Monday, April 3, 2023

Montgomery County Council bill would permanently eliminate Office of the People's Counsel

A bill introduced by Montgomery County Councilmember Andrew Friedson (D - District 1) would permanently eliminate the Office of the People's Counsel. The office, which was able to assist residents with land use and development issues, and could represent the interests of the public in some land use proceedings, hasn't been funded by the Council since FY-2010. Developer-funded councilmembers used the budget shortfall as an excuse to "temporarily" get rid of the position starting in FY-2011, and, of course, never restored funding since. 

Bill 18-23, co-sponsored by Councilmember Dawn Leudtke (D - District 7), would create a new office, called the Community Zoning and Land Use Resource Office. It would completely gut the functions of the People's Counsel that made it beneficial for residents, but a pain for development interests. The "officer' of the new office would no longer be an attorney. They would no longer be allowed to participate or advocate for the public in administrative proceedings. That would be a big win for developers, as the People's Counsel as currently defined in County code can introduce evidence, call and cross-examine witnesses, and point out when the County or a developer is in violation of County code and regulations.

The reason this is happening is that County Executive Marc Elrich (D) has made a firm point of wanting to have funding for the Office of the People's Counsel finally restored in the FY-2024 operating budget. Much like the bait-and-switch soundalike bills on expanding the Council size and rent stabilization, which sounded like what advocates wanted but prevent the substantive change of the competing proposals, the "Community Zoning and Land Use Resource Office" is as much like the Office of the People's Counsel as the German Democratic Republic was democratic. 

In short, Bill 18-23 is a totally-cynical move to kill off the People's Counsel permanently, as it is getting harder and harder for the Council to explain year after year why it is not funding an office that exists solely to help residents. As you can imagine, it's difficult to publicly announce that you don't want to fund an office that exists solely to help your constituents and protect their interests.  Thus the bait-and-switch. A public hearing on Bill 18-23 is currently scheduled for April 18, 2023 at 1:30 PM.

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