A Troublesome Situation

By Adam Pagnucco.

By running for an at-large County Council seat and retaining his position as the council’s spokesman, Neil Greenberger is creating a troublesome situation for both the council and the public.  That situation is rooted in the significant conflicts that Greenberger will now have between his two roles.

As we have previously written, the position of spokesperson for an elected official – or in Greenberger’s case, nine of them – is a position of trust.  Elected officials must believe that their communications personnel will represent their positions and actions fairly towards members of the public, who after all will determine if those officials are reelected.  That’s hard to believe when the spokesperson is a candidate who is running for the same office held by the elected officials he is supposed to represent.  In at least one case – incumbent Council Member Hans Riemer – Greenberger is running in the exact same contest.  (Disclosure: your author is Riemer’s former Chief of Staff and regularly worked with Greenberger.)  That means Greenberger is supposed to be trusted to represent Riemer fairly during his day job while he could very well criticize him or his positions on the campaign trail after hours.  The same situation could apply to District 5 Council Member Tom Hucker, who may run at-large.

This is not a hypothetical scenario.  Greenberger is already running against last year’s tax hikes, telling MCM, “This county cannot take another property tax hike… I will guarantee no budget in the four years I’m in office will exceed the charter limit. That’s a guarantee.”  He also told the Sentinel, “The number one thing is, no matter what their incomes, people are still feeling the pain of the big tax increases – actually the two tax increases of last year… And I don’t think they need any more tax increases in the next four years.”  Your author has some sympathy for Greenberger’s opinions.  But the fact is that all nine of the Council Members Greenberger represents in his day job voted for the tax hikes and those who are running again will be defending them on the campaign trail.  And yet their own spokesman is contradicting them.

There is more.  Greenberger runs the council side of the county government’s cable channel, County Cable Montgomery (CCM).  He even hosts his own county TV show.  He is also a liaison between the council and Montgomery Community Media (MCM), a non-profit that covers the county and receives county funding.  In those capacities, Greenberger will be in a position to influence the coverage his opponents – including those who employ him – receive.  It’s a huge conflict.  But Greenberger ignores that.  According to the Sentinel, “Greenberger said he plans to continue to work his job while he campaigns for County Council, saying there is not a conflict of interest because his job is not political nor is he required by law to quit.”  That’s a questionable contention at best.  Many communications from elected officials to the public have a political dimension to them.  Elected officials who issue communications making themselves look bad may not be elected for long!

Neil Greenberger interviews one of his nine employers – and future political rival – Hans Riemer on his county television show in 2011.

The natural reaction of elected officials who face the prospect of their own spokesperson publicly critiquing them is to stop using the spokesperson altogether.  Think about it – who on Earth would want to employ a critic or outright opponent to write press releases about them?  Here’s where the situation becomes problematic for taxpayers.  Greenberger was paid $148,091 in 2016.  If Council Members stop going through him and start relying exclusively on their own personal staff for communications, there is a possibility that his ability to perform his day job would be impaired.

These are not garden-variety conflicts, folks.  Greenberger’s compensation as well as the media outlets he influences directly and indirectly are publicly funded.  That leads us to ask what safeguards will be put in place to prevent any potential use of public resources to benefit a specific candidate, especially if it comes at the expense of others.

Greenberger has as much right to run for office as anyone else.  He is also a merit staffer and can’t be fired for political activity after hours.  But given the above facts, Greenberger should request a transfer to a less politically sensitive position and the job of council spokesperson should be converted to an at-will appointment.  Should he fail to act accordingly, voters should consider his sense of judgment on this issue when they decide how to cast their votes.