Elrich is Surprised at the Council. Um, What?

By Adam Pagnucco.

In the wake of the county council’s nuclear annihilation of the county’s federal COVID grant management, MCM carried this quote from County Executive Marc Elrich:

Following the meeting, which Elrich did not attend, he told Montgomery Community Media he was surprised at the council’s reaction. “There is no way the money goes out the door the next day.” Elrich explained that applications for funds must be gone through to make sure they meet the requirements. “This is the whole thing about allocating money,” he said, adding, “We are not holding money back.”

Um, whaaaaat???

Anyone who was surprised by the council’s response to the administration’s COVID grant challenges is not paying attention to them. This is only the latest episode in a loooooong line of council complaints about the executive branch. If I were to type them all out, my keyboard would break. There is nothing new here. And there is absolutely nothing surprising.

If one word can be used to describe the council’s sentiment towards Elrich, it is frustration. They are frustrated at the communication problems which have plagued the relationship for the entire term. They are frustrated at what they believe to be disorganization and a lack of an agenda (other than reacting to COVID) on the part of the administration. They are frustrated at Elrich’s management of the budget, including but not limited to his union contracts, a raid on retiree health care money last year, a hidden tax increase built into his budget this year, his failure to make any progress on restructuring government to save money and now his runaway COVID pay liability. But most of all they’re frustrated because they don’t think they have a willing or competent partner in the executive branch. For all their substantial powers over budget, legislation and land use, the council members have no authority to actually run the government themselves. And at this point, all of them think the government could be run better.

Many people look at the executive-council relationship through the prism of Elrich vs Council Member Hans Riemer. It’s true that Riemer (my former employer) is Elrich’s harshest and most frequent critic. But Riemer is something of an anomaly. His fifteen-year personal enmity with Elrich is not shared by any other sitting Council Member. Instead, look at Council Member Nancy Navarro, a cautious politician who is not given to public hysterics. She was at a loss for words at the tumultuous meeting about the grants on Tuesday. Look at Council Member Tom Hucker, who shares much of Elrich’s political base and is usually with him on progressive issues. None of that stopped Hucker from calling out Elrich. “Do you know where the county executive is?” Hucker asked Chief Administrative Officer Rich Madaleno on Tuesday. Look at Council Member Will Jawando, another progressive who called the administration’s slowness on getting out federal assistance to renters and vulnerable residents “totally unacceptable.”

The body and facial language says it all.

But most of all, look at Council Member Gabe Albornoz. Nicknamed Mr. Rogers by his colleagues, Albornoz – like his mentor, Ike Leggett – is one of the most courteous and civil politicians I have ever met. Unlike his flashier freshman colleagues who have been quick to establish their political identities, Albornoz has set the same kind of slow, steady and workmanlike path to higher office that Leggett employed decades ago. But Albornoz has become increasingly vocal over his unhappiness with the administration in recent months. When Elrich joked that the council was “fact proof” on a hot mic, Albornoz said:

I did not find the County Executive’s comments on this video funny or amusing. In fact, I found them deeply troubling and the reaction of his senior officials disappointing. It’s also disappointing that the County Executive does not have a better understanding or command of this situation.

And with regards to the administration’s grant problems, Albornoz said:

I’m not confident at all that a month from now, when we have another update, that things will be significantly improved from where we are right now. And we’re setting everybody up for failure right now. And it’s not fair. It’s not fair to the county employees who are working diligently and around the clock to address these issues. We need stronger strategic leadership to be able to provide them with the support that they need to be able to get their jobs done. And I’m not seeing that and I’m not hearing that right now.

When Mr. Rogers grabs a shotgun, you know that all is not well in the neighborhood!

There have been seven MoCo executives since the office was established in 1970. None of Elrich’s predecessors have been so isolated and so regularly attacked by the council as Elrich has – and let’s remember that one of them (Jim Gleason) was a Republican. Politics is a team sport. No politician – not the president, not a governor, not a mayor, not a county executive – can totally go it alone and succeed from either a policy perspective or a political perspective. As amiable and astute as Rich Madaleno is, he can’t fix the relationship with the council all by himself. No one else can fix it. Only Elrich can.

And if he doesn’t, the “surprises” are going to keep coming.