By Adam Pagnucco.
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.
Councilmember, District 1
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