The rumored internal turmoil at the Montgomery County Planning Board has burst into the open. Last night, WJLA reported that a confidential informant—revealed to be Planning Board Vice Chair Partap Verma—sent an email accusing Chair Casey Anderson of creating a “toxic misogynistic and hostile workplace.”
You can read the details of the accusations on WJLA’s website but we’ll keep them out of this family publication. The email doesn’t portray Anderson as someone open to hearing, let alone incorporating, ideas at odds with his own. Planning Director Gwen Wright defended Anderson.
Anderson and Verma had previously been very tight. Verma has been a staunch supporter of Anderson and clearly hoped to succeed him as Chair. But that alliance had fallen apart by September 22nd, when Verma purged Anderson from a Facebook photo of him and the governor:
All of this drama could have been avoided if either the other members of the Planning Board or the County Council had exercised proper oversight and taken action much earlier on the other numerous issues over at M-NCPPC.
Councilmember Hans Riemer became strangely animated at Tuesday’s Thrive 2050 worksession over urban heat islands. Or rather that they shouldn’t be called “urban” heat islands as the above clip reveals. Once again, Riemer showed his ideological fervor while simultaneously making clear he doesn’t know his brief.
Riemer referred to Tom DiLiberto, the claimed source for his ideas, as the head of climate.gov. Except he’s not.
Then Riemer went on at great length about how heat islands aren’t really “urban” heat islands because tall buildings provide a lot of shade and shield people from the sun. If there is more heat, it shows we need taller buildings.
That’d be news to NY1, which reported earlier this year that New York—the city with by far the greatest concentration of tall buildings in the country—is the country’s third hottest urban heat island with temperatures 8 degrees above the surrounding area.
Riemer lays much of the blame on roads, which along with buildings trap and then radiate heat. But it’s hard to have a city without roads even in a place with as much public transit as NYC. Riemer likes and doesn’t mention sidewalks and bike lanes but they trap and radiate heat too.
After sharing his empirically false views, Riemer then asked to remove “urban” from urban heat islands. This nomenclature fetish is mainly about protecting urbanism, Riemer’s ideological church, from the slightest negative taint. This is the sort of zealotry that can’t acknowledge issues are complicated. That, for example, NYC is hotter and more polluted than most places yet also has far less environmental impact. Instead, density solves all problems.
This waste of time and the rest of the Council’s bored acquiescence with this balderdash perhaps wouldn’t be so bad if the Council were meaningfully engaged with either the issues or the community. After poring over the privileged submissions of two lobbyists, far less attention is being given to the 1500 pages of input from community members with less access.
One issue, for example, that merits more scrutiny is telecommuting. This supposedly forward thinking visionary plan the next 30 years gives no thought to how already skyrocketing telecommuting rates will reshape living, working or transportation patterns. Presumably, it will also influence where people want to live and in what housing types.
The Council instead chooses to focus its limited attention on Riemer’s dotty notion to rename urban heat islands. Meanwhile, Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson and pals continue to hold court and dictate the plan despite the ever growing laundry list of troublesome behavior by this highly paid public official: flouting rules for community consultation, routine violations of the Open Meetings Act, failure to register lobbyists, and an open office bar.
Urban heat islands. It’s exam time for the Council. Time to engage more deeply with the community and the issues. But it feels like they’d rather punt than study. If Thrive is to have any scrap of legitimacy, this needs to change.
Montgomery County Council staff are now claiming that no comments about Thrive’s three new chapters (Environmental Health and Resilience, Economic Competitiveness, and Racial Equity and Social Justice) were received from anyone besides Jane Lyons, a paid employee of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, and Dan Reed, a paid employee of Greater Greater Washington, and the County’s Department of Environmental Protection.
During the Council session on September 22, Council staff stated: “So we only received direct comments on the chapters from Coalition for Smarter Growth, from Greater Greater Washington, and from DEP.”
This is misleading in two senses. First, other organizations, including environmental and civic groups, have recently commented extensively on these issues even if they did not comment on the specific language in these new chapters. Put more bluntly, the staff omitted key information regarding recent comments.
Second, the very first draft of Thrive, proposed by Planning Staff (called the Working Draft Plan) had chapters similar to these three, which received multiple comments. Many comments made on this and subsequent versions of Thrive still apply to the version which the Council is now considering. Must residents resubmit the same comments repeatedly to have them heard?
Moreover, if the Council received no additional comments on these specific and very important chapters, councilmembers should question whether true consultation has actually occurred with either the hired experts or the residents–also known as their constituents. Clearly, either the chapters were not distributed and publicized widely or insufficient time was given to comment. It’s inconceivable in our vocal county that only two paid lobbyists have thoughts on a chapters of a plan supposed to shape Montgomery County for 30 years.
The new racial equity and social justice analysis suggests directly that more engagement is needed. In the Thrive work session this past Tuesday, councilmembers cut the session from two hours to about 70 minutes, and took an inordinate amount of time to congratulate themselves on their awareness of racial equity and social justice.
As a result, they limited the discussion time for the consultant, who had been paid nearly $100,000 for the analysis, and simply dispensed with several of his recommendations for more comprehensive engagement and improvements to Thrive.
In other words, this consultation is largely performative. It’s designed to tick off boxes rather than gain meaningful input. In this most recent work session, the Council spent much time incorporating comments from two regional organizations that want to make the document more radical, and none from critics in the Montgomery community.
Truth be told, councilmembers don’t seem very engaged with the complex issues and just want to ram through Thrive Montgomery 2050.
The next question is whether or how soon MCEA, the influential teachers’ union, will flip its endorsement from Brandy Brooks’s flailing campaign to Hucker—or possibly to Council President Gabe Albornoz, who seems a lock for reelection.
Thrive 2050, the proposed general plan for Montgomery County, has been touted by advocates as vital to promote economic and racial equity. So it’s interesting to see their reaction to the racial equity and social justice (RESJ) review prepared for the County Council by Dr. Elaine Bonner-Tompkins. Many of the same people who rush to label others who have concerns about Thrive as racists or classist aren’t coping well.
Former Action Committee for Transit (ACT) President Ben Ross attacked the review as handing “a few unelected bureaucrats a veto over the actions of our elected representatives.” The irony that Thrive 2050 was authored by a few unelected bureaucrats over at the Planning Board seems to have escaped him.
Councilmember Hans Riemer also dismissed the review’s concerns, stating “Thrive focuses on racial equity and social justice throughout.” He wants to see Thrive approved by the County Council by the end of next month.
The Planning Board’s response to the RESJ, posted on Facebook by its Chair Casey Anderson, denied there is a problem and claimed that Thrive 2050 is “based on best practices for advancing racial and socioeconomic equity.” Anderson’s response argued the RESJ review is wrong, rather than figure out how to do better.
Like Riemer, Anderson wants the Council to speed through its review. During the recent Thrive 2050 worksession, Senior Legislative Analyst Pam Dunn pushed back against legal information put out by Anderson designed to force the Council to move more quickly.
The reaction by the forces behind Thrive 2050 isn’t surprising. Thrive is the product of a nexus between the Planning Board led by Anderson, the PHED Committee led by Riemer, and advocacy groups like the Coalition for Smarter Growth and ACT that draw from the same small overlapping circles. This closely aligned group is determined to fight any changes to a document that reflects their very particular set of views.
Equally important, this group is extremely invested in urbanism as a worldview. They genuinely believe that urbanism provides the right answers to whole set of problems, including racial and economic equity. The leads to a misguided belief Thrive is inherently equitable. But others may have different opinions on what promotes greater equity, and it’s not at all clear that urbanism delivers the goods.
Consequently, it’s important that the Council examine ideas thoughtfully and not accept the framing from a single lens. Even if Thrive is on the right track in many areas, it would benefit from incorporation of meaningful community input. An inclusive document would not mirror a single perspective so exactly.
There is a real difference between conducting outreach and gaining meaningful input. This is why the RESJ review emphasized the need to “elicit the meaningful input of residents of color from communities of color and low-income residents to co-create and update Thrive.” It’s also why Councilmember Nancy Navarro cautioned that ticking off a list of groups was no longer good enough.
Many of the outreach sessions consisted of Planning explaining the positives of Thrive 2050, rather than soliciting and incorporating feedback. Instead of building consensus, Planning and Thrive 2050 advocates took an approach that excluded different viewpoints.
In a similar vein, using lots of equity verbiage is not the same as having a proper and thoughtful analysis of these issues. As it indicated during the work session, the Council is going to have to take the lead in addressing these concerns. The inability of Planning and others to read the room in their vehement reactions to the RESJ review and the Council worksession shows its necessity.
MoCo is about to embark on one of its most important tasks of the decade: redrawing county council districts. The county’s charter mandates redistricting every ten years in line with the release of new U.S. Census data. The charter also states that the council must pick a redistricting commission to recommend new boundary lines (although the council retains the final say). The current redistricting will be particularly intense given the recent passage of Question C, which expanded the number of districts from five to seven.
1. Two former elected officials, including one who used to be a council member and has run for two different offices in the last five years.
2. Five other former candidates for office, including one who has run for office seven times since 2009. Three of these former candidates have run at least once since 2018.
3. Two political consultants, one of whom has worked for MoCo politicians, including sitting council members.
4. Two spouses of sitting municipal elected officials. Both of these officials unsuccessfully ran for higher office before being elected to their current positions. One of the spouses also ran for office, including for council in 2017-18.
5. A sibling of a 2018 council candidate who has managed multiple local political campaigns.
These are not bad people. To the contrary, most – if not all – of them have done good things and can serve the county well in other roles. But the redistricting commission is a critical body that will play a key role in designing council districts for the next decade. The importance of this exercise to county residents cannot be overstated. The public interest should be the sole determinant of redistricting. Given the fact that the public is watching how this plays out:
It would be wise to avoid the appearance of a candidate designing his or her own district for a future run.
It would be wise to avoid the appearance of a political operative designing a district for a client.
It would be wise to avoid the appearance of a commission member designing a district for a family member.
Redistricting is an official and supremely important act of county government but it’s also a very sensitive one. Many people are jaded about “gerrymandering” and the county just had an all-out ballot war over the appropriate number of council districts. I can’t count how many times I have seen the word “machine” used to describe the county’s politics this year. In this climate, it won’t take much to get people to believe the worst about redistricting, and given the recent popularity of charter amendments, who knows how far such sentiment could go.
There are plenty of qualified applicants who could do a good job and don’t have any of the above issues. Come on now, council members! Please consider them when choosing who serves on the redistricting commission.
Guest blog by Delegate Eric Luedtke (District 14).
It should not be controversial to say that governments have a responsibility to address the needs of all of their constituents. I appreciate Adam’s thoughts and writing, and how much he relishes the role of provocateur, though I take issue with his characterization of my recent op-ed in Bethesda Beat as blasting county government. I think it’s more along the lines of constructive criticism among friends.
While the analysis of recent electoral outcomes in Montgomery County’s upcounty and downcounty regions are interesting to those of us who follow county politics closely, the average resident of the county is much more interested in having problems in their communities addressed. I believe that much of the support for Question D was driven by a feeling that upcounty does not get its fair share of attention from county government. I should add, by the way, that a similar feeling is prevalent in east county as well.
Of course, there are those in county government who take issue with that suggestion. I recall, for example, a pair of conversations I had with one former member of the County Council. In one conversation, I was told that the commercial blight at the Burtonsville Crossing shopping center was happening because, and I quote, “Burtonsville is not Bethesda,” and that the county shouldn’t waste money trying to help Burtonsville address the profound problem of a decaying town center. In another conversation with the same person, I was upbraided for suggesting that the county didn’t pay enough attention to Burtonsville. The irony was astounding.
I’ve had folks in county government suggest that this perspective is wrong, that residents of every community in the county feel that problems in their particular community are under-addressed. Perhaps. But, again, as just an example, I’ve been working on the Burtonsville crossing issue for more than a decade now, since before I was elected, and with the notable exception of Councilman Hucker, I’ve never seen county government writ large act on it with any kind of urgency. It’s been an afterthought, if that.
If folks in county government want to demonstrate that my critique is off base, they can do so relatively easily.
If the county can create significant incentives for new development around downcounty metro stations, why can’t they do so to incent redevelopment at Burtonsville crossing? Or, alternatively, after a decade of blight, why can’t the county find a way to fine the property owner for failing to maintain the property as a viable commercial site? Or use eminent domain to put the property to a use that will actually benefit Burtonsville residents?
If complaints that the county doesn’t pay enough attention to agriculture are wrong, will the next county budget include the miniscule amount of money necessary to reopen the venison donation facility in Laytonsville? Will it include a commitment of $1 million a year from the general fund for agricultural land preservation?
If concerns that upcounty transportation isn’t enough of a priority are misplaced, will the 97/28 interchange have a higher priority in the next county transportation priorities letter? Will the county commit to funding more bicycle and pedestrian improvements around upcounty schools, such as a better sidewalk network in Damascus so kids can get to Damascus High School and Baker Middle School more easily?
Most residents of the county don’t follow the precinct results of elections. They just want the potholes filled, the congestion addressed, the schools funded, and they want to feel like they have a chance to be heard. The feeling that their communities weren’t being heard drove a lot of well meaning people to support Question D. Those of us in elected office can choose to recognize that concern, and do something about it. Or, we can simply ignore it, pretend like the vote for Question C solved the problem, and move on. But if the latter is the reaction, then we will almost certainly see more Question D’s in the future. I should amend my earlier op-ed. Representation matters, in every corner of the county. And when it’s not provided, residents will demand it, one way or the other.
Delegate Eric Luedtke is the House Majority Leader and has represented District 14 since 2011.
It’s not every day that you see a senior member of MoCo’s state delegation blast the county government, but Delegate Eric Luedtke (D-14) recently did so. In an essay published in Bethesda Beat, Luedtke opined, “The lesson of Question D is that representation matters” and repeatedly criticized county leaders for ignoring his district, which hugs the Howard County border.
Luedtke wrote, “Bluntly, due to the political geography of the county, countywide elected officials in particular don’t need to spend much time in the upper reaches of the county to get re-elected. The vast majority of the votes in the Democratic primary are downcounty votes.”
Is that true?
Former county council candidate (and co-chair of the ballot issue committee that opposed nine districts) Marilyn Balcombe has written about low upcounty turnout in the 2018 primary on Seventh State. Her conclusion was, “The Upcounty doesn’t vote and nobody cares.” Let’s reexamine that premise and also ask another question: did upcounty vote differently than downcounty in the council at-large race?
First, let’s set our definitions. For the sake of this analysis, I am defining downcounty as the “Democratic Crescent,” a term I coined for precincts located in Takoma Park, Silver Spring (inside the Beltway), Chevy Chase, Kensington, Bethesda and Cabin John. This area was responsible for sending Jamie Raskin to Congress in the fiercely contested 2016 primary. I am defining upcounty as precincts located in Brookeville, Clarksburg, Damascus, Dickerson, Gaithersburg, Germantown, Laytonsville, Montgomery Village, Olney, Poolesville, Sandy Spring and Washington Grove, which also include less populated areas nearby (like Ashton, Barnesville, Boyds and Spencerville). The rest of the county is here referred to – artfully – as “everywhere else.”
Precinct results are reported by the State Board of Elections for election day voting. (Precinct data excludes other voting modes.) In the 2018 Democratic primary, 301,208 votes were cast on election day in the council at-large race. Each voter can vote for up to four candidates since there are four at-large seats. Here is the distribution of council at-large votes by broad region along with U.S. Census Bureau population estimates for 2014-2018.
Roughly speaking, the crescent accounted for a quarter of the county’s population but cast a third of the votes in the council at-large Democratic primary. The upcounty was the reverse – it accounted for a third of the county’s population but cast a quarter of the votes. So downcounty didn’t account for a majority of the votes as Luedtke said, but it accounted for a disproportionate number of them for two reasons: a higher than average share of its voters are Democrats, and downcounty Democrats turned out at a higher than average rate as Balcombe wrote.
This might not matter much except for one thing: do downcounty Democrats vote for different candidates than upcounty Democrats? Here is where it gets interesting. The table below shows the rank order of finish for council at-large candidates among upcounty Democrats only.
Hans Riemer (the only incumbent) and Will Jawando finished first and second in the overall vote. But if the decision was made by upcounty, Marilyn Balcombe (who finished fifth overall) and Brandy Brooks (who finished seventh) would also have been elected. The result for Balcombe, who lives in Germantown, is unsurprising. However, Brooks is a Democratic Socialist who lived in Wheaton at the time. That shows how progressive upcounty Democrats, who also elected DSA member Gabe Acevero to the House of Delegates, can be. Gabe Albornoz and Evan Glass, who were both elected, finished seventh and eighth in upcounty respectively.
The table below shows how the Democratic Crescent voted.
Not only did the crescent pick all four at-large winners, it picked them in their overall order of finish. The crescent also voted for Balcombe, Brooks and Chris Wilhelm in their overall order of finish. At least in the 2018 election, the pattern established by downcounty voters applied very closely to the total result.
Now let’s look at where each of the top ten at-large candidates drew their votes from.
The four candidates with the highest percentage of their votes coming from the crescent – Riemer, Jawando, Glass and Albornoz – were the ones who got elected. In fact, each of these four received at least twice as many votes from the crescent as they did from upcounty. Candidates who received a quarter or more of their votes from upcounty (Balcombe, Wilhelm, Brooks and Ashwani Jain) did not win.
Just as in 2004, MoCo voters chose to reject the abolition of the at-large council seats this year. Given the fact that these seats will remain on the ballot, and given the election results above, upcounty voters must increase their turnout to get any respect from county government. If they don’t, the issues described by Delegate Luedtke in his column will continue.
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!
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.
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.
The four ballot issue committees who worked on behalf of Questions A and C and against Questions B and D have issued a joint victory statement. The committees and their affiliated organizations had different focuses on the questions but still coordinated their activities when possible. Their statement is reprinted below.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
MONTGOMERY COUNTY BALLOT COMMITTEES CELEBRATE SUCCESS AT THE BALLOT BOX
Broad coalition of religious, business, labor, and community groups thanks all the members and partners who worked tirelessly to protect the future of Montgomery County.
MONTGOMERY COUNTY, November 5, 2020 — With a shared vision of a better Montgomery County that works for everyone, we successfully took our message to voters about the County ballot questions. Every vote counts and, as our County’s dedicated election workers complete the count, we take a moment to acknowledge the power of our community working together.
In a time when our country is so divided, Montgomery County showed how broad and diverse coalitions can work side by side to address tough issues. Whether it is tax policy or representation, the politics of lifting people up is more powerful than tearing people down. When we believe changes are needed, we are capable of coming together as a community to make it happen. We are confident in the opportunity ahead to build a better and stronger future for all Montgomery County residents.
Montgomery Neighbors Against Question B Press Contact: Daniel Koroma
Montgomery Countians For A & Against B Press Contact: Scott Goldberg
Residents for More Representation Press Contact: Marilyn Balcombe
Vote No on B&D Press Contact: Susan Heltemes
Ballot committee coalition members: ● Baltimore-Washington Laborers’ District Council, LiUNA ● CASA ● CERG 2.0 ● Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors(R) ● Jews United for Justice ● LGBTQ Democrats of Montgomery County ● MCGEO – UFCW Local 1994 ● MoCoWoMen ● Montgomery Countryside Alliance ● Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce ● Montgomery County Council of PTAs ● Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee ● Montgomery County Democratic Socialists of America ● Montgomery County Education Association ● Montgomery County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce ● Montgomery County Women’s Democratic Club ● Montgomery County Young Democrats ● Nonprofit Montgomery ● Progressive Maryland ● SEIU Local 500 ● Sierra Club ● Takoma Park Mobilization ● The Association of Black Democrats of Montgomery County ● and many other organizations, county leaders, and engaged residents!