By Adam Pagnucco.
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.