Berliner, Hopkins engage in first debate of election
County Council candidates discuss Purple Line, county budget, ambulance fees
Incumbent County Council member Roger Berliner, of Potomac, and his challenger, Bethesda's Ilaya Hopkins, engaged in their first debate Tuesday night at the Jane E. Lawton Community Recreation Center in the Town of Chevy Chase. Both are seeking the Democratic nomination for the District 1 position. The Democratic primary is Sept. 14.
Discussions about the best way to stabilize the county's finances, following the $1 billion budget shortfall faced by the county this fiscal year, dominated the debate.
Berliner, elected in 2006, defended his vote against a proposed county budget in 2008 because it wasn't lean enough, noted the 4.5 percent decrease in county budgets from fiscal 2010 to fiscal 2011, and touted his proposal to form a county Organization Reform Commission for streamlining government. He argued the county should become a destination for research companies to create a stronger economic base.
Aside from "core government services," Berliner told the audience of about 175 people, "We cannot afford anything else right now."
Hopkins used the discussion to criticize the record of the County Council generally on budget matters. She said the county stretched taxpayers while simultaneously appearing "business unfriendly." Hopkins also compared the county to a house with "water in the basement."
Hopkins, a former president of the East Bethesda Citizens Association who frequently cited her consensus-building work in the community, said Berliner failed to show leadership over his four years on the council. She said the council should be more involved in decisions related to the county school system. She also argued that his proposed Reform Commission already exists: "It's called the County Council."
"Whatever you care about, schools, transportation, the environment, social services, running a business, this is a problem that threatens all of us, this fiscal irresponsibility," said Hopkins.
Both candidates ducked the opportunity offered by moderator Charles Duffy to pick which county transportation project, the Purple Line light rail between downtown Bethesda and New Carrollton or the Corridor Cities Transitway between the Shady Grove Metro station in Rockville and Clarksburg, they would want to proceed if forced to. Berliner and Hopkins said both projects were important.
Discussing issues specific to District 1, Hopkins highlighted her priorities as improving transportation and improving land-use planning to make sure the county had sufficient infrastructure for growth in the school system's population. Berliner said the budget remained his main focus, but also said the district needed significantly more mass transit.
Berliner used an audience question to state his opposition to the county's newly approved ambulance fees in the fiscal 2011 budget. These fees would impose a cost of between $300 and $800 for a person's ride in a county ambulance (the fees would be imposed on insurance companies, government-provided insurance plans, or waived in the case of individuals without insurance). Hopkins, however, said the county had to make sure the money from fees "comes back to the public safety community" while educating people about the ambulance fee.