By Adam Pagnucco.
Regular readers know my views on the administration of County Executive Marc Elrich by now, but let’s turn to an equally important entity: the Montgomery County Council. The county’s charter gives the council enormous powers, especially over land use, legislation and the budget, and its decisions are at least as important to the county’s direction as the activities of the executive.
The current council has four freshmen, the most at any one time since the council of 2006-2010. The freshmen include a former county department head, a former senior state government official, a former Obama White House official and one of the county’s most seasoned civic activists, so they came well-prepared to serve. In fact, they have become so ensconced at the council that they don’t seem like true freshmen any more. Overall, while the council has some internal rivalries that occasionally can be seen, it has been devoid of the open infighting that plagued many prior councils. Like them or not, they have mostly stuck together during the trials of governing.
The council’s portfolio is vast and it has made dozens of decisions in its first year. In my view, eight consequential events rise above the others. The council’s performance on these events is the determinant of its overall grade, which appears at the end. Let’s get to it.
Mid-year savings plan (January)
The new council members had hardly adjusted their dais seats when they were confronted with a $41 million budget hole, prompting a mid-year savings plan from the executive. The council – and especially the new members – could have complained, delayed and otherwise squirmed. But instead they got down to business and made the cuts in short order.
MCGEO agreement (March through May)
After Elrich negotiated a set of raises with the largest county employee union that included a peak raise of 9.4%, the council had to decide on their affordability. This was not easy as the union had a long history of torturing defiant politicians. But the council stuck together and unanimously forced Elrich to negotiate slightly lower raises. Expect this issue to return if Elrich negotiates more mega-raises in the face of the county’s financial problems.
MCPS and Montgomery College funding (March through May)
When Elrich released his first recommended budget in March, two of the losers were MCPS and Montgomery College. MCPS received a stingy 0.9% local dollar increase while the college got an absolute cut. Council Member Craig Rice, who chairs the council’s Education and Culture committee, called the budget “an education last budget.” But the council didn’t do a lot better. Yes, it cashed a big state check containing Kirwan money to help MCPS. But local funding for MCPS went up by just 1.2% and the college still took a cut.
OPEB raid (March through May)
One of the biggest problems with Elrich’s budget was that it relied on a $90 million raid on the county’s OPEB fund, which pays for retiree health benefits. The council grumbled about it, but approved the raid on an 8-1 vote with only Council Member Andrew Friedson dissenting. The result was a comment from Wall Street credit agency Moody’s labeling the move “a credit negative.”
Accessory dwelling unit legislation (January through July)
Council Member Hans Riemer’s zoning text amendment to liberalize county restrictions on accessory dwelling units (ADUs) provoked fierce opposition from Elrich and some civic activists. In other years, the legislation would have been either killed or watered down into oblivion. But this time, the council tweaked it and passed it unanimously. The legislation probably won’t result in huge waves of new ADUs, but the council took an important stand on the need to build more affordable units. The issue of affordable housing will come back over and over again during this term.
Public safety communications project (May through July)
When Elrich vacillated on placing the final two towers for the county’s long-standing public safety communications project even after a crippling outage, the council sprang into action. After the council threatened to override Elrich and write the towers directly into the capital project, Elrich ultimately conceded. The council would have received a better grade on this if it had not had its own history of delaying this project, but the council did the right thing in the end.
Police chief search (July through September)
After the retirement of long-time police chief Tom Manger, Elrich nominated former Portsmouth police chief Tonya Chapman to succeed him. Chapman had more baggage than an airport terminal. Once the council made clear that Chapman did not have the votes for confirmation, the administration considered another nominee who had a pension benefit issue that probably required a legislative fix. That nominee did not fly either, so Elrich ultimately nominated an acceptable choice to many on the council, acting chief Marcus Jones, whom Elrich had previously rejected. This was truly historic stuff. Never before has any council imposed its will like this on an executive to ensure a high caliber nomination for one of the county’s most important positions.
Fox subsidy (November)
Setting aside OPEB and corporate welfare for Fox, the council’s record is pretty decent on a number of issues. And the council was magnificent in forcing Elrich to hire a competent police chief. Year two should be more challenging, especially if the county’s lackluster economic performance forces tough choices on the budget.
Overall grade: B