Tag Archives: Andrew Friedson

Chevy Chase Library Redevelopment. If It’s a Good Idea, No Need to Mislead.

In a recent email appeal on the proposed Chevy Chase Library redevelopment, the Coalition for Smarter Growth (CSG) wrote:

This is an opportunity to model the smart growth future of Montgomery County by mixing affordable housing and a public facility in one location near transit, services, amenities, and jobs. . . . With your support, we can win more housing and more affordable housing in a community that has been kept out of reach for too many for too long.

The CSG email gave the strong impression that this is a unique affordable housing opportunity. But there is currently no guarantee that the project on this site would consist of more than the minimum required moderately priced dwelling units (MPDUs) . Most units would be market rate housing, which in this area likely means million-dollar condos or high-end rentals. In other words, you could apply this same language to Lionsgate in Bethesda or any development.

The sign-on letter to the county exaggerates the case even more:

We believe this is an opportunity to model the future of Montgomery County by mixing housing and a public facility in one location near transit, services, amenities, and jobs. This project is key to meeting the county’s goals to achieve racial equity and social justice, and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation.

This is an area that was kept out of reach for people of color through redlining, restrictive covenants, and other public and private policies. The government must take intentional steps to reverse this history. . . . Montgomery County needs more projects like this to break down its racial and socioeconomic east-west divide and achieve housing justice.

Language like this is almost included routinely in progressive advocacy documents. In many ways, it is more a statement of faith, like reciting the catechism, than anything else. At the same time, million-dollar condos or pricey rentals in this one project just aren’t the “key” to “racial equity and social justice” or reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It’s a lot for one modest building project to carry. Even the MPDUs are moderate, not low-income, housing.

The funny thing is that, on balance, I think this project is probably a good idea. Notwithstanding its exclusion from the recently adopted Master Plan, it is near the Purple Line stop and other areas around it that are being built up. Hundreds of units are currently being delivered right up the avenue at Chevy Chase Lake, and hundreds more are proposed. But it’s not necessary to so massively oversell this as a social justice, affordable housing project to make that case.

Making the Project Work

The site currently consists of a large area of surface parking. Is there a better use for that land? Probably yes. Must parking still be a consideration? Yes. To make the project truly successful, the redeveloped library will need onsite parking.

CSG opposes parking but most people in the surrounding suburban neighborhoods cannot walk to this or any other library. You can’t rebuild it and make it impossible for most of the community to access it. Many elderly and disabled patrons who can no longer park next to the redeveloped Silver Spring Library now use this library, and it’d be a shame to displace them again. The parking lots across the street in Silver Spring are too far for those with serious mobility issues.

Getting Our Money’s Worth

Finally, the county needs to come to the table with a more knowledgeable approach so it can leverage its assets and advocate properly for its citizens. Councilmember Will Jawando has repeatedly made this excellent point. We rely far too much on analyses produced by the developer in our own assessments:

The voting on tax abatements for projects at Metro stations revealed this all too clearly. At the committee level, Jawando’s proposal to require deeper levels of affordability was voted down flat as economically unfeasible by Councilmembers Hans Riemer and Andrew Friedson. When voted on at the full council, the same amendment was adopted unanimously. As if “miraculously”, the previously impossible became possible.

If we are better informed, we can negotiate hard and get better value out of these deals, including a higher share of affordable housing. It’s not just the right thing to do. The government neglects its fiduciary responsibility if it doesn’t get maximal value for people of the county when negotiating these projects.

Conclusion

The redevelopment of Chevy Chase Library with housing is potentially a very good project and the county should work to make sure that we, the citizens of Montgomery County, get the most public value. As the idea moves forward, it should continue to pursue a vision that serves the whole community, and adds more affordable units.

There’s no need for CSG to engage in over-the-top hype as the county moves forward with exploring what was, after all, the county government’s own idea. This redevelopment project may well prove worthwhile even if it doesn’t solve all social and racial inequities, and stop climate change.

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MCEA Issues Council Endorsements

The influential Montgomery County Education Association, the teachers union, has issued its endorsements for the Montgomery County Council. I’ve put the non-incumbents in italics below:

District 1: Andrew Friedson
District 2: Will Roberts
District 3: Sidney Katz
District 4: Kate Stewart
District 5: Fatmata Barrie
District 6: Natali Fani-Gonzalez
District 7: Dawn Luedtke
At-Large: Brandy Brooks, Evan Glass, Laurie-Anne Sayles, Will Jawando

Interestingly, they have chosen not to endorse Council President Gabe Albornoz. This one puzzles me because unions normally endorse well-liked councilmembers who are likely to win even if they have some policy disagreements to avoid alienating them.

MCEA has also placed bets in several hotly contested open seats, including Rep. Raskin’s former Legislative Director Will Roberts in District 2, Takoma Park Mayor Kate Stewart in District 4, Immigration Attorney Fatmata Barrie in District 5, former Planning Board Member Natali Fani-Gonzalez in District 6, and Attorney Dawn Luedtke in District 7.

Five of their eleven endorsements went to African American candidates: Will Roberts, Fatmata Barrie, Brandy Brooks, Laurie-Anne Sayles and Will Jawando. Three have gone to Jewish candidates: Andrew Friedson, Sidney Katz and Evan Glass–all are incumbents. Glass is also the first openly gay councilmember. Natali Fani-Gonzalez is the sole Latina or Latino endorsed. (Correction: I’ve now learned that Brandy Brooks is Afro-Latina.) A majority of endorsements went to women (6 of 11).

(By the way, the Maryland State Board of Elections website appears a little screwed up and not listing candidates properly. Today, it is showing only five districts and candidates not necessarily listed where they are running as far as I can tell.)

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Thriving Together

The Tweeters have been active since the Coalition for Smarter Growth (CSG) condemned me. I’ve been threatened with physical violence and another prominent smart growth blogger says I “must be stopped.” Twitter suspended the account of the person who threatened me.

While not pleasant, a friend with good sense reminded me to “ignore the trolls” and that the “Twitter echo chamber is not representative of the real world.” The bile seemed to go far beyond anger at my criticizing a lobbyist for not filing required reports.

What I rapidly learned is that my series of posts about problematic ethics at the Planning Board and lobbying raised the ire of advocates for Thrive 2050 —the county’s general plan that the County Council is set to consider. Apparently, similar treatment has been meted out to others deemed to be critics, though I have literally not written a word on Thrive prior to today.

Well, they got me much more interested. I have not followed the Thrive debate closely. Like many, I’ve been focused on my job and getting through the pandemic, so I stopped blogging completely. Over the weekend, I’ve started to gain a quick education.

The key takeaway so far is that new County Council President Gabe Albornoz and Vice President Evan Glass have their work cut out for them. The intense divisions and acrimony around Thrive mirror the ugly mood and tenor of debate in the country. Confidence isn’t increased by the Planning Board’s failure to register lobbyists, violations of the open meetings law and abuse of the consent calendar to constrain public input on other matters.

The good news is that I cannot think of two people more suited to address it. While I sometimes disagree with them strongly, you won’t find two more fundamentally even-keeled public officials than Councilmembers Albornoz and Glass. As a result, I remain optimistic that they can lead the county to a document that brings people together. Put another way, I hope they can move the process forward to a conclusion but in a way that makes residents feel included and heard.

That doesn’t mean “paralysis by analysis”—the county’s unfortunate moniker for its tendency to study matters into eternity—but it does mean heading towards the end in the right way. How can that be accomplished?

It’s an unfortunate truth of public policy that many people only start to pay greater attention once matters come to a head. (Consider me Exhibit A in this case.) This is especially true because the key parts of the process took place during the pandemic and the 2020 election. So many people still have a lot of questions they would like answered, and many would like to know how the comments they have already provided will be incorporated.

Thrive proponents may be technically correct that the document itself changes nothing with respect to zoning, but it is strongly linked to potential major zoning changes (zoning text amendments) that have also been proposed and are already under discussion. So saying it has no impact on zoning comes across, intentionally or not, as too clever and insincere.

It’s especially important because the Planning Board, led by Casey Anderson, removed certain references to the importance of the Master Planning process. The document is now written to pre-determine outcomes, while simultaneously claiming not to have decided anything. Put another way, we are now being told that it is too early to know its impact on zoning but, once Thrive is passed, it will be too late because “Thrive says . . .”

People want to know what Thrive means for them—how will it affect their home and their neighborhood? What about nearby areas? People care a lot about how changes impact their family and their largest investment or their rent. Using plain language and including specific metrics would go a long way to help residents better understand outcomes Thrive expects to realistically achieve,

In my time as mayor and other leadership positions, I’ve found that listening is far more important than talking. I’m not saying it’s easy or my natural strength, but I work on it. People like to be heard. They also justifiably loathe performative “consultations” where leaders claim to want input, but the outcome has been pre-determined. Councilmembers must incorporate comments from the very broad range of opinion thoughtfully with an open mind.

Which brings me to why this effort is needed to get the process back on track. Many in the community believe that the process has been highly structured to produce a particular outcome supported by a nexus between the Planning Board Chair, activist/business groups like CSG, and certain councilmembers.

The Planning Board staff presented a draft that was amended “in a very surgical way” at the behest of Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson according to insiders. While avowedly done in response to community comment, for example, it’s hard to imagine that this very pro-environment county demanded the excision of Thrive’s specific environmental chapter. Did anyone actually request this? The changes reflect exactly what one would imagine Casey Anderson preferred.

The Thrive appendix outlining planned outreach states:

Blog and vlog: To get involvement from and perspectives of different people in the community — residents, community leaders, business leaders, county officials — we’ll ask different people to be involved in writing or being interviewed for Thrive Montgomery stories to share on the blog.

But the blog is uniformly supportive of Thrive and the concepts behind it. If you do a search for “Thrive” in the blog, almost all of the posts are written by Casey Anderson or other people at the Planning Board. This is what an orchestrated campaign looks like–not an effort to involve diverse voices and different perspectives.

The three-member Council Committee which then reviewed Thrive for the Council is chaired by Hans Riemer, a very good friend and close ally of Casey Anderson. People happier with the original staff document, such as the Civic Federation, understandably see the consultation process as set up to emphasize supporters and limit input from people who might have a contrasting vision.

Former Council President and powerful PHED Committee Chair Riemer’s statement that CSG, a regional organization fiscally sponsored by an out-of-state group with substantial contributions by developers, has been “chairing the conversation” confirms their fears.

Anderson, Riemer and CSG are understandably happy with a document which utterly mirrors their views. That doesn’t make it a bad document in terms of public policy per se, or any of their policy preferences “wrong,” and it certainly doesn’t make any of them remotely bad people. It’s a fine example of structuring a political process to achieve one’s preferred outcome. But it doesn’t provide for an open, transparent, and inclusive process that achieves buy-in from the community.

Finally, as the Council goes through the document, they should go through section by section with both the PHED version and the original Planning Staff version on hand. That will allow the Council to better discuss whether they agree with the changes. Again, they need to discuss how the feedback they’ve received that differs from recommendations is considered and incorporated. This sort of deliberative work session process, conducted in public, will allow for an open process that permits a variety of issues and concerns to be discussed and considered.

There shouldn’t be a complete restart. We need to answer questions, to consult meaningfully, and then the Council can make the decisions we elected them to do. Not everyone will be happy with their decisions, but they’ll likely feel much more included and respected if they are genuinely heard and the document reflects the diverse views in the county.

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Don’t Mess With the Real Deal

By Adam Pagnucco.

In January 2014, District 1 County Council Member Roger Berliner posted a cash balance of $52,369 in his campaign finance report. Over the prior year, he had raised just $200. Berliner was a battle-tested politician as he had defeated an incumbent to get elected in 2006 and then beat a capable challenger in 2010. But he had clearly taken 2013 off, at least from a political perspective.

That caught the attention of former At-Large Council Member Duchy Trachtenberg, who had been ousted in 2010 and was looking for a way to get back into politics. Trachtenberg filed to run against Berliner hours before the filing deadline and was sitting on a cash balance of $122,575 from the last election. She looked like a threat as she was a former incumbent, had money and brought union support and some business support into the race.

Berliner went into overdrive, raising money hand over fist and locking down his district. He wound up thrashing Trachtenberg by 57 points. But if he had shown a large cash balance, Trachtenberg might not have run against him in the first place.

Berliner’s successor, Council Member Andrew “Real Deal” Friedson, is no doubt aware of this history.

The table below shows campaign finance data for the incumbent county executive and county council members. My presentation differs from other sources in two ways. First, I show money raised and spent for the entire cycle, not just the last year. Second, I calculate burn rate, which is the percentage of money raised that has already been spent. Burn rate is important because candidates need to keep it low in the beginning to save up for large expenditures like mail at the end.

Friedson’s numbers are the obvious headline. He raised $264,870 for the cycle and has a cash balance of $284,476. His burn rate was a rock bottom 5%, meaning he spent very little compared to what he raised. We’ll get into just how astounding Friedson’s cash balance is below.

District 5 County Council Member Tom Hucker also did well, raising $100,083 and finishing with a cash balance of $175,196. Hucker was aided by the facts that he had marginal opposition in the last election and he has been raising money for a potential run for comptroller. If he runs for his current seat, his cash balance is excellent. But in a race for comptroller, he trails actual and potential candidates Delegate Brooke Lierman ($588,292 on hand), Senator Brian Feldman ($346,320), Bowie Mayor Tim Adams ($253,130) and Senator Jim Rosapepe ($207,181).

At-Large Council Member Will Jawando was the top fundraiser among county council candidates in public financing last time. But after entering traditional financing, he reported a cash balance of just $23,063. Jawando is a talented candidate and he has time to fix this, but at this moment, he doesn’t look as strong as he should.

Most of the other incumbents were in public financing last time and either have no money or have closed and not reopened public financing accounts. They don’t need to have an active public account right now as they are not eligible for county matching funds until a year before the next primary (which will be held on June 28, 2022). But they should open public accounts soon.

At-Large Council Member Hans Riemer, District 2 Council Member Craig Rice and District 4 Council Member Nancy Navarro are term limited. They can’t run for council in the next election but they could run for other offices.

Let’s return to Friedson’s huge cash balance, which was posted a year and a half before the next primary. The table below shows cash balances reported by council incumbents in traditional financing a year and a half before the next primary over the last four cycles (2010, 2014, 2018 and 2022). There are a lot of good fundraisers in here, especially the at-large incumbents who often raised more than $250,000 for their reelections. Friedson’s number smokes them all and so does Hucker’s.

If Hucker runs for reelection to his current seat, it’s hard to see him having a problem. He has represented the core of his district since he was first elected as a District 20 Delegate in 2006 and his political roots there go back much farther than that. The recipe for running in that area is to go as far left as possible and it’s difficult to get to the left of Hucker.

Friedson is a different story. Some on the left dislike his alliance with the business community (which is reflected in his fundraising) and his fiscal conservatism (at least in highly relative MoCo terms). They note that he won his first primary with 28% of the vote in an 8-candidate race. Rumors of a primary challenge have circulated for months. Friedson’s opponents should be mindful of the district’s 30-year history of electing Republicans and Democrats with moderate tendencies as well as Friedson’s status as a hometown boy.

In any event, Friedson is sending a message to critics and potential opponents with his huge war chest. It goes something like this.

You can’t outraise me. You can’t outwork me. I am going to dominate every meaningful measure of political power in District 1. Save your time and your money and focus on other races because I am going to win.

That’s the message from the Real Deal. Will it be heard?

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Political Awards 2020

By Adam Pagnucco.

It’s that time: here are the political awards for 2020, the year that was!

Politician of the Year: Governor Larry Hogan

There is really no other choice. Because of the unique demands of the COVID-19 crisis, it’s possible that no Governor of Maryland has wielded more power than Hogan did in 2020 since the colonial era. Local governments, employers and residents all over the state have had to react to his many executive orders. He has had successes, such as Maryland’s relatively low COVID case rate compared to the rest of the country, and he has had failures, such as the flawed test kits from South Korea. Above all, he has been incredibly consequential – far more than any other political figure in the state – and that is enough for this award.

Debacle of the Year: The Purple Line

Again, there is no other choice. The Purple Line’s public-private partnership (P3) was supposed to protect taxpayers from liability, but its collapse will cost us $250 million that would otherwise be available for other transportation projects. The state is promising to complete the project, which will someday generate real benefits for the Washington region, but no one knows its completion date or its ultimate cost. With another P3 pending for the Beltway/I-270 project, the Hogan administration owes it to Marylanders to report on lessons learned from the Purple Line so that its mistakes are not repeated.

Runners Up
Two powerful officials – Hogan Chief of Staff Roy McGrath and MoCo Chief Administrative Officer Andrew Kleine – lost their jobs due to scandal. The McGrath story may not be over.

Worst Move of the Year: Robin Ficker’s Question B

Ficker thought he could get MoCo voters to approve a draconian tax cap that would handcuff county government forever. Instead, not only did voters reject his idea, but they approved a competing ballot amendment (more below) that will actually generate more revenue for the county over time.

Runners Up
MoCo Republicans badly wanted the nine council district charter amendment to pass but they wound up helping to defeat it because of their prominent embrace of it in the toxic year of Trump. Talbot County officials insisted on keeping a confederate statue at their courthouse, a long-term loser for the county.

Best Move of the Year (Tie): Andrew Friedson’s Question A and Evan Glass’s Question C

Former Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel once said, “Never allow a good crisis to go to waste.” Council Members Andrew Friedson and Evan Glass sure didn’t, drafting competing ballot questions against Ficker’s anti-tax charter amendment and another amendment providing for an all-district council structure. The result of the passage of Friedson’s Question A and Glass’s Question C is a more rational, liberalized property tax structure and a larger county council to service a larger population.

Runner Up
Baltimore County Executive John Olszewski Jr. issued an executive order capping third party food delivery app fees at 15%, preventing excessive fees ranging as high as 30%. The order also bans them from reducing driver compensation and tips to comply with the fee cap.

Missing in Action Award: Almost Everyone Planning or Thinking of a Run for Governor

Comptroller Peter Franchot is the only declared candidate for governor. He has a war chest, a statewide profile and a consulting firm. Right now, he has no competition. As Roger Waters would say, is there anybody out there?

Big Deal of the Year: Moratorium Repeal

The county council repealed the county’s illogical housing moratorium policy, which did not accomplish its intended purpose (alleviating school crowding) but did prevent housing construction in the face of MoCo’s affordable housing shortage. Housing construction still has challenges – including financing problems stemming in part from slow job growth – but the council was right to junk moratoriums that did no good and made housing problems worse.

Just Because She’s Great Award: Delegate Anne Kaiser

She never asks for attention or takes credit for anything. But Delegate Anne Kaiser is everything you could want in an elected leader: smart, practical, savvy, mentors younger politicians and plays the long game. Best of all, she’s a down to Earth person who doesn’t let success go to her head. She’s a worthy successor to the great Sheila Hixson as chair of Ways and Means. Long may she serve.

MoCo Feud of the Year: JOF vs Stephen Austin

In one corner: political newcomer Stephen Austin, running for school board on a platform of opposing MCPS’s boundary analysis. In the other corner: former school board member Jill Ortman-Fouse (universally known as “JOF”), leader of a movement favoring boundary studies in the interest of equity. This was never going to be a great relationship, but this feud set a record for most screenshots in a MoCo political dispute. Here’s to more in the new year!

Runner Up
County Executive Marc Elrich vs Governor Larry Hogan. This one runs hot and cold but it flared big-time when Hogan stopped MoCo from instituting a blanket shutdown of private schools. These two can’t stand each other so expect more this year.

Media Outlet of the Year: Baltimore Brew

If you’re not reading Baltimore Brew, you need to start doing it right now! No city scandal can hide from the Brew’s hustling, dirt-digging journalists, whether it’s document shredding, scams, SLAPP suits, politician tax liens, travel expenses, or other questionable activities. Baltimore Brew is a must-read and a true gem of Maryland journalism.

Game Changer Award: Len Foxwell

For more than a decade, the Franchot-Foxwell partnership roiled Annapolis, grabbed headlines and marched steadily towards Government House. Now Foxwell is a free agent and available for hire as a communications, public relations and political strategist. Few people combine knowledge of politics, policy, press and all things Maryland like Len. Having him on the market is a game changer, especially for anyone who hires him.

County Employee of the Year: Inspector General Megan Davey Limarzi

Limarzi is MoCo’s dynamite inspector general, whose reports on mischief in county government regularly rock Rockville. Two especially notable reports revealed an “overtime scam” in the fire department and overpayment of COVID emergency pay in at least one county department. In Fiscal Year 2020, complaints to the inspector general increased 92%, suggesting confidence in her work. Count me as her biggest fan!

Runners Up

Like Calvin and Hobbes, Travis Gayles (the county’s health officer) and Earl Stoddard (the county’s emergency management director) come as a pair. Both of them have played critical roles in responding to COVID. Gayles is a happy warrior who shrugs off criticism and is indefatigable in his job. Stoddard is a stand-up guy who earned a lot of respect in taking responsibility for the county’s grant management issues. Given the nature of their jobs, Gayles and Stoddard are not always loved, but they deserve credit for taking the heat and carrying on when so many other health officials are leaving around the country.

Quote of the Year: “Hope is Not a Fiscal Strategy”

Council Member Andrew Friedson has said this so many times that his colleagues (and executive branch officials) are probably sick of hearing it. But it’s true: the county has been praying since the summer for a federal bailout that has yet to arrive while the day of reckoning is near. We could have done better.

Gaffe of the Year: “Can I Say the Council is Fact Proof?”

Here is an instance in which County Executive Marc Elrich’s snarky sense of humor was not appreciated by the county council in this hot mic moment. Can we get more hot mics please?

Survivor of the Year: Linda Lamone

After numerous glitches in the primary election, state elections administrator Linda Lamone looked like she might finally be run out of Annapolis. But she outlasted calls for her resignation and the general election went better, so she remains in her job. Given her many problems and a string of bad audits, Lamone isn’t just a survivor of the year – she is THE survivor of the last twenty years. State leaders need to restructure the accountability of her position after she finally retires.

Departure of the Year: Bob Dorfman

We’re not fans of the county liquor monopoly here at Seventh State, but former monopoly director Bob Dorfman was a capable manager who tamed some of its worst problems. Depending on who succeeds him, the county could really miss him.

Most Ignored Story of the Year: Public Information Act Suspension

The Elrich administration’s indefinite suspension of public information act deadlines is the single biggest setback for open government in MoCo that I have seen in almost 15 years of writing. And yet to my knowledge, not a single politician said anything about it publicly and not a single D.C. area press outlet has followed up. I’m not surprised by the politicians. But I am surprised by how meekly the press surrendered to the suspension of one of the greatest tools of investigative reporting available – the public information act. To quote Roger Waters again, is there anybody out there?

That’s all for 2020, folks!

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Winners and Losers of the Ballot Question War

By Adam Pagnucco.

This year, MoCo saw its biggest battle over ballot questions in sixteen years. Most county players lined up on one side or the other and victory has been declared. Who won and who lost?

Winners

Council Member Andrew “Real Deal” Friedson
Friedson authored Question A, which liberalized the county’s property tax system to allow receipts to increase with assessments. Wall Street applauded its passage. Even progressives, who don’t love Friedson but owe him big-time for opening up the county’s revenue stream, have to admit that his Question A was the real deal.

Council Member Evan Glass
Glass authored Question C, which added two district council seats and defeated the nine district Question D. Lots of wannabe politicians are going to look at running for the new seats. Every single one of them should kiss Glass’s ring and write a max-out check to his campaign account.

County Democratic Party
It’s not a coincidence that MoCo voters adopted the positions of the county Democratic Party on all four ballot questions. With partisan sentiments running high and information on the questions running low, MoCo Democrats went along with their party and dominated the election.

David Blair
Blair was the number one contributor to the four ballot issue committees that passed Questions A and C and defeated Questions B and D. By himself, Blair accounted for nearly half the money they raised. Whatever Blair decides to do heading into the next election, he can claim to have done as much to pass the county Democrats’ positions on the ballot questions as anyone. (Disclosure: I have done work for Blair’s non-profit but I was not involved in his ballot question activities.)

Ike Leggett
The former county executive was key in leading the fight against Robin Ficker’s anti-tax Question B and the nine county council district Question D. Thousands of MoCo voters still like, respect and trust Ike Leggett.

Jews United for Justice
While not having the money and manpower of many other groups who played on the questions, Jews United for Justice played a key role in convening the coalition that ultimately won. They have gained a lot of respect from many influencers in MoCo politics.

Facebook
Lord knows how much money they made from all the ballot question ads!

Losers

Robin Ficker
At the beginning of 2020, MoCo had one of the most restrictive property tax charter limits of any county in Maryland. For many years, Ficker was looking to make it even tighter and petitioned Question B to the ballot to convert it into a near-lock on revenues. But his charter amendment provoked Friedson to write Question A, which ultimately passed while Question B failed and will raise much more money than the current system over time. Instead of tightening the current system, the result is a more liberal system that will achieve the opposite of what Ficker wanted – more revenue for the county. This was one of the biggest backfires in all of MoCo political history.

Republicans
The county’s Republican Party did everything they could to pass Ficker’s anti-tax Question B and the nine county council district Question D. In particular, they gave both cash and in-kind contributions to Nine Districts and even raised money for the group on their website. In doing so, the GOP provoked a fierce partisan backlash as the county Democrats rose up to take the opposite positions on the ballot questions and most Democratic-leaning groups combined forces to support them. With President Donald Trump apparently defeated, Governor Larry Hogan leaving office in two years and little prospect of success in MoCo awaiting them, where does the county’s Republican Party go from here?

This tweet by MoCo for Question C from a voting location explains all you need to know about why Question D failed.

Political Outsiders
It wasn’t just Republicans who supported the failed Questions B and D; a range of political outsiders supported them too. What they witnessed was a mammoth effort by the Democratic Party, Democratic elected officials and (mostly) progressive interest groups to thwart them. Even the county chamber of commerce and the realtors lined up against them. Whether or not it’s true, this is bound to provoke more talk of a “MoCo Machine.” Machine or not, outsiders have to be wondering how to win when establishment forces combine against them.

Push

MCGEO, Fire Fighters and Police Unions
These three unions are frustrated. They have not been treated the way they expected by the administration of County Executive Marc Elrich and they are also upset with the county council for abrogating their contracts (among other things). They wanted to show that they could impose consequences for messing with them and that was one reason why all three made thousands of dollars of in-kind contributions to Nine Districts. On the negative side, the nine districts Question D failed. On the positive side, the passage of Friedson’s Question A will result in a flow of more dollars into the county budget over time, a win for their members. So it’s a push. On to the next election.

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Council Must Sustain Elrich’s Veto of Corporate Welfare

On a 7-2 vote, the Montgomery County Council approved a bill that would completely exempt real estate developments on WMATA property from property taxes for 15 years. Councilmembers Tom Hucker and Will Jawando voted against. The Council should sustain County Executive Marc Elrich’s veto of this corporate welfare masked as a social justice housing project.

This bill is such a bad idea that one hardly knows where to begin.

Proponents of transit endlessly sell the considerable funding required for it as the motor for development and smart growth that not only attracts jobs but increases land values and property tax revenues. We are told “if you build it, they will come.” Now, these same people tell us that they won’t come unless we “incentivize” (read: pay) them.

Even stranger, we are to pay these incentives to build high-priced apartments in desirable locations with very little extra affordable housing thrown in above normal requirements. I understand establishing enterprise zones with lower taxes in struggling neighborhoods, but Grosvenor-Strathmore and other Red Line stops don’t fit the bill.

Councilmember Andrew Friedson (D-1) has been quite aggressive in trying to sell Councilmember Hans Riemer’s bill:

None of the WMATA sites are being developed and developers with Joint Development Agreements are walking away all over the region, due to unique infrastructure requirements on these sites, high costs of high-rise construction, etc.

These sites currently collect ZERO property tax, generate ZERO housing, and provide virtually no public benefits aside from surface parking. I view that as an abject public failure, but respect anyone who prefers this status quo.

Multiple fiscal analyses have demonstrated both that high-rise projects don’t work without the incentive and that the Grosvenor project in particular would generate more revenue to the County in impact and income taxes than the property tax abatement (which the county wouldn’t otherwise receive without a project).

Councilmember Friedson argues we need to step up our corporate welfare game to compete when we shouldn’t even play this game. His argument also ignores that demand for homes in Frederick or Fairfax is based on other factors that far outweigh tax incentives linked to individual projects.

The uniqueness of the site argument fails to impress as somehow many buildings have been constructed around the whole region, indeed the whole country, around transit and difficult sites without the magic of tax incentives. (Manhattan exists!) I’m sure WMATA, developers and their supporters on the Council are happy to produce analyses showing otherwise, just as they always have in support of public spending on their agenda.

The incentives are a roundabout subsidy to WMATA. When we establish tax incentives the land becomes more valuable, so WMATA raises the price and recoups much of it. So it’s not even clear what share of this supposedly badly needed incentive the developers will see.

This tax giveaway also won’t increase the housing stock. When it’s built, Councilmembers Riemer and Friedson will point to it and say, “look what we did!” Except there will be another nearby project that didn’t happen because you’ve already pre-satisfied any demand with this one. Montgomery has plenty of land zoned for housing and buildings.

Councilmember Friedson also neglects to mention that the building will not have a zero cost to the county. Providing county services will cost money but Montgomery will receive a lot less than normal to cover those costs.

Andrew Friedson has been touted with much hope, including here, as the Council’s bright new economic light. If he wants to live up to this promise, he needs to shift his focus fast from this old-style ineffective developer welfare to more original ideas to attract commercial business to Montgomery.

The bill reflects Councilmember Hans Riemer’s long-term approach over several terms to housing, which has long dominated the Council. Unfortunately, it has had far more success in pleasing monied interests than it has accomplished in producing affordable housing. No doubt it also pleases David Blair’s developer-heavy crowd.

Councilmember Nancy Navarro has presented herself as second to none as a champion for social justice. She has stood up unflinchingly for often abused undocumented immigrants to the frequent dismay of their opponents around the State. Here, she argued that the Council needed to “be bold” and support this bill.

Except there is nothing remotely new, let alone bold, about giving a tax subsidy to developers. Speeding the production of high-priced apartments strikes me as the opposite of social justice.

I cannot help but wonder why this proudly progressive Council is focused on this legislation at this time when so many county residents are facing far more immediate and desperate problems. Even managing the day to day is still far from ordinary.

Charter Amendment A on Property Taxes

The crowning insult of this legislation is its juxtaposition with County Charter Amendment A. The short version is that the Council majority is now proposing to collect more in property taxes from ordinary residents even as it engages in this tax giveaway that has no valid economic or public purpose.

Charter Amendment A garners support from many because the current property tax system is not ideal for a variety of reasons (not the subject of this post). It effectively asks voters to loosen the very tight tax corset (it can only rise with the rate of inflation) so that the county can collect more if property values rise, as would likely happen now if the measure passes. It’s a tough ask at a time when many have seen incomes drop. One can argue that it is necessary when so many are in need.

But it is insupportable for the majority of the Montgomery County Council to offer a tax holiday to developers while increasing the take from ordinary citizens. It’s not progressive. It’s not liberal. It’s just bad economic policy wrapped in gaudy rhetoric that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. It goes against this county’s good government traditions.

County Executive Elrich was right to veto this bad bill. The Council should vote to uphold his veto tomorrow.

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Friedson Floors Ficker on Taxes

By Adam Pagnucco.

Friends of White Flint made a huge score last week when they landed the heavyweight battle of the year, at least for MoCo tax geeks: a debate between Council Member Andrew “Real Deal” Friedson and long-time anti-tax activist Robin Ficker. Friedson and Ficker are the authors of Questions A and B, dueling tax limit charter amendments on the ballot this year. No quarter was asked and no quarter was given!

First, a reminder of what these tax questions would do. Question A (the Friedson amendment) would freeze the property tax rate and allow it to be increased only by a unanimous vote of the county council. Question B (the newest of many Ficker amendments) would allow property tax collections to rise at the rate of inflation and remove the current ability of a unanimous council to override it. Both questions impose limits on property taxes that the vast majority of Maryland counties don’t possess, although Question A would raise more money than Question B over time.

Friends of White Flint invited Friedson and Ficker to discuss their charter amendments on a Zoom meeting and they did not disappoint. Stiff jabs, hooks and uppercuts were thrown (virtually of course) as the high school linebacker and Muhammad Ali’s running partner put on a show. But Friedson threw the winning punch with this statement:

What Robin Ficker will not say, what he is not telling you, is when he repeatedly talks about that 8.7% property tax increase [in 2016] based on this ridiculous tax policy that we currently have, his property taxes, not just his tax rates, his property taxes, the literal dollars that Mr. Ficker pays today, are lower than what they were when property taxes were raised.

This is a true statement as can be verified from county records. Ficker was charged $4,920 in county property taxes on his Boyds home in 2016 and has been charged $4,723 this year, a 4% drop in his taxes. This is despite a slight increase in his property’s assessed value. Ficker’s experience demonstrates a quirk of the current property tax charter limit that his charter amendment would convert into a hard cap: because the charter limit ties revenue growth to inflation and not growth in the assessable base (which is usually higher), it can actually result in cuts to property tax rates and reductions in collections from some specific properties, including Ficker’s. Friedson argues that this deprives the county of the full tax benefits it could otherwise derive from growth and serves as a disincentive for economic development.

Ficker had no response on the issue of his county property taxes.

The full video is below.

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Top Seventh State Stories, September 2020

By Adam Pagnucco.

These were the top stories on Seventh State in September ranked by page views.

1. Free-For-All
2. Why Montgomery County Ballot Questions B and D Are Truly Bad Ideas You Should Vote Against
3. Harris Blasts MCEA Over School Reopening
4. Harris Apologizes for Comments on School Reopening
5. Progressive-Backed Judge Candidate Courted, Donated to Republicans
6. Changing the Reopening Timeline: A Recipe for Confusion and Anxiety
7. Ballot Question Committee Scorecard
8. Post Editorial: Vote Against All Charter Amendments
9. Judge Candidate on Floyd Cops: “Lock Em Up”
10. Why Progressives Should Support the Friedson Amendment

Free-For-All, which called into question the county’s strategy for dealing with the police department, was the runaway leader this month. That suggests that there is considerable unease about the county’s approach to MCPD which goes far beyond the groups the county hears from regularly. School board candidate Lynne Harris’s criticism of MCEA, for which she later apologized, produced a flood of site traffic. The two posts about circuit court judge candidate Marylin Pierre were circulated by her opponents on the sitting judge slate. The rest of the posts were mostly about MoCo’s charter amendments, on which voting has already begun.

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Real Deal Ethics Bills

By Adam Pagnucco.

The ethics scandal involving MoCo’s former Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) was a trying moment for the county government but it has produced a happy outcome: the introduction of two robust ethics bills by Council Member Andrew “Real Deal” Friedson. Together, the two bills – if passed – will ensure that the events leading to the now-former CAO’s resignation will never happen again.

Quoting the introduction packet, Bill 42-20 would:

1. Require the Executive to disclose a proposed employment contract with an appointee to a non-merit position and any employment contract with an employee currently serving in a non-merit position to the Council;

2. Include the sale or promotion of certain intellectual property by a public employee as other employment;

3. Prohibit a public employee who has received compensation from an individual or organization in the previous 12 months from participating in a procurement with that individual or organization;

4. Require a public employee who participates in a procurement process with an individual or organization seeking to do business with the County that compensated the public employee for services performed more than 12 months before the participation began to disclose the prior relationship to the Procurement Director;

5. Require an elected official or non-merit employee to disclose, with some exceptions, the source of each fee greater than $1,000 received for services in a financial disclosure statement; and

6. Prohibit the Chief Administrative Officer from engaging in other employment.

Bill 43-20 would prohibit severance pay to non-merit employees. The bill’s language says:

The Executive or a Councilmember must not authorize any payment of money or paid administrative leave to a non-merit employee in the Executive Branch or in the Legislative Branch upon separation from County employment unless the payment is expressly authorized by law. The Executive or a Councilmember must not enter into an employment agreement with a non-merit employee that provides for any type of severance pay for an employee who is terminated with or without cause.

The bill allows payments of unused leave and discontinued pensions. It expressly prohibits “severance pay for an employee who admits to or is found to have violated the Ethics Law in the 12 months prior to separation from County employment.”

These bills are an absolute no-brainer. The entire county council should be all over them like white on rice.

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