Tag Archives: Montgomery County Council

MoCo Could Use More County Council Districts

By Adam Pagnucco.

Abolishing at-large county council seats is a really bad idea because it would eliminate most political competition in county elections. However, adding council district seats is justified. Relative to other large jurisdictions in the area, MoCo has few local legislators per capita and huge districts.

The table below shows the number of local legislators (city and county council members, supervisors and board members) per 100,000 residents for 13 major jurisdictions in the area. Elected officials of municipal governments inside those jurisdictions (like the city governments of Rockville and Gaithersburg) are not included.

Large jurisdictions in the region have an average of 1.5 local legislators per 100,000 residents. At 0.9, MoCo is on the lower end of this distribution. If MoCo were to have the regional average number of local legislators per capita, it would have a 15-member county council.

The table below shows the number of residents per local district. Two jurisdictions (Alexandria and Arlington) do not have districts as all local legislators are elected at-large. Three others (Anne Arundel, Baltimore County and Howard) have all district-based legislators. The others in the table have a mix of district and at-large members. Prince George’s County once had 9 district-based council members, but in 2016, residents approved Question D to add 2 at-large members by a 67-33% vote.

With over 210,000 residents per local legislative district, MoCo’s districts have more than twice the number of people as the regional average. Let’s bear in mind that council members typically have just the equivalent of 4 full-time staff members each. District council offices, which are the primary points of contact for constituent services, can easily get swamped by service requests during busy times. (When I worked at the council years ago, District 1 would easily generate the most constituent contacts, especially when there were power outages!) If MoCo were to emulate the regional average, the county would have 10 council districts.

And so if there is to be a structural change to the county council, it should not be abolishing at-large seats – a change that would eliminate most political competition for council. Rather, the at-large seats should be kept and the number of districts should be expanded. Such a system would be more expensive for taxpayers because it would add politicians and staff. But it might increase responsiveness to constituents and it would preserve electoral competition, two big benefits for MoCo residents.

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Don’t Abolish the At-Large County Council Seats

By Adam Pagnucco.

Since 1990, the Montgomery County Council has had five district seats and four at-large seats. Every few years, proposals are made to get rid of the at-large seats and go to an all-district seat system. County voters rejected a ballot question doing so in 2004 by a 61-39% vote. The county is fortunate that they did because getting rid of the at-large seats is a terrible idea.

Why is that so?

The table below shows the outcome of council district races over the last six cycles, plus open seat special elections in 2002, 2008 and 2009.

Here is the distribution of outcomes in these contests.

The huge majority of these races are non-competitive when Democratic incumbents are on the ballot. In fact, a Democratic district incumbent has not been defeated since 1998, when challenger Phil Andrews door-knocked his way to victory against District 3 incumbent Bill Hanna. Since then, a challenger to a district incumbent has come within 10 points only twice. Democratic district incumbents have an 18-1 win-loss record since 1998, which includes 5 races with no opponent. In the last 10 races with district incumbents, the incumbents have won by 40 points or more 8 times.

Now let’s look at at-large council races since 1990.

There are four at-large council seats. In every cycle since the current system was instituted, there has been more than four at-large candidates, meaning there has always been competition. That has been true even in cycles in which all four incumbents were running (2010 and 2014). In three cycles (2002, 2006 and 2010), an incumbent was defeated. In 2018, an incredible 33 Democrats ran at-large when 3 open seats were available.

Public financing no doubt played a role in encouraging so many candidates to run at-large. In contrast, district races with incumbents in 2018 were sleepy aside from District 3, in which the incumbent used public financing and the challenger stayed in the traditional system. (The incumbent won.)

All of the above illustrates a central fact: at-large races with incumbents usually have much more competition than district races with incumbents. One reason for that is the nature of such elections. An at-large race is a beauty contest with the four most popular candidates winning. Negative campaigning is uncommon except when slates are present (as in 2002). But in a district race with an incumbent, a challenger must make the case that the incumbent has committed a firing offense; otherwise, voters tend to go with the incumbent. Most candidates stay clear of heavy-lifting negative campaigns, especially when they are likely to lose, and with rare exceptions (like 2018 District 3 challenger Ben Shnider) the best ones prefer to run at-large.

Political competition is precious. Decades of evidence from our elections shows that abolishing at-large council seats would destroy most political competition in council elections. That is a really bad idea.

That said, supporters of adding districts are not wrong. More on that tomorrow.

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Council Adds Staff

The Montgomery County Council voted 8-1 to fund additional staffing for councilmember offices. Councilmember Andrew Friedson (D-1) was the lone vote against. According to the official council staff recommendation, additional staffing is needed “to enable staff to provide services required to respond to COVID-19 issues and implement recently-approved legislation.”

Increasing spending on staff is not especially popular with the public even in good times. I tend to take a somewhat less jaundiced view than many members of the public of spending on staff as it can help create more professional legislatures and better legislation.

But with so many needs now begging for each public dollar, this simply boggles the mind and makes me wonder what on earth they are thinking. It strikes me as having extreme potential to become a symbol of a council uniquely out of touch with the extraordinary struggles faced by county residents in these very difficult times.

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Grading the County Council

By Adam Pagnucco.

Regular readers know my views on the administration of County Executive Marc Elrich by now, but let’s turn to an equally important entity: the Montgomery County Council. The county’s charter gives the council enormous powers, especially over land use, legislation and the budget, and its decisions are at least as important to the county’s direction as the activities of the executive.

The current council has four freshmen, the most at any one time since the council of 2006-2010. The freshmen include a former county department head, a former senior state government official, a former Obama White House official and one of the county’s most seasoned civic activists, so they came well-prepared to serve. In fact, they have become so ensconced at the council that they don’t seem like true freshmen any more. Overall, while the council has some internal rivalries that occasionally can be seen, it has been devoid of the open infighting that plagued many prior councils. Like them or not, they have mostly stuck together during the trials of governing.

The council’s portfolio is vast and it has made dozens of decisions in its first year. In my view, eight consequential events rise above the others. The council’s performance on these events is the determinant of its overall grade, which appears at the end. Let’s get to it.

Mid-year savings plan (January)

The new council members had hardly adjusted their dais seats when they were confronted with a $41 million budget hole, prompting a mid-year savings plan from the executive. The council – and especially the new members – could have complained, delayed and otherwise squirmed. But instead they got down to business and made the cuts in short order.

Grade: A

MCGEO agreement (March through May)

After Elrich negotiated a set of raises with the largest county employee union that included a peak raise of 9.4%, the council had to decide on their affordability. This was not easy as the union had a long history of torturing defiant politicians. But the council stuck together and unanimously forced Elrich to negotiate slightly lower raises. Expect this issue to return if Elrich negotiates more mega-raises in the face of the county’s financial problems.

Grade: A

MCPS and Montgomery College funding (March through May)

When Elrich released his first recommended budget in March, two of the losers were MCPS and Montgomery College. MCPS received a stingy 0.9% local dollar increase while the college got an absolute cut. Council Member Craig Rice, who chairs the council’s Education and Culture committee, called the budget “an education last budget.” But the council didn’t do a lot better. Yes, it cashed a big state check containing Kirwan money to help MCPS. But local funding for MCPS went up by just 1.2% and the college still took a cut.

Grade: C

OPEB raid (March through May)

One of the biggest problems with Elrich’s budget was that it relied on a $90 million raid on the county’s OPEB fund, which pays for retiree health benefits. The council grumbled about it, but approved the raid on an 8-1 vote with only Council Member Andrew Friedson dissenting. The result was a comment from Wall Street credit agency Moody’s labeling the move “a credit negative.”

Grade: D

Accessory dwelling unit legislation (January through July)

Council Member Hans Riemer’s zoning text amendment to liberalize county restrictions on accessory dwelling units (ADUs) provoked fierce opposition from Elrich and some civic activists. In other years, the legislation would have been either killed or watered down into oblivion. But this time, the council tweaked it and passed it unanimously. The legislation probably won’t result in huge waves of new ADUs, but the council took an important stand on the need to build more affordable units. The issue of affordable housing will come back over and over again during this term.

Grade: A

Public safety communications project (May through July)

When Elrich vacillated on placing the final two towers for the county’s long-standing public safety communications project even after a crippling outage, the council sprang into action. After the council threatened to override Elrich and write the towers directly into the capital project, Elrich ultimately conceded. The council would have received a better grade on this if it had not had its own history of delaying this project, but the council did the right thing in the end.

Grade: B+

Police chief search (July through September)

After the retirement of long-time police chief Tom Manger, Elrich nominated former Portsmouth police chief Tonya Chapman to succeed him. Chapman had more baggage than an airport terminal. Once the council made clear that Chapman did not have the votes for confirmation, the administration considered another nominee who had a pension benefit issue that probably required a legislative fix. That nominee did not fly either, so Elrich ultimately nominated an acceptable choice to many on the council, acting chief Marcus Jones, whom Elrich had previously rejected. This was truly historic stuff. Never before has any council imposed its will like this on an executive to ensure a high caliber nomination for one of the county’s most important positions.

Grade: A+

Fox subsidy (November)

I have written about this again and again. It could take a while, but this decision is going to come back to haunt the council.

Grade: F

Overall

Setting aside OPEB and corporate welfare for Fox, the council’s record is pretty decent on a number of issues. And the council was magnificent in forcing Elrich to hire a competent police chief. Year two should be more challenging, especially if the county’s lackluster economic performance forces tough choices on the budget.

Overall grade: B

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Be Careful About Going to an All-District County Council

By Adam Pagnucco.

Recently, MoCo’s political community has been thinking of changing the structure of the County Council.  Since 1990, the council has had four at-large members and five members elected by residents of districts.  One idea is to reduce or eliminate the at-large members and replace them with more district members.  Advocates of that perspective believe the districts are too large, that district members are more responsive than at-large members and that the cost of running at-large enables interest groups to play more in those elections.  We offer no opinion on any of those theories, but prior election history points to one consequence of shifting to an all-district council.

The level of political competition will almost certainly decline.

Why do we believe that will happen?  Consider recent elections.  Below is a chart showing the results of all district council elections since 1998.  Over that period, there have been 28 district council elections, 20 of which featured incumbents.  The incumbents won 17 of 20 races, an 85% win rate.  If the Republican incumbents are omitted, the remaining Democratic incumbents won 14 of 15 elections, a 93% win rate.

If that is not enough to prove the non-competitiveness of these elections, consider just two facts.  First, only one Democratic district incumbent has lost under our current structure, and that happened in 1998.  Second, of the last six contested district races, five saw the incumbent win by more than fifty points.

Meanwhile, the at-large races are much more competitive.  Since the current system was established in 1990, no group of at-large incumbents has ever run unopposed.  Three Democratic incumbents have lost – Blair Ewing (2002), Mike Subin (2006) and Duchy Trachtenberg (2010).  Even in the two elections in which all four incumbents ran for reelection (2010 and 2014), challengers still entered the race and one of them (Hans Riemer in 2010) knocked out an incumbent to win.

This year, those same trends continue unabated.  There are 25 at-large candidates (with more to come) running with three seats open.  Meanwhile, district incumbents Nancy Navarro (D-4) and Tom Hucker (D-5) have no opponents while Craig Rice (D-2) has token opposition in the primary.  Only Sidney Katz (D-3) has a serious challenger.  This disparity persists even in the presence of public financing, which was supposed to promote competition.

What explains this pattern?  After all, district races are theoretically cheaper than at-large races because they have fewer voters.  The reason is that one-seat races against incumbents are very different affairs than at-large contests.  A challenger running against an incumbent for one seat must show that the incumbent has committed a firing offense; otherwise, voters will support the candidate they know better.  These one-seat races can turn nasty as we have seen from recent MoCo Senate elections as well as the bitter fight between Council District 5 incumbent Derick Berlage and challenger Marc Elrich twenty years ago.  At-large races are seldom negative unless slates are formed to compete against each other.  (That hasn’t happened since 2002.)  At-large challenger Hans Riemer ran a model race in his 2010 win, promoting his policy agenda of progressivism and smart growth and never targeting any single incumbent for criticism.  Most candidates don’t have the stomach for negative elections when an open seat is available.  And in six of the last eight at-large races (including next year), at least one seat has been open.

Political competition is extremely valuable.  It should not be discarded lightly.  There may be good reasons to increase the number of districts, but if at-large members are completely eliminated, voters will pay the price with fewer choices and less accountability at election time.

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Stop Giving Robin Ficker More Ammo

By Adam Pagnucco.

Right about now, the happiest man in Montgomery County lives in Boyds.  He is 74, a huge sports fanatic, a long time attorney, a former state Delegate, a perpetual candidate and a tireless activist.  He loves the County Council because some of its members give him endless material for use in his never-ending demagogic campaign to weaken and ultimately paralyze county government.

Yes folks, we are talking about the notorious political heckler Robin Ficker.  And he must be jumping for joy at the news that some members of the council are considering a possible new soda tax.

Ficker has been running for office and placing charter amendments on the ballot, mostly intended to limit taxes, since the 1970s.  The huge majority of his amendments have failed, often because the political establishment labeled them “Ficker amendments” to exploit the national infamy of his heckling at Washington Bullets games.  One exception was the razor-tight passage of his 2008 charter amendment mandating that all nine Council Members vote in support of exceeding the charter limit on property taxes.  But Ficker has never had more ammo than in the last four years and he has used it to push his anti-government agenda.  Consider what has happened.

The council’s approval of a large salary increase for its members in 2013 and its passage of a 9% property tax hike in 2016 gave Ficker’s term limits charter amendment momentum.  Some Council Members then used their campaign funds to finance a lawsuit to keep term limits off the ballot, which failed.  Council Member Nancy Floreen’s “exasperated” and “defensive” performance in a television debate with Ficker and Council Member George Leventhal’s comparison of term limits supporters with Brexit voters didn’t help.  Ficker predicted term limits would pass by twenty points; instead, they passed by forty.

Robin Ficker thanks MoCo voters for giving him his biggest political win ever.

That’s not all.  Ficker has enrolled in the public financing system established by the council for his latest Executive run.  And he requested the county government’s email lists after another resident obtained them under the Public Information Act.  Any competent campaigner – maybe even Ficker – should be able to use those thousands of emails to raise enough money to qualify for public matching funds.

And now we have news of the soda tax, which prompted gleeful self-promotion by Ficker in Bethesda Magazine’s comment section.  Expect a Facebook ad soon.

Your author does not enjoy writing this column because we find merit in this particular tax.  Sugary drinks and soda are public health menaces, especially to children.  The intended use of the money for early childhood programs is a good idea.  And the current tight budget does not give any quick or easy options for funding undeniable, but expensive, priorities like early childhood education.  But the counter-argument from Ficker, who calls Council Members “tax increase specialists,” is obvious.  “They’re not listening to you,” Ficker will tell the voters.  “You told them no more tax hikes and they’re going to do it anyway.”  Even Leventhal, who has voted for numerous tax hikes and has done as much to promote public health as any Council Member ever, has come out against the new tax.

The danger here is not that Ficker will be elected.  Voters made that mistake once all the way back in 1978 and have never come close to repeating it since.  The real problem is the next charter amendment that Ficker will inevitably introduce after his latest election campaign fails.  Whatever else Ficker is, he is an astute student of Maryland county tax policies.  He is fully aware of the taxation and spending limits in the Prince George’s County charter, such as the requirements that the property tax rate may not exceed 96 cents per $100 of assessed value and that bond issues, new taxes, other tax increases and some fee increases be approved by voters.  He is also aware of provisions in the state constitution and several county charters that forbid legislative bodies from adding spending to executive budgets.  Indeed, some of his past charter amendments have been variants of such policies.

It’s one thing to raise taxes during terrible economic downturns as the county did in 2010.  That simply had to be done.  It’s a very different thing to discuss new discretionary tax hikes in times when voters are not convinced that they are absolutely needed.  If the council would like to have more money available for worthy programs, it should focus on growing the economy, stop adding ongoing miscellaneous spending financed by one-shot revenue sources, redirect cable fund money to purposes that actually benefit the public and restrain some parts of the budget to finance expansions of others.  Doing those things will free up tens of millions of dollars, and maybe more, over time.  But constant talk, and occasional passage, of discretionary tax hikes will only help Ficker place a Prince George’s-style anti-tax doomsday charter amendment on the ballot.  Should such a thing pass, no soda tax will save us.

Hence a warning.  If you give Robin Ficker enough ammo, even he will eventually hit the target.

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Lessons Learned from the Giant Tax Hike, Part Two

By Adam Pagnucco.

The untold story of last year’s 9% property tax hike is that it was not merely the product of needed funding for public schools or the adverse consequences of a U.S. Supreme Court decision on income taxes.  It was also the product of an innate bias towards more spending built into the County Council’s budget process.  That bias created mounting pressure to fund ever-growing spending programs accumulated over many years which contributed to the tax increase.  The next generation of county elected officials must reform this process or they too will eventually feel compelled to raise taxes.

All state and local operating budgets must be balanced each year as a matter of law.  At the state level, the General Assembly may cut spending items in the Governor’s budget but they generally cannot add to them.  (The legislature can and does pass laws mandating spending on certain items in future years.)  Several counties with Executives follow the state’s model, as does the City of Baltimore.  But the Montgomery County charter grants all final budgetary authority to the County Council, which can do almost anything it wants to the Executive’s recommended budget.  It can add, subtract or rearrange spending items subject only to requirements in state law, such as mandatory minimum funding levels for public schools and the college.  Other than that, the only constraint on the council’s power is that the budget it passes must be balanced for the fiscal year.

Every March 15, the Executive is required by the charter to send a recommended budget to the council.  The council then begins its process for reviewing and changing the budget that lasts roughly two months.  The council’s vehicle for altering the Executive’s recommended budget is the reconciliation list (commonly called the rec list), which is a ledger of spending additions and deductions.  Each council committee, and the full council itself, can post additions or deductions to the rec list.  The last step in the process is figuring out how to finance some portion of the additions since they always exceed the deductions.

In theory, there are two sound places to go to fund additions to the Executive’s budget: new tax revenues or offsetting spending cuts.  In practice, the council’s use of these resources is limited.  Tax increases are typically proposed by the Executive, who distributes the revenues they generate across spending items in the recommended budget.  In such cases, the new revenue is not available for further spending desired by the council unless it alters the Executive’s choices.  The council could also cut the Executive’s spending items and use the money for its own items.  But the Executive’s spending proposals have constituencies who will squeal if they are diverted or cut.  No one likes to be the bad guy at budget time!

Page one of the council’s final draft reconciliation list for FY18.  These are some of the new spending items the council wanted to fund last spring.  The challenge was how to pay for them.

If new taxes and spending cuts are insufficient to pay for new spending desired by the council, other funding sources must be identified.  In the past, favorite sources for funding included setting aside less reserve money than proposed by the Executive, setting aside less money for retiree health benefits, occasional transfers of cash from the capital budget and other one-time fixes.  In FY12, the Executive proposed $10 million for snow removal and the council redirected $4.1 million of that for new spending on the reconciliation list.  Snow removal costs must be paid, so if they were to ultimately prove larger than budgeted funds, the council’s action would be tantamount to a backdoor drawdown of the reserve.

Since FY05, the council has added a combined $245 million to the Executive’s budgets through its reconciliation lists.  One does not have to be a certified public accountant to see what the effect of these additions will be over time.  Many spending items added by the council are ongoing, such as hires of new employees and expansions of programs expected to continue indefinitely.  But some of the funding sources for the new spending are one-time in nature, like capital budget transfers and reserve drawdowns.  Repeated use of one-time funding sources for ongoing spending creates enormous long-term pressure on the budget.  Eventually, especially when a downturn comes, the new spending must be trimmed or taxes must be raised.  Guess which is more likely to occur?

Why does this happen?  It’s not because elected officials are stupid.  It’s because of the incentives they face.  From mid-March through mid-May every year, Council Members are besieged by requests for more spending from the community.  Every year, there are three nights of hearings jam-packed with constituents wanting more money for their favored programs.  They are followed by dozens of meetings with groups who want even more than that.  Aside from occasional admonishments from council administrator Steve Farber and Executive Branch budget officials, there are almost no voices for moderation in the budget process.  And here’s the thing: whether it’s hiring social workers, funding more childcare assistance, deploying more police officers in communities that need them, removing more tree stumps or much, much more, almost all the new spending proposals have merit.  Given the incredible pressure brought to bear by groups with genuine funding needs, it’s kind of a miracle that the budget gets balanced at all.

All of this creates serious problems for the County Executive.  The charter grants the Executive a line item veto over spending items, but this is never used because the council would simply override it.  The Executive could abstain from including the council’s new spending in next year’s budget, but again, the council could just put it back in.  For the most part, the Executive and his top aides grumble in private and put on a happy face for Wall Street, but they did go public in objecting to a $10 million draw from the reserve two years ago.  Instead of fighting the council, the Executive’s staff simply tries to figure out how to retain and pay for the council’s new spending in next year’s budget.  And each year, the job gets a little harder without new revenue.

This process is a big reason why the county has had seven major tax hikes in the last sixteen fiscal years.

Next year, a new County Executive and at least four new Council Members will take office.  This new generation of officials will have a choice.  They can keep the existing budget process and eventually come under pressure for yet another tax hike, as happened last year.  Or they can reform it by requiring that new ongoing spending be offset by actual ongoing spending cuts, not one-time measures.  Failure to learn this lesson will mean repeating history.

We will conclude with one last lesson from the Giant Tax Hike in Part Three.

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MoCo’s Essential Man

By Adam Pagnucco.

Ever wonder why some politicians stay in office waaaaaay too long?  One reason is that some of them believe they are truly essential and that government would collapse without them.  We will give them this: some politicians really do leave a lasting mark, and even sometimes for the better!  But the true operations of government depend on legions of competent, honest and experienced public servants who are almost totally unknown to the public.  These are the essential men and women who keep the trains of government running on time.  And in Montgomery County, the most essential man of all is unquestionably Steve Farber.

Farber has one of the most mundane titles of all time: council administrator.  At first glance, such a title connotes unglamorous tasks like emptying garbage pails, cleaning windows, wiping the dais and changing toilet paper rolls.  But in fact, the position is crucial to the proper functioning of the County Council and Farber excels at it.  Unfortunately for all of us, he is retiring.

Part of Farber’s job is to be the leader of the council’s Fifth Floor staff.  These employees are not part of the personal staff retained by Council Members in their offices but are rather central, merit system analysts who advise the institution as a whole.  They are subject matter experts, each overseeing the operations of a few departments and/or agencies on behalf of the council.  When legislation is introduced, briefings are held or budget items are considered, the Fifth Floor analyst who covers the relevant subject areas gathers pertinent information and writes it up for the council to consider.  Occasionally, the analyst will make recommendations with the understanding that Council Members have the final word.  At its best, the Fifth Floor acts as a check and balance on the views of the departments and agencies overseen by the council.  It is hugely important for Council Members to have their own independent sources of expertise; otherwise, they might tend to see primarily what the Executive Branch and the agencies want them to see.  The Fifth Floor predated Farber’s arrival, but he expanded their ranks, protects their independence and champions their contributions.

But Farber is so much more than the merit staff’s leader.  He is the ultimate consigliere, the quiet adviser in the shadows who knows all and says little – at least in public.  His immense and largely secret power derives from three sources.

Institutional Knowledge

Farber has been at the council since 1991 and has an incredible memory.  No matter what the council deals with in the present, he has seen something like it in the past and recalls it like yesterday.  Names, dates, policies, documents – whatever it is, Farber either knows it or knows how to get it.  Few people in county government compare to him on this measure and no Council Member comes anywhere close.  That gap in knowledge can put Farber in the driver’s seat when no one can really see that he’s driving.

Cautious Use of Political Capital

Another secret of Farber’s success is that he spends his political capital very carefully.  He is concerned with budgetary and fiscal issues, especially ones affecting long-term sustainability and the bond rating, but it is otherwise rare for him to weigh in directly on legislation or policy issues.  By picking his spots carefully and not squandering his power, Farber maximizes his ability to influence the big picture events that he cares about most.

Finding Money for the Reconciliation List

Every year, the council proposes to add millions of dollars to the Executive’s recommended budget.  Their vehicle is the reconciliation list, which is a ledger of spending additions and reductions that must be balanced out at the end.  One of Farber’s tasks is to find a way to pay for this list.  No one else in the building fully understands how he does this.  His unique, encyclopedic knowledge of the county budget enables him to locate money under the couch cushions that few others know about.  Try as they might, it is impossible for the Executive Branch to hide money from Farber.  He never funds the entire reconciliation list – and constantly warns the Council Members (often futilely) not to overstock it – but he finances enough of it that the council is usually satisfied.  It’s an incredible and invisible source of power.

How does he pull all of this off?  It’s a great mystery, but sometimes there are clues.  First, he never gets involved in politics, NEVER.  He never takes sides in spats between Council Members or tries to steer politically sensitive things like who gets selected as Council President.  Second, he never takes credit for anything.  If you listen to Farber, he has never had a good idea.  Instead, it’s Council Members from the past who have done great things – even if they really originated with Farber.  When he talks to current Council Members, he will remind them of these past accomplishments and suggest similar monumental undertakings.  If a Council Member agrees, then the idea becomes his or hers – and not Farber’s.  The consigliere will then praise the enlightened ideas of the boss!  Third, he never makes arguments based on personal or political concerns, only on facts – of which he is the undisputed master.  And fourth, his discretion is second to none.  The CIA could waterboard every person in the council building and Farber is the one who would never talk.  Everyone knows this.  That’s why they talk to him.  And that’s why the consigliere knows more than the rest of them.

For all his greatness, Farber has had ups and downs like everybody.  For many years, he was a lonely voice calling for fiscal restraint, occasionally joined by Council Members Phil Andrews and Marilyn Praisner.  That earned him the resentment of union leaders and agency heads who prefer loose purse strings.  Farber got his way during the Great Recession, when the council had little choice but to cut spending and abrogate labor contracts, and he played a big role in saving the county’s bond rating.  But the subsequent easing of fiscal pressure allowed the council to start spending again, resulting in the Giant Tax Hike and the passage of term limits.  If the council had listened to Farber all along and passed regular modest, restrained budgets, there’s a chance those things may not have happened.

County residents have benefited mightily from Farber’s service even though the huge majority of them have no idea who he is.  His dedication to facts over rhetoric, his devotion to sound fiscal management, his work to have the council act as a real check on the Executive Branch and above all his iron integrity have made county government more honest and efficient than it would otherwise be.

Farewell to MoCo’s Essential Man.

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Awkward!

By Adam Pagnucco.

On Tuesday, the County Council learned that their own spokesperson is planning on running for one of their seats.  Um, OK.  And… they learned about it like everyone else did by reading it on MCM.

Um… Awkward!

Neil Greenberger, who has been the council’s Legislative Information Officer since 2006, announced his potential candidacy by telling MCM, “I would chance to say I know as much about county government as anybody in the county.”  Including his bosses?  Um… well, you get the point.  Greenberger could run in District 2 if incumbent Craig Rice vacates his seat.  Otherwise, he would run at-large.  Greenberger said he would stay in his job while he runs for office and give it up only if elected.

To appreciate how strange this is, let’s understand that the two most sensitive staff positions for most elected officials are their Chief of Staff and spokesperson.  The former person is privy to the official’s most confidential discussions and decision-making.  The latter is the official’s conduit to the public.  Both individuals have to mirror the boss’s priorities exactly and can never diverge positions from them outside of closed doors.  That’s part of the deal when you work for an elected official.

Patrick Lacefield, Greenberger’s counterpart in the Executive Branch, works for one boss.  And Ike Leggett, by all accounts, is a good boss to have.  Greenberger has NINE bosses and not all of them are as gentlemanly as Leggett.  Imagine having nine ropes around your neck pulling in nine different directions and you have some idea of what it’s like to be Greenberger.  It is not an easy job.

Now imagine what happens if Greenberger actually runs.  During the day, he would continue to be the council spokesperson, working with the members and their staff to get out information to the public.  And then at night and on weekends, he would be a fellow candidate.  Let’s remember that open seat candidates are frequently asked what they would do differently than the incumbents.  So part of the time, Greenberger would be working for the Council Members and the rest of the time he would be critiquing them.

It gets even weirder.  If Greenberger runs at-large, he will be running against current at-large incumbent Hans Riemer, who is sure to seek a third term.  It’s also possible that he could run against District 5 Council Member Tom Hucker, who could run at-large.  Then there’s the matter of all the other at-large candidates (and there will be a lot of them).  Suppose Greenberger loses.  Will his victorious opponents then be required to retain him as their spokesperson?

We can’t recall another occasion when the council’s own spokesperson ran for one of their seats.  The closest recent analog to this situation happened in 2006, when George Leventhal’s Chief of Staff, Valerie Ervin, decided to run for the District 5 seat.  Since Leventhal was an at-large member, Ervin was not running against him.  But she still left her Chief of Staff position as the campaign started.

Greenberger has as much right to run for office as any other county resident.  But if he stays in his current job while he runs against one or more of his employers, he will be creating immense conflicts.  Council Members need to trust that their communications are written for their benefit and for the benefit of the institution – not for the personal political benefit of the individual writing them.  The fact that they were blindsided by the MCM article is not a good sign for future trust.

Unless adult supervision steps in – and we are talking about the council’s staff director, Steve Farber – this could be a wild ride.

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