The post about the Capitol insurrection by Julie Tagen, who is Congressman Jamie Raskin’s Chief of Staff, is the first one to lead our list two months in a row. After a strong run in January, this article took off again starting February 9 when Raskin told this story to the U.S. Senate in his opening argument at the impeachment trial. It remains one of the most riveting items we have ever posted on Seventh State.
The article about White Flint is the first item to appear on our list three months in a row. This one won’t go away. It’s about more than politics; it’s about whether our county can build appealing new communities that can compete with the rest of the region. There is a real hunger for that in MoCo and it will resume prominence after the COVID pandemic winds down.
Then there are the stories about solar in the agricultural reserve. They reveal a split not just among politicians but also inside the county’s environmental community. Some see environmentalism as concerned with the preservation of nature. Others see environmentalism’s biggest priority as preventing climate change from making Earth inhospitable to humans. Both sides are right, of course, but in the case of solar in the ag reserve, their short-term prescriptions for action were at odds. This is not the first sign of an enviro split in MoCo. The Sierra Club’s endorsement of Roger Berliner over Marc Elrich in the 2018 county executive primary was extremely controversial. We may be headed for more internal conflicts in the environmental community in the future.
MCGEO President Gino Renne has sent out a blast email to his MoCo government members celebrating his new agreement on pay increases. Gino is right to celebrate because overall, both the COVID pay he negotiated and the new deal constitute a huge win for labor.
But just a month before, the unions negotiated COVID pay agreements with County Executive Marc Elrich that provided far more than their abrogated contracts. The county eventually paid out more than $80 million in accordance with those agreements, greatly exceeding the $400,917 spent by Park and Planning and more than double the cost of the unions’ rejected contracts. And as the price for agreeing to let COVID pay end, Gino negotiated a 3.5% service increment, a 1.5% general wage adjustment and longevity pay which, on an annualized basis, should deliver tens of millions more for his members. Plus he can negotiate even more pay increases for FY22.
This was a master clinic on negotiating strategy, a colossal win for the unions and another story adding to Gino’s legend. We reprint his blast email below.
From: UFCW Local 1994 MCGEO email@example.com Subject: [External] Montgomery County Members | Breaking News – Local 1994, FOP 35, IAFF 1664 & County Executive Reach Agreement on FY 21 Compensation Package and COVID Differentials Reply-To: info firstname.lastname@example.org
Breaking News – Local 1994, FOP 35, IAFF 1664 & County Executive Reach Agreement on FY 21 Compensation Package and COVID Differentials
The CARES act which provided funding for local government operations during the pandemic ended December 31, 2020. When the CARES act ended, the county became responsible for all costs, to include COVID differential pay. Since January 1, the County Council has insisted that our COVID differential pay end immediately and they planned to pass a resolution to end it this past week. The differential was bargained between Local 1994 and the County Executive for the additional risk assumed during the pandemic. The three county government unions, FOP Lodge 35, IAFF Local 1664 and Local 1994, engaged the County Executive and members of the Council to voice our concerns over their attempt to end COVID differential pay, and reminded them that increments and general wage adjustments were not funded for FY21.
After multiple meetings with the County Executive and members of the Council, we agreed to a FY21 GWA of 1.5% to begin in the last pay period of June 2021 and a service increment and longevity step to those eligible consistent with the MCGEO Collective Bargaining Agreement. The service and longevity increases will be effective April 11, 2021, for those who missed their increment or longevity step between July 1, 2020, and April 11, 2021. Members who are eligible between April 12 and June 30 will receive their FY21 increments and longevity step on the date due.
Now that the Council has assured the County Executive and the Unions that a GWA and increments will be funded before the end of the fiscal year, effective tomorrow (2/14/2021), the COVID differential pay will end. Although we know that the COVID differential was not nearly enough money to assume the risk of a deadly pandemic, it helped to make working in these conditions bearable. Understand, Montgomery County employees received the highest COVID differential pay in the DMV, if not the nation. Other local jurisdictions who provided a COVID hazard pay ended it months ago. In the event a new stimulus package includes money for a hazard pay, we will be back to the bargaining table with the executive on your behalf.
As always, your best interests and the interests of your union brothers and sisters are paramount. Take care of one another.
Back in December, I wrote a column titled “Who’s the Boss?” in which I noted an extremely unusual event. It concerned MC 4-21, a local bill by Delegate Vaughn Stewart that enables – but does not mandate – the county to transfer administration of speed cameras from the police department to the transportation department. County Executive Marc Elrich and the county council support the bill. As elected officials, they get to set the positions of the county government on legislation and other important matters. County employees are then charged with implementing the policies decided by elected officials. That’s how government is supposed to work.
But that’s not how it worked in December, as representatives of the police department argued against the bill in a hearing before the county’s state legislators in open defiance of the executive, who the voters elected to be their boss. Multiple state legislators told me they had not witnessed something like that before. In the wake of my writing the column, I thought that the executive or his top lieutenants would crack heads and establish some discipline.
I thought wrong. Yesterday, it happened again. When the same bill (now listed as HB 564) was heard by the House Environment and Transportation Committee, once again an MCPD officer testified against it. The officer was Thomas Didone, who had also argued against it in December. Didone told the committee that he was appearing “as a Montgomery County resident and a traffic safety advocate for the International Association of Chiefs of Police Highway Safety Committee.” However, Didone is a lot more than that – he is an Assistant Chief and head of the police department’s Field Services Bureau. He is also a political appointee of the county executive, having been confirmed by the council in April, 2020. Political appointees serve at the pleasure of the executive.
Didone, bottom left, prepares to testify against a bill the county executive supports.
Didone absolutely trashed the bill, telling the committee, “Simply stated, this is bad policy based on emotions and not facts. Bad policy is bad and should not be considered.” Didone proceeded to tell the committee about how county police administer traffic cameras, demonstrating that he is no mere county resident.
Set aside the merits or lack thereof of the bill. What happened here was AMAZING. A political appointee of the county executive’s appeared in front of a House of Delegates committee and testified against a bill supported by the executive not once but TWICE. Ike Leggett would never have tolerated it. Doug Duncan would have… well, there are things too gruesome to be printed on a family-friendly blog like Seventh State!
Council Members Andrew Friedson and Hans Riemer picked up on this, writing a letter to Elrich asking him to get control of his staff. It’s true that Elrich has problems with the police department that have been exacerbated by his task force on reimagining the police. It’s also frankly irrelevant. Senior county managers don’t work for themselves. They work to implement policies established by elected officials who are accountable to voters. Elrich needs to assert his authority as the elected leader of the executive branch. If he does not, there will be chaos in Rockville.
The letter from Friedson and Riemer is reprinted below.
February 12, 2021
County Executive Marc Elrich 101 Monroe Street, 2nd Floor Rockville, MD 20850
County Executive Elrich,
The County Executive and Council have voiced their support for House Bill 564, local enabling legislation that would allow the County to move administration of the automated traffic enforcement program from Montgomery County Police to the Department of Transportation. In light of the County’s official position, you can understand the surprise and confusion created by the leader of the automated traffic enforcement program testifying in firm opposition to House Bill 564 on December 17 before the County Delegation’s Land Use Committee and on February 11 before the House Environment and Transportation Committee.
In his testimony, Assistant Chief Tom Didone said that moving the automated traffic enforcement program is “bad policy” and that the sponsoring legislators and those in County government who support it have done so “based on emotion and not fact.” His allegation is incorrect and appeared to create confusion about the County government’s true position among members of the Committee considering the bill – and understandably so.
Put aside for the moment that we continue to support the policy that House Bill 564 would enable on policy grounds. We believe moving the administration of automated traffic enforcement to the Department of Transportation is a more effective approach to reaching our Vision Zero goal by decreasing the speeding that leads to and causes deaths and severe injuries on our roadways. We also believe, consistent with the recommendations from your Reimagining Public Safety Task Force, that relying more on automated traffic enforcement will support our shared efforts to reduce bias in traffic enforcement. We welcome continued dialogue on the merit of this concept and look forward to exploring criticism of the policy, including by those with direct knowledge of the administration of the program.
We will be unable to have that discussion in any serious way if the concept is not allowed in State law. Unfortunately, the member of the Executive Branch staffed with leading the automated traffic enforcement program is advocating and lobbying against our ability to have that full public debate, despite our support.
This appears to have made approval of the enabling state legislation more difficult and such activity threatens to undercut the formal support from County elected leadership for any enabling bills before the General Assembly that impact our County. As County Executive, surely you do not want Executive Branch staff contradicting your own position. We ask that you work with members of the Executive Branch to get their expertise, their insight, and their concerns about any proposed policy in a manner that is more appropriate and respectful of our responsibility to represent the public and the standard procedures the County uses to weigh in on State legislation.
Thank you for your attention to this matter.
Andrew Friedson Councilmember, District 1
Hans Riemer Councilmember, At-Large
CC: Richard Madaleno, Chief Administrative Officer Melanie Wenger, Director, Office of Intergovernmental Relations Marcus Jones, Chief, Montgomery County Police Tom Didone, Assistant Chief, Montgomery County Police Chris Conklin, Director, Department of Transportation Delegate Marc Korman, Chair, Montgomery County Delegation Delegate Kumar Barve, Chair, House Environment and Transportation Committee Delegate Vaughn Stewart
The report contains many sensible proposals such as ensuring language access in MC311; new requirements for data collection, screening and background checks; incentives for officers to pursue higher education; expanding opportunities for youth (including reviving the Police Athletic League); expanding workforce development; increasing recruitment efforts at Historically Black Colleges and Universities; and enhancing community policing. However, these proposals are likely to be overshadowed by the more controversial recommendations in the report. They include:
Abolish school resource officers (SROS) and replace them with counselors
This is the least surprising recommendation from the task force. SROs were a hot issue before the task force was established. Their fate will be decided by competing county council bills and perhaps by state legislation in Annapolis.
Analyze whether police officers should always carry guns
Recommendation 37 states, “Conduct a risk assessment of police activities to determine when it is necessary for officers to carry a gun. Conduct a risk assessment audit of policing activities to determine the need for and effectiveness of having all officers carry firearms at all times.”
Are there any circumstances in which police officers should be required to perform their duties without carrying guns? The task force suggests that there may be and wants to find out.
Fully automate traffic enforcement
Recommendation 8 states, “Move to fully (or expanded) automated traffic enforcement through expansion of speed and intersection camera programs, and reduce FTE sworn officer positions across MCPD districts in proportion.” The task force justifies this recommendation by saying it “will remove the potential or appearance of racial bias resulting from traffic enforcement encounters. Use of automated traffic enforcement has the ability to reduce the person-to-person element in traffic enforcement that can result in racial bias in policing.”
Two questions. First, many traffic stops result in warnings. Can cameras issue warnings too or will every traffic offense now result in a ticket? Second, how can cameras pursue and arrest drunk drivers?
Reduce enforcement of drug violations
Recommendation 17 states, “Direct MCPD to treat all offenses in the ‘Crimes Against Society’ segment, except for weapons violations, as the lowest department priority.” Crimes Against Society are defined as drug violations, gambling, pornography and prostitution.
Recommendation 18 states, “Eliminate SID Drug Enforcement and SID Vice Intelligence, with a proportionate reduction in sworn officer FTEs.” The Special Investigations Division (SID) is responsible for investigating criminal gangs, some of which earn revenue from drug sales. MCPD’s 2019 crime and safety report says that MS-13 is “known to be responsible for human, narcotics, and firearms trafficking.” If the police stop investigating drug sales, will criminal gangs have access to more financial resources?
Analyze whether the police should enforce trespass law
Recommendation 34 states, “Consider whether the MCPD should continue to act as the agent for private properties in enforcing trespass law.”
The report goes on to say, “Evaluate policies, agreements, memoranda of understanding, and practices of MCPD acting as agents for private properties to enforce the property rights of the owners, make on-site trespass arrests, and issue stay away orders. Evaluate the duration of stay-away orders from public and private property to something more reasonable (i.e., three or six months as opposed to 1 year). This may also include renegotiating the collective bargaining agreement between the Fraternal Order of Police and the County that describes the circumstances under which a police officer may engage in second employment providing private security for private property owners.”
If private property owners are forced to rely on private security companies, does the task force believe that they will be less prone to engage in racial discrimination than trained police officers? Also, what does this concept mean for homeowners? If a break-in occurs at a residence, will officers be allowed to respond?
Cut the number of police officers by half in Silver Spring, Wheaton, Olney and East County
Recommendation 12 states, “Reduce sworn officer FTEs in police Districts 3 and 4 by 50% to reduce patrol officer contact with residents in these districts.”
Police Districts 3 and 4 include Silver Spring, Wheaton, Glenmont, Aspen Hill, Leisure World, Olney, Brookeville, Ashton, Sandy Spring, Spencerville and Burtonsville as shown by the map below.
The task force justifies this recommendation by noting the disproportionate use of force in Districts 3 and 4, especially against residents of color. The report is full of recommendations to reduce police racial bias, but the task force must think they are inadequate because its chosen remedy is to simply remove police officers from some communities.
Has anyone asked the residents of these districts whether they want their police service cut in half?
So what are the prospects of the above recommendations being implemented? That’s hard to say, but consider this comment in the report by County Executive Marc Elrich, who appoints the police chief and has ultimate control over the department.
“I am inspired by the effort of the Task Force and my administration is committed to continuing the transformative work of public safety in Montgomery County by advancing the goals of this report.”
Last summer, the county council passed a law regulating the use of force by Montgomery County police officers. On Tuesday, Council Members Hans Riemer and Will Jawando claimed that the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 35 (FOP) had tied up implementation of the law through collective bargaining. If true, that would be a problem as county law preempts collective bargaining with county employees. However, the FOP has released a statement claiming that Riemer and Jawando are incorrect. The FOP claims that police department management has used the use of force policy to implement extraneous measures in order to circumvent their bargaining rights and violate the constitutional rights of their members.
The competing allegations are serious ones. The county council should determine which of them are right. The FOP’s letter to the council, which it posted on Facebook, is reprinted below.
I hope you and your family are staying safe and healthy during this world-wide pandemic. I am writing today to address a false claim that was publicly stated during yesterday’s council meeting. Councilmember Jawando stated that he was told that FOP Lodge 35, which represents more than 1,400 active and retired Montgomery County Law Enforcement Officers, has held up the implementation of Council Bill 27-20, Use of Force. Lodge 35 wanted to avoid a public battle over matters that are not directly related to the Council’s Use of Force Bill, but after deceptive claims have been made by anonymous sources to councilmembers, I believe it is important for you to hear from Lodge 35.
In late November 2020, the police department provided Lodge 35 with a draft copy of what it intended to release as the new use of force policy. The policy included the directives from the council through Bill 27-20, but it also included two other items that were not mentioned. The first would require officers to provide written statements, contrary to a U.S. citizen’s 5th Amendment rights. The second would institute punitive actions against officers who fail to qualify for annual handgun training. Lodge 35 has corresponded numerous times with police department representatives, telling them to implement the new policy as the council has written and to provide the necessary training to our members to achieve this goal. As of the writing of this letter, the department has not provided a training plan to the police academy staff, nor has it released the policy to our members.
I stated Lodge 35’s concerns to the council during the public hearing on Bill 27-20. One concern was that the department would try to use this policy to add things that were not included in the council’s law in an attempt to circumvent collective bargaining, or, in this case, an officer’s constitutional rights.
To blame Lodge 35 and ignore the police department’s responsibility to implement the training is not a fair, nor correct, assessment of what is taking place.
Lee G. Holland Corporate Vice President FOP Lodge 35
The letter from FOP Lodge 35 as posted on Facebook.
Several months ago, Council Member Hans Riemer requested that the council’s Office of Legislative Oversight (OLO) research the county’s administration of its collective bargaining agreements with the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 35 (FOP). OLO’s reportwas a stunner, revealing that the county’s sloppiness resulted in different sets of collective bargaining agreements being regarded as definitive by the two parties and that the agreements contained benefit levels exceeding maximums set in law. When OLO briefed the council on the report on Tuesday, multiple council members expressed concerns about the issue. But Riemer outdid them all with a brutal attack on the police union.
A bit of background. When Riemer was first elected to the council in 2010, he was supported by all three county employee unions (MCGEO, the Fire Fighters and the FOP) as well as the two largest MCPS unions (MCEA and SEIU Local 500). While the MCPS unions continued to endorse him, none of the county employee unions endorsed him in his next two reelection campaigns.
Over the years, Riemer’s relationship with the county employee unions has gradually deteriorated. He’s not alone – majorities of the county council voted to abrogate one or more of their collective bargaining agreements in 2016, 2019 and 2020. But the intensity of union sentiment has focused more on Riemer than his colleagues, culminating with a picket of Riemer’s home last May.
I may have a comment about the merits of Riemer’s criticisms in a future column, but for now let’s hear what he had to say. The following is a transcription of his remarks at the council briefing on February 2.
Council Member Hans Riemer: I think what you see here is the result of an organization, which is our police department, frankly being under siege for 25 years from a hyper-aggressive legal adversary that uses every means at its disposal to gain control. And I think it’s very reasonable to separate our strong support for our officers who need our support. They need to know that we are there for them, we will equip them, we will train them, we will fund their salaries – at the same time, not having a dynamic where the legal advocacy of that organization takes over the department, which I think has unfortunately happened in so many different ways.
And if you saw the letter to the editor from the FOP to the Bethesda Beat over the weekend, I thought it was shocking. You know, they actually said nowhere in county collective bargaining law does it say that a third party or the county council need to be able to decipher all collective bargaining documents. Put yourself in a mindset to be able to write those words, that the public has no right to know or need to know what is in our governing documents. That is the mindset that we are dealing with. And it is a huge problem.
So we need to tackle the many consequences of this in discipline, we see this playing out, officers committing egregious offenses, sitting on payroll for year after year after year, and there’s legislation that Council Member Rice and I, co-sponsored by Council Member Jawando, Council Member Navarro, have introduced that will address a lot of the root causes of these problems. And I would really like the county council public safety chair and committee to review that legislation. It’s been before the council for months. It has not had a meeting. We need to review that legislation and have a discussion about it. The fact that the use of force policy is now being bargained despite our clear intention is problematic.
Note: That last sentence from Riemer refers to legislation passed by the council last August that codified a use of force policy for the county police department. Both Riemer and Council Member Will Jawando claimed that it is now being bargained despite its presence in county law, which supersedes county collective bargaining agreements.
(Disclosure: I was Riemer’s Chief of Staff from 2010 through 2014. I have worked for labor unions but have never worked for the FOP.)
Yesterday, the county council’s Office of Legislative Oversight (OLO) released a stunning report on collective bargaining between the county and Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) Lodge 35. The report shows incredible sloppiness by the county in administering labor relations with the police that likely goes back far before the current county executive was in office.
The FOP is one of three unions representing employees of the Montgomery County Government. The other two are the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1664 and MCGEO. Since 1982, the county has negotiated collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) with the FOP, including many provisions on wages, benefits and working conditions. The OLO report examines bargaining between the county and FOP but does not include the other two unions.
OLO makes many findings of concern, including on issues of transparency. Two major findings leap out of the report.
The county and the FOP did not agree on what their agreement actually was.
First, the Executive Branch and the FOP use different versions of the primary agreement and do not agree on a singular document as the primary CBA. Second, the parties also do not agree on which side letters and MOAs [memorandums of agreement] are part of the current agreement and which are not. OLO was told by representatives both in the Executive Branch and from the FOP that the County Government and the FOP have not had a signed collective bargaining agreement for over a decade. OLO has also been told by the Executive Branch that an agreement is in place and the Office of Labor Relations and the FOP are working towards a unified, written document. OLO notes that despite the state of the documents, the parties report that they work together to implement the collective bargaining agreement on a day-to-day basis and use an agreed-upon arbitration process to resolve disagreements, when necessary.
OLO’s primary finding is that it is impossible for a third-party reader to identify the terms and provisions of the collective bargaining agreement between the County and FOP Lodge 35 because the parties do not agree on the primary document. In addition, while the County and the FOP agree that certain side letters and MOAs are in effect, they do not agree on the current status/effect of all side letters and MOAs. This disagreement adds to the inability of a third-party to know or understand all the provisions that make up the collective bargaining agreement.
In other words, MoCo voters have no idea what they’re paying for and, as of the writing of the report, have no way to find out.
An aside. When I was working in the labor movement, I worked with an old, wily jurisdictional director from Brooklyn named Stan. Stan was responsible for negotiating international union agreements with our contractors. Stan had seen every trick in the book over his decades of negotiating. One trick was when company attorneys made changes to agreements that were not negotiated and tried to sneak them in. For example, if the union and the company agreed to changing Articles 12, 15 and 28, the company attorney might insert those changes but also make a change to Article 30. If that change went unnoticed and the union president signed it, that became part of the new agreement.
To stop that kind of thing, Stan would summon me into his office and give me a copy of his version of the agreement. Then he would read aloud from the company’s version – every single word in that New Yawk accent of his – including the sections that had not been renegotiated. If we found one punctuation mark that was out of place, BAM! Stan would be on the phone with the company lawyer, demanding to know how that happened. That’s how much we cared about making sure the agreement was exactly what we agreed to, every single word.
And that’s why I am surprised by the county’s sloppiness here. From my own experience in the labor movement, when the parties don’t agree on what their agreement is, that “agreement” can be hard to administer.
The agreement that expired on June 30, 2020 provided benefit levels that exceeded maximum amounts set in county law.
OLO identified the following examples of benefits in the agreement that exceeded what is allowable under county law.
Agreement: Most current employees contribute 4.75% of salary for retirement.
County law: Employee contributions are set at 6.75% of salary for service after June 30, 2012.
Agreement: The pension cost of living adjustment is tied to the consumer price index with a cap of 7.5%.
County law: The pension cost of living adjustment is tied to the consumer price index with a cap of 2.5%.
Agreement: The minimum pension for a service-connected disability is set at 66.6% of final earnings.
County law: The minimum pension for a service-connected disability is set at 52.5% of final earnings.
Agreement: The health insurance premium split is set at 80% County / 20% employee.
County law: The health insurance premium split is set at 75% County / 25% employee.
The county council made several changes to benefit levels through legislation passed during the Great Recession. The legislation preempts any contents of collective bargaining agreements. It may be that subsequent agreements were not updated to reflect these changes because of the kind of sloppiness seen above. The OLO report authors told me, “FOP members received benefits as stipulated in law and Council resolutions (not what is written in the contracts).”
In responding to the report, Chief Administrative Officer Rich Madaleno wrote, “…The draft report notes that the County and the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) have been unable to agree upon a unified collective bargaining agreement. This is no longer accurate. OLR [Office of Labor Relations] and the FOP have been engaged in a year-long project to reconcile those differences and have agreed to a single version of the collective bargaining agreement. Attached for your information is the unsigned agreement. The signed version will be forwarded to you next week.”
Unfortunately, the new agreement received by OLO contains the same benefit levels that exceed the maximums contained in county law. That issue has not been cleaned up. Neither have a host of issues I identified last June, the most disturbing of which requires the county to fight certain Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) requests in court. OLO identified the latter issue as well, writing that that provision appears to conflict with state law.
OLO recommends that all collective bargaining documents, including supplementary ones, be posted on the county’s website for public view; that outdated and/or moot language be purged; that the county council be notified of changes; and that the agreements be consistent with federal, state and county law. Given the county’s past mistakes, these are hard recommendations to argue against.
The year 2020 was hugely eventful for the entire world and MoCo was no exception. In our county, 2020 saw a public health crisis, a resulting economic crash and huge challenges to our quality of life. In political terms, it also saw unusually contentious elections for school board and circuit court judge, four historic ballot questions and numerous fights inside county government. We wrote about it all on Seventh State. Here are the top twenty posts measured by page views from the people who count the most – YOU, our readers.
This was a poorly organized public event gone wrong, culminating with an unmasked protestor getting within spitting distance of the county executive. For those who question the need for the executive to have a security detail, this is Exhibit A for why it can be necessary.
County Executive Marc Elrich’s first veto, this one targeting a council-passed bill giving Metro station developers 15-year property tax breaks, set off a fight on corporate welfare that has not ended by a long shot. That will prove especially true if a proposal by the planning staff to grant tax abatements to other properties near Metro stations advances.
In early November, MCPS told the public that it was planning a phased-in reopening of schools for some in-person instruction. But the winter surge of COVID quickly overtook that plan and cast the timing of reopening in doubt. The issue is still unsettled.
Back in the summer, MCPS’s original reopening plan was drenched in controversy, ultimately resulting in a pitched battle with the county teachers’ union (MCEA). MCPS wound up going with virtual learning for the fall, like most other large school systems in the region, but the mechanics and safety of reopening are still subjects of debate.
Jobs, jobs, JOBS. According to White Flint developers, MoCo’s slow rate of job growth was one reason that they could not get financing to proceed on the county’s preeminent development plan. The chart below says it all. And when the COVID pandemic finally ends, county leaders must dedicate themselves to creating jobs, Jobs, JOBS or MoCo’s stagnation will continue.
Back in June, incumbent Baltimore City Council Member Zeke Cohen, who had a big lead in money and endorsements over his challenger, appeared on election night to be getting just 2% of the vote. That was the first sign of a primary gone wrong, which led to many misgivings about the state’s processes with mail ballots and the performance of its long-time election administrator Linda Lamone.
2020 was a year of surprises, and one of the bigger surprises was the emergence from political retirement of former County Executive Ike Leggett. Question B (Robin Ficker’s latest anti-tax charter amendment) and Question D (nine council districts) disturbed Leggett enough that he started a ballot issue committee to defeat them. This post was Leggett’s guest column on why they were bad ideas and it got a big reaction from our readers.
After school board candidate Lynne Harris blamed MCEA for allegedly resisting school reopening (a post that also appears on our top 20 list), a group of rank-and-file teachers pushed back in this guest post. It achieved wide readership that was probably concentrated among teachers as the general election approached.
In non-COVID news, 2020 was the year that the county’s police department (along with departments around the country) became a political football. This post describes how the executive, the county council and Annapolis all jumped into the issue of policing with little coordination. Lost in the debate was the central fact that crime in MoCo is at its lowest level in decades. Policing will continue to be a hot topic in 2021.
Tomorrow we will list the top ten Seventh State posts for the year!
One of the challenges of running the executive branch is to present a unified front to the public. The executive branch has thousands of employees and hundreds of subject matter experts in fields ranging from transportation to IT to law to environmental management to social services to… you get the idea. It’s incredible how much the county government does and how much its employees know. But at the same time, it works for one person: the county executive. He or she is the ultimate policy maker for the executive branch. After hopefully listening to input far and wide, the executive’s decision on an executive branch position is final. And every person inside the executive branch must respect it.
Or at least that’s the theory.
This principle broke down in full public view with regards to MC 4-21, a state bill affecting only Montgomery County introduced by Delegate Vaughn Stewart (D-19). The bill would enable, but not mandate, the county to transfer administration of speed cameras from the police department to the transportation department. Stewart believes it makes sense to have one agency in charge of both traffic safety and road improvements, and since the police department does not manage road projects, he thinks the transportation department should do both. County Executive Marc Elrich supports the bill and there is no indication in documents sent to the county council that he has any reservations about it. That should be the end of the story; the executive (as well as the council) supports the bill and the state delegation, which will decide its fate, will take that into account when deciding how to vote on it.
But that’s not the end of the story. The county’s director of intergovernmental relations wrote this to the council in addition to noting the executive’s support:
The Office of the County Attorney (OCA), the Department of Transportation (MCDOT), and the Department of Police (MCPD) have expressed concerns about MC 4-21. Specifically, OCA explained that while the local bill is only enabling, “DOT is not a law enforcing agency and is not equipped to act as one.” It pointed out that the bill “would have Montgomery County as the only jurisdiction in the State where no law enforcement individuals are reviewing speed camera citations and signing off on violations.”
Well, OK. The bill is an enabling bill, not a mandate. If the bill passes, the executive would have a voice in determining whether the shift in responsibility is actually implemented. Is the Office of County Attorney arguing that its boss – the executive – should not have that voice when the executive openly desires it?
There is more. When the MoCo state legislators’ land use committee convened to consider the bill on December 17, representatives of the police department acknowledged that the executive supported the bill and then proceeded to argue against it. Among their statements were that Baltimore City allegedly screwed up a similar program, the MoCo police had 15 years of experience in speed camera management that was a “national model,” and the state legislators should “make sure this is not an emotional decision.” They also characterized D.C.’s speed camera program, which was shifted to their transportation department, as “the worst program in the nation, hands down, by far.” One police official proudly declared, “We do not succumb to political influence!” in front of – you guessed it – seven state politicians in the meeting. He concluded that a transfer of responsibility “would do irreparable damage to this program as well as programs throughout the state.”
But the executive supports the bill.
Set aside the specifics of the bill for a moment. When the executive makes a policy decision, such as whether to support legislation, it is not merely a personal gesture. The executive is elected by voters to make decisions on behalf of the executive branch. Its employees are bound to carry out those decisions. Sure, the executive branch doesn’t exist in a bubble – it has to respond to other governmental bodies as well as a host of outside circumstances. But within its boundaries, the executive’s decisions must be respected. If not, then the departments turn into free agents and no one is really running the place.
You can bet that when the police openly tried to kill a bill supported by the executive, the state legislators who witnessed it noticed. They are not the only ones. The county council knows about it. No doubt other departments are watching. It’s impossible to say what gave rise to the police rebellion. Do they feel that the executive does not listen to them? If so, the executive’s information gathering process needs improvement. But if the executive does not remind his subordinates who their boss is, then the executive branch won’t have a boss. And that would make the county damn near ungovernable.
Council Member Andrew “Real Deal” Friedson Friedson authored Question A, which liberalized the county’s property tax system to allow receipts to increase with assessments. Wall Street applauded its passage. Even progressives, who don’t love Friedson but owe him big-time for opening up the county’s revenue stream, have to admit that his Question A was the real deal.
Council Member Evan Glass Glass authored Question C, which added two district council seats and defeated the nine district Question D. Lots of wannabe politicians are going to look at running for the new seats. Every single one of them should kiss Glass’s ring and write a max-out check to his campaign account.
County Democratic Party It’s not a coincidence that MoCo voters adopted the positions of the county Democratic Party on all four ballot questions. With partisan sentiments running high and information on the questions running low, MoCo Democrats went along with their party and dominated the election.
David Blair Blair was the number one contributor to the four ballot issue committees that passed Questions A and C and defeated Questions B and D. By himself, Blair accounted for nearly half the money they raised. Whatever Blair decides to do heading into the next election, he can claim to have done as much to pass the county Democrats’ positions on the ballot questions as anyone. (Disclosure: I have done work for Blair’s non-profit but I was not involved in his ballot question activities.)
Ike Leggett The former county executive was key in leading the fight against Robin Ficker’s anti-tax Question B and the nine county council district Question D. Thousands of MoCo voters still like, respect and trust Ike Leggett.
Jews United for Justice While not having the money and manpower of many other groups who played on the questions, Jews United for Justice played a key role in convening the coalition that ultimately won. They have gained a lot of respect from many influencers in MoCo politics.
Facebook Lord knows how much money they made from all the ballot question ads!
Robin Ficker At the beginning of 2020, MoCo had one of the most restrictive property tax charter limits of any county in Maryland. For many years, Ficker was looking to make it even tighter and petitioned Question B to the ballot to convert it into a near-lock on revenues. But his charter amendment provoked Friedson to write Question A, which ultimately passed while Question B failed and will raise much more money than the current system over time. Instead of tightening the current system, the result is a more liberal system that will achieve the opposite of what Ficker wanted – more revenue for the county. This was one of the biggest backfires in all of MoCo political history.
Republicans The county’s Republican Party did everything they could to pass Ficker’s anti-tax Question B and the nine county council district Question D. In particular, they gave both cash and in-kind contributions to Nine Districts and even raised money for the group on their website. In doing so, the GOP provoked a fierce partisan backlash as the county Democrats rose up to take the opposite positions on the ballot questions and most Democratic-leaning groups combined forces to support them. With President Donald Trump apparently defeated, Governor Larry Hogan leaving office in two years and little prospect of success in MoCo awaiting them, where does the county’s Republican Party go from here?
This tweet by MoCo for Question C from a voting location explains all you need to know about why Question D failed.
Political Outsiders It wasn’t just Republicans who supported the failed Questions B and D; a range of political outsiders supported them too. What they witnessed was a mammoth effort by the Democratic Party, Democratic elected officials and (mostly) progressive interest groups to thwart them. Even the county chamber of commerce and the realtors lined up against them. Whether or not it’s true, this is bound to provoke more talk of a “MoCo Machine.” Machine or not, outsiders have to be wondering how to win when establishment forces combine against them.
MCGEO, Fire Fighters and Police Unions These three unions are frustrated. They have not been treated the way they expected by the administration of County Executive Marc Elrich and they are also upset with the county council for abrogating their contracts (among other things). They wanted to show that they could impose consequences for messing with them and that was one reason why all three made thousands of dollars of in-kind contributions to Nine Districts. On the negative side, the nine districts Question D failed. On the positive side, the passage of Friedson’s Question A will result in a flow of more dollars into the county budget over time, a win for their members. So it’s a push. On to the next election.