Opportunities for change on the County Council
For more than half a century, Montgomery County has prospered from its proximity to Washington, D.C., and an economy sustained by federal spending. Private industry, including contractors and those in fields like biotechnology, which connect with or grew out of federal agencies, have added diversity to the economy.
The flow of taxable income from a well-educated workforce and other corporate taxes and fees has provided the resources for schools and amenities that rival the nation's best.
Montgomery has long been considered the economic engine of Maryland. That remains true today roughly 24 percent of the adjusted gross income of tax filers came from Montgomery in 2008, up from 23 percent five years prior, according to the state's comptroller.
On the other end of the spectrum, in 2000 there were 47,000 people living below the poverty level in Montgomery; in 2008, there were 56,000. Also, in 1989, Montgomery and Howard counties had roughly the same median income about $54,000. Twenty years later, in 2009, Howard's median income (the largest in the state) was $100,000; Montgomery's, at No. 2, was $94,050.
With tax receipts taking a hit during the past three years from the recession, the county was forced to reduce spending in the most recent budget cycle for the first time in 40 years. Still, the budget was not balanced without raising the energy tax on residents and businesses, thought to be the least painful way to boost the revenue side of the ledger. The county is slowly learning to live within its means.
On budget and policy matters, the County Council has failed to distinguish itself, with a few exceptions. Until the most recent budget cycle, when the council actually tightened the budget submitted by the county executive, some members seemed to be living in a parallel universe where the serious matters of navigating tough economic times and all of the accompanying hardships have been substituted with personal political interests such as banning trans-fats in food, requiring calorie labels on chain-restaurant menus, passing laws to protect transgendered people, and a local version of a national energy policy.
Here is the reality. The financial crisis the county is facing is not going away. There are hard choices to make; things the county can and cannot afford. Some of the choices are going to take political will to decide correctly. Current budget estimates leave the county with hundreds of millions of dollars of shortfalls annually through 2016.
It is in this context that The Gazette has examined the choices of the Montgomery County Council in the upcoming elections, beginning Sept. 3 (when early voting starts), on Sept. 14 in the primary and Nov. 2 in the general election.
The all-Democratic County Council has four at-large members who represent the entire county and five members in district seats. All nine seats are up for election this year. Democrats face primary challenges in the at-large race, the District 1 race (which includes Bethesda and Potomac) and the District 2 race (which includes Germantown, Poolesville, Damascus and other upcounty areas). Republicans face no primary challenges in the council races and all will advance to the general election. In the race for county executive, incumbent Isiah Leggett faces no primary challenges; two Republicans are vying for the opportunity to face him in November.
Also, there are two ballot initiatives: term limits for the county's elected officials and the repeal of a recently-approved fee for ambulance transportation. The signatures supporting a ballot question to repeal the fee have been rejected by the Board of Elections, but organizers are considering a legal challenge that could override that decision. For the term limit question, the Board of Elections had not made a decision by Tuesday, but if those signatures are rejected, a court could overturn that decision as well.
In the at-large race, two candidates stand out: incumbent Marc Elrich and a newcomer, Becky Wagner.
Elrich has a near-encyclopedic understanding of the two most important issues the county will face during the next four years: a growing budget deficit and ever-increasing demand for transportation as the population balloons and infrastructure dollars shrink.
In his first term on the council, Elrich has shown an ability to evolve beyond the firebrand reputation he had carried. His work on a proposal for a countywide bus rapid transit system has bridged gaps with communities he had previously alienated, such as developers and businesses. He was among the leaders in working through the details in planning for White Flint's future and the development of a "Science City" between Rockville and Gaithersburg.
Elrich can still ruffle feathers with his demeanor, but he has demonstrated a maturity and serious approach to his job that some of his colleagues have not. That will be needed as the county continues to face challenging fiscal times.
Wagner, having served as executive director of the nonprofit Interfaith Works for more than a decade, knows what it takes to provide results to those in need with limited resources. She offers an insight into the social fabric of the county, tempered with an understanding of the reality of economic conditions.
Wagner brings a sincerity and idealism to her candidacy that is sorely missed among more jaded politicians, but she is not na‘ve to politics. She is a fiscal moderate who knows how to stretch dollars, questioning the wisdom of a proposed helicopter unit for county police and the need for bodyguards for the county executive. Perhaps Wagner's best quality, and one that will serve her well in the political arena, is her ability to criticize bad policy without making personal attacks.
Beyond Wagner and Elrich, two incumbents are worthy of support, albeit with less enthusiasm. Council President Nancy Floreen and member George Leventhal are well-versed in county operations and were able to put aside personal differences with other council members in holding fast to a fiscally conservative game plan this year repealing "ghost" cost-of-living pay increases, opposing additional employee benefits and reducing the number of county government positions.
During her time as president, Floreen became obsessed with creating an unfunded economic development authority for the county. The idea never caught on with the business community and was tolerated by the political leadership. But it was misspent energy.
Leventhal is the consummate 24/7 politician, always running for something and parsing his views. He has difficulty seeing any issue through a non-political lens, a trait that can be useful when courting votes, but is a distraction in the face of real problems.
In the Democratic primary, incumbent Roger Berliner and challenger Ilaya Hopkins are both knowledgeable about the issues that most concern their constituents: the expansion of the National Naval Medical Center, the Purple Line and traffic, among others.
Hopkins, however, has the edge in this race. Berliner, an attorney specializing in energy use, has made carbon emissions a signature issue. This is a problem that deserves to be debated on a higher platform, like Congress and the White House. Berliner's carbon emissions bill targeted just one company in the county, with the ultimate impact questionable, and the uncertain and fickle policy approach contributing to a chilling effect in economic development.
Hopkins' views are more balanced. For example, she supports environmental initiatives, such as composting and alternative energy sources, but believes public awareness and education are more effective than regulation. Hopkins has also stated she would like to explore the idea of selling off the county's liquor business. While that's not a novel concept, her willingness to tackle controversial issues rather than go along to get along is refreshing.
The departure of council member Mike Knapp leaves a significant hole on the council. Community activist Sharon Dooley is the best choice among several Democrats vying for the seat.
Dooley, who has a background in nursing and now works as a consultant in health care compliance, has been working to help her community for years, most recently having completed her second term as president of the Greater Olney Civic Association. One example of a small, but complicated success during her tenure was a 35 percent reduction in the size of signs for the first leg of the Intercounty Connector highway, which Dooley believed were out of character with the community.
Dooley's reputation brands her as an overzealous environmentalist, but her current mindset seems to be more expansive. While she supports measures like carbon controls, she believes the council's top priorities relate to budgeting, land use and the oversight of county agencies. For example, she favors publishing a line-by-line school system budget to foster accountability.
Dooley is also strong on planning, as she recognizes an imbalance between the east and west county in terms of development. She favors additional job creation along the Route 29 corridor to serve as a counterweight to overly congested Interstate 270.
Of the two Republicans vying to face Leggett, Doug Rosenfeld is the better choice. Rosenfeld, an attorney from Potomac, demonstrates an in-depth knowledge of county issues and has a hawk-like focus on reducing spending.
He has a great deal of criticism for the county executive, particularly when it comes to spending on what he views as unnecessary projects, like a police helicopter unit, and reducing the county's nearly $1 billion deficit through temporary fixes, like furloughs. Rosenfeld is strongest when discussing the budget, in which he proposes significant cuts to school and county administrators, including reducing the number of council members to seven.
Rosenfeld also criticizes Leggett for his economic development efforts, pointing to the naming of Steve Silverman as director of economic development as a political rather than a practical move. Rosenfeld's plan for economic development would be to reform the office by hiring technocrats, rather than those with political leanings, to operate it.
Rosenfeld offers the best chance for Republicans in this race.
While it remains undecided as to whether two measures will be on the ballot come Nov. 2, it's important to address them if they are ultimately approved.
The first, an effort by County Council District 2 Republican candidate Robin Ficker, would limit the county's elected leaders to three terms. This is a solution in search of a problem. Putting aside the fact that experienced politicians bring a number of positive qualities that green ones do not, the tenure of elected leaders is best left to voters. Montgomery residents know when a politician is effective, representing their interests, and engaged in important matters. At the local level, voters, not arbitrary limits, should decide when it's time for a politician to move on.
The second, a push by the county's volunteer firefighters, would repeal a law that authorizes a fee for ambulance transportation. The fee, which has been discussed for years, would range from $300 to $800 and be paid by insurance companies, with Medicare expected to be hit the hardest.
With fire and rescue personnel already stretched thin, the millions the fee would bring in will help fund needed equipment and other costs, like additional personnel. The concerns about injured people not calling 911 for fear of being charged for transportation is not a reason to repeal the fee, though it underscores the importance of a comprehensive public information campaign.
Over the summer, Gazette editors have interviewed scores of candidates to arrive
at "Our Opinion" endorsements, an editorial page tradition for decades.
-LAST WEEK: Congress, Montgomery school board and sheriff
-TODAY: County Council
-SEPT. 1: State legislature
Candidates without primary competition will be invited to speak with the editorial board before general election endorsements.
More information about the races and candidates, including verbatim responses to our questionnaires and one-minute videos, is online at www.gazette.net/votersguide2010.