must pick a redistricting commission to recommend new boundary lines (although the council retains the final say). The current redistricting will be particularly intense given the recent passage of Question C, which expanded the number of districts from five to seven.

MoCo’s current county council districts.

More than 100 people applied to be on the 11-member redistricting commission and 32 were scheduled for interviews. The interviewed applicants include:

1. Two former elected officials, including one who used to be a council member and has run for two different offices in the last five years.

2. Five other former candidates for office, including one who has run for office seven times since 2009. Three of these former candidates have run at least once since 2018.

3. Two political consultants, one of whom has worked for MoCo politicians, including sitting council members.

4. Two spouses of sitting municipal elected officials. Both of these officials unsuccessfully ran for higher office before being elected to their current positions. One of the spouses also ran for office, including for council in 2017-18.

5. A sibling of a 2018 council candidate who has managed multiple local political campaigns.

These are not bad people. To the contrary, most – if not all – of them have done good things and can serve the county well in other roles. But the redistricting commission is a critical body that will play a key role in designing council districts for the next decade. The importance of this exercise to county residents cannot be overstated. The public interest should be the sole determinant of redistricting. Given the fact that the public is watching how this plays out:

It would be wise to avoid the appearance of a candidate designing his or her own district for a future run.

It would be wise to avoid the appearance of a political operative designing a district for a client.

It would be wise to avoid the appearance of a commission member designing a district for a family member.

Redistricting is an official and supremely important act of county government but it’s also a very sensitive one. Many people are jaded about “gerrymandering” and the county just had an all-out ballot war over the appropriate number of council districts. I can’t count how many times I have seen the word “machine” used to describe the county’s politics this year. In this climate, it won’t take much to get people to believe the worst about redistricting, and given the recent popularity of charter amendments, who knows how far such sentiment could go.

There are plenty of qualified applicants who could do a good job and don’t have any of the above issues. Come on now, council members! Please consider them when choosing who serves on the redistricting commission.

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