Showing posts with label Montgomery County Council. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Montgomery County Council. Show all posts

Thursday, June 27, 2024

Montgomery County Council stonewalls Black cemetery advocates

The Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition recently contacted all members of the Montgomery County Council, asking each elected official to denounce the desecration of Moses African Cemetery in Bethesda, and the desecration of African-American cemeteries in general. None of them agreed to do so, and only one even replied to the inquiries. "Thank you for your email regarding Moses African Cemetery," Councilmember Marilyn Balcombe's chief of staff wrote in an email response to BACC. "This is a very complex issue which has a long history. It is not within the purview of the Council to advocate while there is both past and ongoing litigation."

"BACC rejects the logic of any and all councilmembers who remain silent," the organization said in a statement Wednesday. "First, we do not understand what the issue is regarding commenting on issues involving litigation. Through Amicus Briefs and other means, public and private entities weigh in all the time on lawsuits. Secondly, the Moses African Cemetery covers several parcels including ones not involved in litigation, allowing any Councilmember concerned about intervening in a court case to comment about the fate of portions of the cemetery not involved in litigation. In particular, the developer, 1784 Holdings, is erecting a light storage facility next to McDonalds on River Road despite the absence of a full archaeological and forensic survey investigating whether additional bones and funerary objects remain. 1784 Holdings had previously removed several possible funerary objects and is storing them in a warehouse in Gainesville, Virginia. A proper investigation of these objects has not been conducted, The Council could call of a third party, impartial investigation now."

"BACC believes the Council must reverse course and take a strong stand against desecration. No other local official at any level has spoken out. The council has an opportunity to lead if it can shake off its bureaucratic mindset."

Monday, May 20, 2024

Montgomery County has 2nd-biggest increase in homeless in Washington, D.C. region

Montgomery County is finally near the top of a list again - but it's not one you want to be high on. The County experienced the second-biggest increase in homeless population in the entire Washington, D.C. region since 2023, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. Washington, D.C. itself was number one on the list. COG reported that Montgomery County's arch rival, Fairfax County, was the only jurisdiction in the area to enjoy a decrease in unhoused residents.

Of course, Fairfax County has many more high-wage jobs than Montgomery County, which helps one to afford housing. Politicians often tout MoCo's low unemployment numbers, without mentioning that most of the jobs our residents are employed at are not located within Montgomery County. Fairfax also has a lower total tax burden and cost-of-living than Montgomery County. Property taxes are set to rise again in the FY-2025 budget nearing approval by the Montgomery County Council, in a jurisdiction where property taxes are becoming a second mortgage for many residents as it is. And that's just one part of the total tax and fee burden for MoCo residents.

Rents and home prices, despite relentless construction and delivery of new housing units, only continue to skyrocket in Montgomery County. And thousands of existing affordable housing units are being demolished to clear the way for more overpriced "luxury" housing. A ridiculously-high cost-of-living combined with some of the lowest job creation and job growth numbers in the region are a recipe for increasing poverty and homelessness. Montgomery County has failed to attract a single major corporate headquarters in a quarter century, as company after company has chosen to locate or flee to Northern Virginia over that long, dry period of moribundity. As a result, more jobs, and more high-wage jobs, are created every year in Fairfax County than in Montgomery County - in fact, the numbers aren't even close.

Montgomery County has dropped off of so many top ten lists - Forbes' Top Ten Richest Counties in America, Top School Systems in America, etc. - that it's almost a positive feeling to be on any top ten list. Almost. Perhaps the Montgomery County cartel can create some new slogans: "Montgomery County: We're Number Two in Unhoused Population - We Try Harder (To Make It More Expensive to Live Here)." Or, "The Number of Montgomery County's Unhoused - Rising Almost as Fast as County Councilmembers' Salaries!"

Tuesday, January 9, 2024

Montgomery County allowed County agency-owned high-rise to operate without fire alarms for 2 months

The Montgomery County government and owner Housing Opportunities Commission of Montgomery County allowed residents to occupy the 15-story Westwood Tower apartments for two months without an operating fire alarm system. County officials have now condemned the high-rise building at 5401 Westbard Avenue in Bethesda after an electrical fire brought the existing violations to light this past weekend, and further damaged the building's electrical systems. In lieu of a functioning fire alarm system, HOC had posted signs inside the tower instructing residents to "evacuate and call 911" in case of a fire. The signs did not advise how residents who might be asleep during a fire would be aware one had broken out, nor how their neighbors in the approximately 200 apartments would be notified on more than a dozen floors.

Sign posted inside Westwood Tower after the
building's fire alarm system went down on November 9, 2023;
it was never repaired, and the building was condemned after
a fire on January 6, 2024

After the fire alarm system broke down on November 9, 2023, the HOC stationed personnel in the building lobby to be on-duty in case of a fire. It was unclear how one person could physically cover 15 floors (not to mention without an elevator),and knock on hundreds of doors, in the few seconds that might be needed for all residents to safely evacuate. One resident reported that these employees were sometimes seen dozing off in the lobby. Residents report that the HOC never informed them of a timeline for restoration of the fire alarm system. "Fire officials have repeatedly been called to the building because of the lack of a fire alarm," one resident said, and that the building has been "cited repeatedly because of a lack of fire alarm."

Generator outside the building, which has
no power; residents have been relocated

The insanity of the idea of one person being able to function as a human fire alarm for a 15-story building became clear this past Saturday night, when a transformer blew inside the building. Several residents I spoke to reported that not only were there no fire alarms sounding, but the backup "human fire alarm" in the lobby did not contact any of them. They smelled and saw smoke, and self-evacuated, alerting other residents on their way out of the building. One resident who lives on a floor that did not initially have smoke only learned the building was on fire when a friend who lived on a smoke-filled floor called them to say there was a fire, and to get out. 

Residents report that they were left freezing in the building from 6:00 PM Saturday night, until the building was condemned and evacuated 24 hours later. Power in the building was limited, and there was no heat at all. Security functions to keep non-residents and potential criminals out of the building were inoperable.

To top it off, the HOC initially refused to provide alternative shelter to residents, advising them to instead make a claim on their own apartment insurance to cover the cost of hotel rooms. As the details began to reach the public a day later, Montgomery County agencies announced they were providing off-site shelter. The HOC said the residents were being moved to hotels in the area. Residents were told that they could be displaced from the building for as long as three weeks.

There is concern among residents, given the County's inaction regarding the fire alarm outage in the preceding weeks and the building's ownership being politically affliated with the elected officials who appoint and oversee them, that repairs will be allowed to drag on. Last night, two extremely loud generators roared outside the darkened apartment tower. There was no visible activity at the building. 

Residents of HOC properties have long pointed out issues regarding health and safety in their buildings. Those complaints were backed up by the findings of federal inspections, which found 75% of the units they inspected failed to meet federal standards. It now appears the agency was allowed to violate the County's fire code for two months, by operating a building without functioning smoke and fire alarms to alert occupants.

The HOC acquired the building several years ago with grand plans to construct more buildings and garages on the property. When those plans were stymied by protests that arose when the agency announced it intended to build a parking garage on top of the Moses African Cemetery at the rear of the property - where many of the graves were desecrated during the building's construction in the late 1960s, the HOC then attempted to sell it to a private developer. That sale was temporarily blocked by a Montgomery County court injunction, and the buyer backed out of the transaction. The dispute - that the HOC tried to sell the land with the cemetery without notifying the descendants of those interred there, in violation of Maryland law - will be ruled on by the Maryland Supreme Court later this year.

The County and the HOC are only fortunate that Saturday's fire was not more serious. This could have been a catastrophic disaster, had a fast-moving fire engulfed the building. Elected officials have yet to criticize the situation that existed at the property; in fact, the County Councilmember who represents the area has so far tweeted only praise for County agencies.

Thursday, September 28, 2023

Hans Riemer endorses Will Jawando in Maryland U.S. Senate race

Former Montgomery County Councilmember Hans Riemer has endorsed current Councilmember Will Jawando in the Maryland U.S. Senate race for the seat of retiring Senator Ben Cardin (D). Jawando and Riemer served together on the Council from 2018 to 2022; Jawando is now in his second Council term. "In my many years of knowing Will Jawando, going back to our work together supporting President Obama, and my four years serving side-by-side with him on the Montgomery County Council, I have always been impressed by his devotion to public service and dedication to meeting the needs of his most vulnerable constituents," Riemer said in a statement this afternoon.

"I am honored to receive the endorsement of my friend and former colleague @HansRiemer," Jawando tweeted in announcing Riemer's support. "Hans has spent his career fighting for so many of the same priorities my campaign is centered upon. I look forward to working with him on delivering for the state of Maryland."

Photo courtesy Will Jawando for U.S. Senate

Maryland AG rules Montgomery County cannot ban police from making traffic stops

Maryland Attorney General Anthony Brown has ruled that the Montgomery County Council does not have the legal authority to pass a law that would prevent police from making traffic stops for minor offenses. Council President Evan Glass sought an opinion from Brown in regards to legality of the proposed STEP Act (Council Bill 12-23). Introduced by Councilmember Will Jawando, and co-sponsored by Councilmember Kristin Mink, the bill would ban police from making traffic stops for offenses such as a defective headlight or tinted windows. 

Brown's finding, issued in a September 15, 2023 memo to Glass, is that Maryland vehicle law preempts any County law regarding traffic stops. However, Brown advised Glass that another STEP Act provision, which would ban police from seeking consent to search a vehicle unless there is "reasonable suspicion" that a crime has been committed, would be permissible because Maryland vehicle law "does not address the subject of searches during traffic stops."

The STEP Act is one of several criminal justice reforms introduced or steered to passage by Jawando in his two terms on the Council. Those initiatives have been highlighted during his current campaign for the Maryland U.S. Senate seat of Ben Cardin (D), who is retiring after his term ends. In advocating for the STEP Act, Jawando argued that change was necessary to reduce the outsize impact of traffic stops on drivers of color. 

One group that advocated for both of the STEP Act provisions in question, the Decriminalize Montgomery County Coalition, said in a statement that its members are "disappointed" in Brown's ruling on the traffic stop question. It urges the Council to move forward on passage of the provision on consent searches of vehicles, and the Maryland General Assembly to update the state's vehicle law to allow localities to ban traffic stops for minor offenses.

"The Decriminalize Montgomery County coalition is deeply concerned that [Brown's] opinion poses an obstruction to racial justice," the organization said. "The STEP Act was introduced to reduce racial disparities in traffic stops. In fact, the opinion correctly acknowledges that police disproportionately stop Black and brown drivers compared to other drivers. Drivers of color are frequently stopped for minor offenses, such as a broken taillight or an expired registration, even though these violations do not threaten public safety. These stops often end up turning into consent searches so that police can search vehicles for drugs, and can escalate into emotional and physical harm. They are fundamental problems that still need to be addressed. Stopping consent searches is a step towards that end, but the best way to reduce police harm is to ensure that the stop does not happen at all." 

Organizations that are part of the DMC coalition supporting the STEP Act include Young People for Progress (YPP), the Silver Spring Justice Coalition (SSJC), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland, and Jews United for Justice (JUFJ).

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Congresswoman Lauren Underwood endorses Will Jawando for Maryland U.S. Senate seat

Montgomery County Councilmember Will Jawando's latest endorsement for the Maryland U.S. Senate seat of Ben Cardin (D) comes from a federal lawmaker already on Capitol Hill. Illinois Congresswoman Lauren Underwood announced this morning that she is backing Jawando over his leading opponents in the Democratic primary, Congressman David Trone and Prince George's County Executive Angela Alsobrooks. "I am excited to announce my support of Will Jawando for the United States Senate," Underwood said in a statement. "For nearly two decades, Will has been a mentor and friend. He's a tremendous leader who cares deeply about the lives and well-being of all Maryland residents. Will is an effective, disciplined, and inspiring legislator who is prepared for the challenges ahead. I am proud to endorse him."

A registered nurse, Underwood gained national attention by winning a Republican seat once held by Congressman Randy Hultgren and the disgraced former House speaker, convicted child molester Dennis Hastert. Underwood has the 16th-most-liberal voting record in the U.S. House according to VoteView, likely a winning data point with Jawando, who is positioning himself as the true progressive in the Senate race.

"I am honored to receive the endorsement of Congresswoman Lauren Underwood," Jawando said in a statement. "She is in the top echelon of our nation’s public servants and tirelessly fights for her constituents. I have had the honor of knowing the Congresswoman for many years and know her to be a tireless leader for Illinois."

Monday, September 25, 2023

Black cemetery advocates to "pour 250+ symbolic bones" at protest of Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich

The Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition plans to protest Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich's appearance at a County budget forum this Wednesday, September 27, 2023 from 7:00 to 8:30 PM at the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Regional Services Center, in the East-West Room, at 4805 Edgemoor Lane in downtown Bethesda. In a statement, BACC says it intends to "pour 200+ symbolic bones at Marc Elrich's feet," representing bones and other artifacts removed from a construction site directly adjacent to the desecrated Moses African Cemetery in Bethesda that were trucked to a Gainesville, Virginia warehouse. BACC asserts that Elrich and the self-storage company developing the construction site have both blocked access to the remains for independent testing, and that the remains have not been adequately tested to determine if they are human or not.

The site in question, directly behind the McDonald's at 5214 River Road in Bethesda, was not part of Moses African Cemetery. But given the reality that property lines of older, unfenced cemeteries - and of segregated Black cemeteries like Moses - in then-rural areas were not always clear or precisely followed in burials, there was a strong concern that there could be human remains on the site. The Montgomery County Planning Board ignored those concerns when it approved construction of a self-storage building on the property in 2017. 

Demolition of an auto repair building on the site soon followed, and excavation began on the project in 2020, but it has been beset by delays and interruptions ever since. The developer has not commented publicly on why the project has repeatedly stalled out, and the BACC has maintained a steady campaign of protests and rallies at the site, which have garned local, national and international media coverage. Elrich, the County Council and Congressman Jamie Raskin have all declined to intervene in the dispute, leading BACC to protest at their offices and public appearances. 

"Moses Cemetery is located in Mr. Raskin’s district," BACC said in a statement this week, "and we demand that he fight white supremacy in his own backyard as he purports to do on a national level." In the same statement, BACC calls Elrich's inaction on the issue "a clear allegiance to white supremacy." Raskin has said he is deferring to local officials on the matter, and Elrich - who walked in Dr. Martin Luther King's March on Washington and was active in the civil rights movement -  has maintained that he has no legal authority to intervene in the case.

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Montgomery County Councilmember Will Jawando introduces bill to eliminate tipped minimum wage

Montgomery County Councilmember Will Jawando (D - At-Large) introduced a bill today that would eliminate tipped minimum wages in the county by 2028. Restaurant servers, bartenders and other tipped service workers currently can be paid less than the County's minimum wage, because they theoretically will achieve the minimum wage amount through customer tips. Jawando's bill, which is also supported by Councilmember Kristin Mink (D), would phase out the tipped minimum wage over the next five years, and require restaurant owners to pay all staff the current County minimum wage. His U.S. Senate campaign is touting the bill as the latest example of Jawando's progressive leadership on the Council, at a time when his leading progressive opponent, Prince George's County Executive Angela Alsobrooks, is under fire from a new Intercept article that raises doubts about her past positions on crime and civil liberties issues.

“Even while running a high-stakes and fast-paced campaign for the U.S. Senate, Will is continuing to fight each and every day for his constituents in Montgomery County and embodying the core message of this campaign: to build a shared prosperity that lifts everybody up, no matter who you are or where you come from," Jawando's campaign communications director Benny Stanislawski said in a statement today. "Today’s bill is a perfect example of this, and his tried and true approach to public service. From successfully passing historic rent stabilization, to a pilot guaranteed income program, and community-informed policing in Montgomery County, Will is without a doubt the most effective legislator in the race. Today’s bill will likely become law and completely reshape the lived experience of countless working-class residents of the county."

Similar bills and laws in other jurisdictions have been highly-controversial and divisive. Restaurant owners fear their already-slim profit margins getting thinner, having to boost the wages they pay employees directly by more than $10 an hour each. Some servers and bartenders, who say they now regularly earn more than minimum wage via tips, have even opposed similar laws elsewhere. Their concern has been that word of the law - and the new service charges that restaurants add to customer tabs in the wake of their passage - will encourage customers to cut back or eliminate tipping altogether. Jawando does not believe this will be the case, but says he is proposing a second bill that would ensure service charges go to restaurant workers, rather than to the restaurant owners.

Thursday, June 8, 2023

Will Jawando endorsed by Westminster mayor in Maryland U.S. Senate race

Westminster, Maryland
Mayor Mona Becker

Montgomery County Councilmember Will Jawando (D - At-Large) has been endorsed by the mayor of Westminster in the Maryland U.S. Senate race, his campaign announced today. Mayor Mona Becker is a member of the faculty, and serves as chair of the Science department, at Westminster High School. Jawando is seeking the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Senator Ben Cardin (D). 

“I am proud to endorse Will Jawando’s candidacy for the U.S. Senate," Becker said in a statement this morning. "All across the country, we have seen vicious attacks on the LGBTQI+ community coming from Republican politicians, and it is putting our community in direct danger. We need a progressive champion in the Senate representing Maryland who will fight like hell for our rights and not let our country slip back away from progress. I am confident that Will is the right person for the job, and I am excited to help him win this race.”

“I have been lucky to partner with Mayor Mona Becker in my capacity as Councilmember, and I am deeply honored that she has decided to endorse my candidacy for the Senate," Jawando said in a statement. "Mayor Becker leads Westminster with compassion, dignity, and grit. From defending LGBTQI+ rights to protecting our environment to so much more, we share the same bold progressive vision for the future of this country. I look forward to working alongside her to build a brighter tomorrow and represent the state of Maryland in Congress.”

Becker's endorsement may give Jawando a boost in the Democratic primary in the western part of the state next year. Prince George's County Executive Angela Alsobrooks (D) has been winning the endorsement side of the contest for Cardin's seat in the early stage of the race, having picked up the backing of influential Maryland Congressman Steny Hoyer (D). Other key endorsements Alsobrooks has received include those of Maryland Comptroller Brooke Lierman, Baltimore-area Congressman Kweisi Mfume, Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski, Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman, State Senator Anthony Muse, Town of Somerset Mayor Jeffrey Slavin and former Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett.

One prize endorsement observers are awaiting the announcement of is that of Maryland Governor Wes Moore (D), who has established relationships with both Jawando and Alsobrooks. A Moore endorsement could raise Jawando's profile statewide tremendously, or seal the race for Alsobrooks, whose toughest competiton so far is ultrawealthy Congressman David Trone (D). Maryland 8th District Congressman Jamie Raskin (D) could scatter all of this political calculation to the wind, however, should he decide to enter the race this summer. Raskin has a national profile, energizes progressives, and has beaten big-spending Trone before at the ballot box.

Saturday, May 27, 2023

Montgomery County Council President Evan Glass to host Pride Month events in June

Montgomery County Council President Evan Glass (D - At-Large) will once again host or appear at a series of Pride Month events in June. This will be the fifth year Glass will perform this leadership role. The events will include Rockville Pride, an annual event hosted by the City of Rockville at Rockville Town Square, which will be held on Saturday, June 24, 2023 this year. 

June 11 will be Takoma Park Pride Day. Bethesda's Big Train baseball club will also hold a Pride Night on June 17. Pride in the Plaza will take place at Veterans Plaza in downtown Silver Spring on June 25. Events will kick off with the raising of the Pride Flag at the Montgomery County Executive Building on June 1. 

“I’m excited to host Montgomery County’s fifth annual LGBTQ+ Pride month events,” Glass said in a statement. “This is a time for celebration, reflection and unity. Today, the rights of LGBTQ+ Americans are under relentless attack. Members of the LGBTQ+ community — especially people of color and trans people — continue to face discrimination and efforts to undermine their human rights. As we continue our struggle for greater civil rights and liberties, Pride Month is a time to not only reflect on our progress but to focus on the work ahead.”

Friday, May 26, 2023

Montgomery County Council approves $6.7 billion budget, 4.7% property tax increase

The Montgomery County Council approved a $6.7 billion budget for the fiscal year of 2024 yesterday, including a 4.7% property tax increase. That tax hike joins a 7% increase in water bills, and a massive recordation tax increase, cementing Montgomery County's status as having the highest total tax burden in the region. Despite clouds on the national and international financial horizons, the budget represents significant spending increases using one-time funding sources that won't be there in future years. While some have suggested this will "create" a structural budget deficit, the reality is that Montgomery County has had a structural budget deficit for many years. The Council has just made it worse.

Montgomery County Public Schools received an 8.5% spending increase in the budget. Under Maryland's maintenance-of-effort law, Montgomery County cannot reduce the amount of spending on MCPS next year, so we are now on the hook for at least that amount in FY-2025 without the means to pay for it. That will require either spending cuts or raising taxes next year. The MCPS funding boost is shoveling good money after bad, given that student performance seems to decline in proportion to the constant and mindless increase in funding for the school system. Something is seriously wrong at MCPS, but there is zero accountability or oversight by the Council.

The FY-2024 budget could best be described as the "deception budget." The Council violated Maryland's sunshine laws, casting votes on various line items in the budget secretly, outside of public Council sessions. This was noted by Councilmember Kristin Mink (D - District 5), who also took some of her colleagues to task last December, when decisions about Council and committee leadership were made behind closed doors. County Executive Marc Elrich (D) expanded on Mink's criticism of the shadow budget process in his remarks on the budget's passage yesterday.

County Council President Evan Glass, who directed the budget process from start to finish, made it clear he did not share Mink and Elrich's view. But his Trumpian "most transparent budget process ever!" declaration was only missing the Sean Spicer "Period." It was clear that the budget process was designed to avoid painful roll call votes that highlight councilmembers' positions on controversial, difficult or unpopular issues. Such as councilmembers who had promised to restore the Office of the People's Counsel opposing funding for the OPC in this budget!

Montgomery County continues to have a tax problem. It continues to have a spending problem. Its leaders can't seem to solve either one. They only know how to increase both.

Even as the tax burden increases on residents, the County is missing out on commercial and business tax revenue it could be raking in. If only it paid the same attention to attracting major corporate headquarters to the County, as it does to boosting government salaries and profits for the Council's developer sugar daddies.

In fact, after having once again raised taxes on residents, Glass will lead a Council effort to deliver another massive tax cut for developers. On June 13, the Council will hold a hearing on an expedited Bill 25-23, which will reduce impact taxes on developers. The move continues the disturbing and immoral pattern of the Council shifting the tax burden for its out-of-control spending from developers to residents.

It's no surprise we don't have money to expand or replace overcrowded and aging schools, when we keep cutting taxes on the developers who are filling them up with new students. Likewise, the laser focus on residential development expands the structural deficit, because the new costs generated by residential development exceed the amount of property tax revenue it generates. But the Council will continue to feign surprise that we are once again in the red next spring.

Montgomery County hasn't attracted a major corporate headquarters in over 25 years. It has lost some in the interim. Most are choosing Northern Virginia, whose jurisdictions were able to increase spending in their FY-2024 budgets without raising property tax rates - and in some cases, cutting taxes. Gee, I wonder why?

While there can often be hyperbolic discussion about "cutting waste" in budgets, the fact is that there is a lot of waste in the County budget. Nobody wants to look for it. Exhibit A, is the infamous $22,000 security camera system for the County's Supervised Visitation Center. Such a 4-camera surveillance system, with installation, would have available for about $1000 at the time the Council shelled out $22,000 of your money for it. 

Such bloated expenditures going to well-connected businesses, contractors and non-profits who donate to councilmembers are a major source of fat in the County budget each year. If we have determined that County government should provide A, B or C to the public, streamline the operations and have the County provide them directly. Instead, we are making costly appropriations for a thousand individual organizations because this Councilmember's campaign donor, or that County official's wife, is on the board of such-and-such charity. Needless to say, this practice must be investigated, audited and eliminated.

The bottom line is that taxes will continue to increase until you, the taxpayer, make it politically painful for the people who are raising them. This hasn't happened yet. There was no taxpayer revolt. The only interruption of a Council session was by MCPS employees. They shut it down. Guess who got money in this budget.

Politicians generally aren't smarter than you. They're just more clever and devious, that's all. Like rodents in a laboratory maze, they quickly learn to favor the rooms with a piece of cheese over the ones where they receive an electric shock. Whether it's beating the Columbia Country Club with the Purple Line, or picking your pocket with another tax increase, the Council has yet to pay a price at the ballot box. It will continue to plunder until it does.

Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Montgomery County Council PHP Committee recommends against funding Office of the People's Counsel

The Montgomery County Council's Planning Housing & Parks Committee has recommended against restoring funding for the Office of the People's Counsel in the FY-2024 budget. Not funded since 2010, the Office of the People's Counsel provided a land-use attorney who could assist the public on land-use matters, and represent their interests at administrative hearings. Committee members Andrew Friedson (D - District 1) - who serves as chair, Natali Fani-Gonzalez (D - District 6) and Will Jawando (D - At-Large) extensively criticized the office of County Executive Marc Elrich for not working with the Council to define what the People's Counsel position should be, despite the fact that the office falls under the legislative branch and not the executive branch.

It was claimed that a tight budget year would also be a hindrance to restoring funding. In reality, the funding sought by Elrich for the People's Counsel represents only 0.0004% of the entire FY-2024 operating budget.

Committee members had some novel ideas as to why the office should not be restored at this time. Jawando appeared unfamiliar with the Office of the People's Counsel as it was constituted in the past, claiming the executive branch had failed to enlighten the Council on this since it was discussed a year ago. He also echoed a talking point used by a lobbyist for developers, that certain resident groups whom he did not identify would use the office to stop development.

Fani-Gonzalez, amid chewing out executive branch representative Meredith Wellington, said there is no need for a People's Counsel to assist and represent residents' interests in land-use matters because the councilmembers already do that. Alas, none of the eleven councilmembers is a licensed land-use attorney, which is the whole point and defining characteristic of the People's Counsel. Fani-Gonzalez also created an awkward moment while chastising Wellington. One of the youngest past commissioners on the Montgomery County Planning Board, and now one of the youngest people to serve on the County Council, Fani-Gonzalez described septuagenarian Wellington as having been on the Planning Board "thirty years ago. A long time." "I was there until 2008," Wellington responded. "Oh, there you go," Fani-Gonzalez replied. "It feels like ages ago." 

Friedson, who has been feted at fundraising parties hosted by developers, had made his revulsion toward the Office of the People's Counsel clear long before the committee meeting. He actually introduced a bill this spring to permanently kill the position altogether. Everybody who has been paying attention knows what the office was, yet the Council keeps hiding behind a musty, old Office of Legislative Oversight report that didn't even say what they claim it said about the position. In fact, the OLO report never suggested defunding the office!

The unanimous opposition of the PHP Committee to restoring the Office of the People's Counsel was particularly astonishing given that 90% of the residents who testified on the matter before the Council last month favored funding the position. Once again, the Council - like the Planning Board - is openly legislating against the wishes of a majority of its constituents. How long this thumbing of the nose at residents can continue is ultimately up to the voters of Montgomery County.

All eleven councilmembers will vote on the question of the People's Counsel at their Thursday, May 11, 2023 meeting, and will have to go on the record at that time. The vote will be especially awkward for councilmembers who had promised the Montgomery County Civic Federation to restore the Office of the People's Counsel in interviews prior to the 2022 election. 

There is a palpable fear among some on the Council, and their developer sugar daddies, of having an Office of the People's Counsel in place during the upcoming process of ramming through the zoning text amendments that will weaponize the controversial Thrive 2050 plan. Those ZTAs that will make it possible to build market-rate multifamily housing within single-family home neighborhoods, a tactic that has failed to lower housing costs in the few jurisdictions that have employed it.

Wednesday, May 3, 2023

Montgomery County Councilmember Will Jawando enters Maryland U.S. Senate race

Montgomery County Councilmember Will Jawando (D - At-Large) is the first candidate to enter the race to fill outgoing Maryland U.S. Senator Ben Cardin's seat. Jawando, an author and veteran of the Barack Obama administration, had previously run for U.S. Congress before winning his council seat in 2018. While the race for the coveted seat is expected to draw many Democratic entrants, Jawando caught his potential rivals flatfooted Tuesday, when he formally announced his campaign one day after Cardin announced he would not seek reelection in 2024. Despite many signs and rumors that Cardin would bow out, only Jawando had a campaign and announcement video immediately prepared to go, getting a jump on fundraising and media attention.

Jawando centered his announcement on disputing the idea that "if some people get ahead, everyone else has to be left behind." He promised to run on the goal of bringing a "shared prosperity" to all Marylanders. Jawando cited some of the issues he has worked on during his four-and-a-half years on the County Council, including sponsoring a rent stabilization bill that would be more restrictive to rent increases than a competing Council bill supported by some of his colleagues, and his high-profile campaign for criminal justice and policing reforms.

Entering the race just months after being reelected to a second term on the Council, Jawando will be one of the most-intriguing candidates to watch. His fate will largely be decided by what the Democratic electorate is seeking in this election cycle. Will the race follow the same path as the year when Chris Van Hollen won his U.S. Senate seat, with deference to the veteran, center-left, well-financed politician whose "turn" it is for promotion to the next-highest seat, at the expense of younger, more-progressive candidates of color?

If so, U.S. Congressman David Trone (D - 6th District) will be in the driver's seat. He is expected by many political observers to enter the Senate race, and the Total Wine founder is known above all else for his willingness to spend vast sums of his personal fortune. As a hefty fundraiser for national Democrats, Trone will have many a boldfaced name to campaign for him. And with a centrist profile, he has repeatedly defeated Republicans in the 6th, something the Democratic establishment would like in a state where a moderate Republican can be competitive in a statewide race.

But let's not forget that former Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot was a similar, formidable centrist at the starting line of the 2022 gubernatorial race. He had the highest statewide profile, the biggest fundraising potential, and after building a bipartisan image with friend Gov. Larry Hogan (R) over eight years, was widely expected to easily clinch the primary and general election victories.

Virtually no one had heard of Wes Moore at that time. A young, bestselling author with no experience in public office, Moore quickly garned attention, straw poll victories, and - soon thereafter - money and big name endorsements across the state. It turned out that Democratic primary voters were looking for a fresh face, and an inspiring message, not the "safe" candidate whose turn it was next.

Of course, Moore brought a wealth of experience in international finance, and a Hollywood-ready resume of overcoming personal setbacks and service to his country as a combat veteran. The thin presidential bench national Democrats are facing in coming election cycles helped Moore immensely, too, as he has instantly given hope to many that they have another Obama on their hands. Like Jawando, Moore was also in the Obama administration orbit that has launched so many Democratic candidates to election victory in recent years. 

Jawando faces a number of challenges that Moore did not, however. Moore did not have a voting record in public office, allowing him to be a blank slate to supporters, and to never get too specific in his agenda prior to being sworn in as governor. Jawando has drawn much criticism from Republicans and moderate Democratic and unaffiliated voters for what they view his sustained attacks on law enforcement. His established friendship with Moore could be a potential edge, but would Moore endorse Jawando over more-powerful Democratic rivals? And can Moore ignore the fact that, were Jawando to win, the councilman would be on an Obama-like trajectory to run for the White House in 2028, the same year many expect Moore to be a frontrunner in the presidential race, and in the same lane as Moore?

One certainty: no candidate is going to win this Senate seat in a cakewalk. Everyone knows that if a Democrat wins the seat, it will essentially be his or hers for life. Even a governor can only serve two terms in Maryland. This is literally the opportunity of a lifetime, and it won't come again until Van Hollen retires, which could be decades from now.

Every Democratic official with any profile in the state has to be considering a run. Congressman Jamie Raskin (D - 8th District) had long been considered the frontrunner for this Senate seat. He has a passionate following among progressive Democrats that allowed him to defeat Big Money Trone to win his seat. The only uncertainty for Raskin would be if he is too progressive for a statewide race. Although he has announced his cancer is in remission, he also acknowledged that the treatments have left him exhausted, and he has to weigh whether or not he is ready to enter a tough statewide race at this moment - versus an easy reelection to his current seat in Congress, with his desirable committee assignments placing him in a powerful position if Democrats win back the House next year.

Prince George's County Executive Angela Alsobrooks is expected to enter the Senate race. Her hiring of former Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan's campaign manager suggests she may be positioning herself as a more moderate candidate. Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski could be a formidable entry, as well, with the Baltimore machine and appeal to younger voters among his advantages.

The Republican side of the race at this hour can only be described by one word: bleak. Former Gov. Larry Hogan said yesterday that even his wife is begging him to run for the Senate seat, but once again, professed to have no interest in serving on Capitol Hill. Trone and Olszewski would like nothing more than for Hogan to enter the race, as Democrats would be under pressure to shift to the center.

If the Republican bench for the 2026 gubernatorial race sends shivers down the GOP establishment's spine, be sure you have smelling salts in hand before querying them about the GOP U.S. Senate bench. Hogan and former Lt. Gov. Michael Steele are the only Republicans capable of running a competitive race if the election were held today, and Steele lost running for this seat in 2006, albeit in the destructive, radioactive shadow of George W. Bush. 

One has to wonder if this is Hogan's last thumbing of the nose at his own party. Notorious for failing to support Maryland GOP candidates in the 2018 and 2022 elections, Hogan is now the one man standing between possible victory and sure defeat for the party in the U.S. Senate race. The irony is that Hogan has a far better chance of winning the Senate seat than the White House, whether that be as a Republican or No Labels party nominee. 

Were there to be no Donald Trump-aligned candidate in the race, Hogan protege Kelly Schulz might have a chance, having received some statewide exposure during her unsuccessful race for governor last year. Schulz fell victim to GOP voters' preference for the Trump-endorsed Dan Cox - but also to her patron Hogan's presidential ambitions. When Hogan should have been barnstorming the state with Schulz in the final weeks of the primary race, he was out-of-state campaigning for president. But the Senate question may be moot for Schulz, as some pundits are noting she could be a formidable candidate for Trone's congressional seat if he pursues the Senate race.

Beyond Hogan, there is mostly wishful thinking. The Cal Ripken/Pat Sajak rumors are as predictable at the start of election cycles as trying Rex Chapman at point guard was once a fixture of Washington Januaries. Dan Bongino? He would surely appeal to the Trumpist base in Maryland, but would find it challenging to win the general election after his outspoken support of The Donald in recent years. 

Former Gov. Bob Ehrlich would be highly-qualified for the office, and is more popular among Maryland Republicans than Hogan. Does he want to take on a brutal campaign like this? 

It's telling that even articles about Hogan declining to run don't mention other possible GOP candidates besides Steele. There's no getting around the fact that the Maryland GOP has failed to promote and elevate some of the most promising potential candidates in the party, particularly those who are female and non-white. Some have since left politics - or the state entirely, for redder pastures elsewhere. 

The only hope for the GOP, aside from Hogan coming to his senses and entering the race, is for a charismatic and reasonably-wealthy outsider to emerge from nowhere. There's a strong chance the economy could be in recession or worse by next year. A slow-motion, multicar pileup of failing banks appears to be in the realm of possibility, as are higher gas prices and exhaustion over a Ukraine war that seems to be designed to go on for years to the financial advantage of defense firms, while hundreds of thousands of troops and civilians die on both sides in the meantime.

For now, Will Jawando is coming off as the best-organized of the potential candidates, if nothing else. He doesn't even have to worry about claiming a lane at the moment, as aside from socialist Jerome Segal, he has the entire road to himself. While the other big name Democrats scramble to assemble their campaigns and launch events, Jawando can continue to vacuum up TV time and pundit chatter. 

Photo courtesy Will Jawando for Maryland

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Montgomery County residents overwhelmingly favor funding Office of the People's Counsel

Peggy Dennis and Ruben Meana Paneda
testify before the Montgomery County Council

Ten of the eleven residents who testified before the Montgomery County Council yesterday urged councilmembers to restore funding for the Office of the People's Counsel in the FY-2024 operating budget. All ten also spoke in strong opposition to the bill that was the subject of the public hearing, a legislative move to permanently eliminate the office, which the Council has failed to fund since 2010. Bill 18-23, introduced by Councilmember Andrew Friedson (D - District 1), would kill the position of People's Counsel, an attorney who could advise residents and civic associations on land-use and zoning issues, and represent their interests in administrative hearings. Friedson's bill would replace the People's Counsel with a toothless resident advisor, who would not have to be a licensed attorney, and who would not be allowed to participate in administrative hearings, would be unable to call or cross-examine witnesses, and would be forbidden to introduce evidence or point out violations of zoning law in those hearings.

Resident Sue Present said Friedson's developer-friendly bill "keeps the fat cats fat, and throws neighbors and neighborhoods under the bus." Friedson has received extensive campaign contributions from development interests, and developers have hosted fundraisers for him. 

The only resident to testify in favor of Friedson's bill to eliminate the People's Counsel was Jane Lyons-Raeder of Silver Spring, who has previously been employed as a lobbyist by the developer-funded Coalition for Smarter Growth. Lyons-Raeder said the quiet part out loud, expressing concern that a restored People's Counsel "could quickly turn into a free lawyer for people who oppose development in their neighborhood." She argued that Friedson's proposed advisor position would be preferable, as it would not "allow for free legal representation" for residents.

But the small way in which the Office of the People's Counsel takes a tiny step toward leveling the playing field with development interests who can afford high-priced lawyers is precisely what the 90% of residents who testified in favor of restoring the position yesterday see as its central appeal. Resident Max Bronstein pointed out that in a land-use dispute he was engaged in from 2007 to 2012, the developer had two lawyers, and a team of five land-use specialists. Montgomery County government has over 100 attorneys who represent it, he added. "Should not the 1 million people of the county have 1 lawyer representing them?" Bronstein asked the Council.

Bronstein said the Office of the People's Counsel was "a great aid" in his case up until 2010, when the Council defunded the office. He pointed to the Office of Legislative Oversight report on the OPC, which recorded that the People's Counsel participated in an average of 44 land use cases per year, and provided information on zoning and land use to residents an average of 347 times per year before being defunded.

Nowhere in the OLO report was it recommended the Office of the People's Counsel be closed, Bronstein noted. He said the People's Counsel will be particularly needed in the coming years, as the Council attempts to implement the controversial Thrive 2050 plan, which will allow attached housing and small apartment buildings to be constructed in existing single-family home neighborhoods.

Rick Meyer of the MoCo Coalition for Control of Cell Towers concurred that expert advice is needed for zoning text amendments, and not just for residents, but for the Council itself. A Council ZTA to allow 5G antennas to be placed in locations that were off-limits to such equipment at the time was later found to be in violation of the County's own laws. If even the five-year head of a Council committee couldn't understand the zoning laws, Meyer suggested, it indicates the need for just such a knowledgeable land-use attorney as the People's Counsel. In fact, one of the People's Counsel's duties and powers is the ability to point out when a developer or the County itself is in violation of the law during adminstrative proceedings.

Elizabeth Joyce of the 
Montgomery County Civic Federation

Elizabeth Joyce and Alan Bowser of the Montgomery County Civic Federation both recalled that several of the sitting councilmembers had promised their organization that they would restore funding for the Office of the People's Counsel during candidate interviews the federation held last June. Joyce said money is not the issue, because the funds Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich has earmarked for the office in his proposed FY-2024 budget amount to only .0004% of the total budget.

Given the recent scandals that ended with the resignation of the entire Planning Board, Bowser questioned why Friedson would suggest eliminating a tool of equity and transparency like the Office of the People's Counsel. "Why in this moment of broad distrust, why would any of you want to exacerbate this situation" by proposing to eliminate the OPC? Bowser asked. Comparing Friedson's OPC-killing bill to a similar one that failed to pass seven years ago, Bowser concluded, "This was a bad bill in 2016; it's a terrible bill in 2023."

Resident Susan Labin pointed out that Friedson had ironically recently complained that a state bill that would have increased the County Executive's authority over planning and zoning was "a power grab," while Friedson is now attempting to grab power away from residents by killing the Office of the People's Counsel. "It seems like at every turn the real power grab is by the special interests," Labin said.

Nicole Williams

"I'm speaking from painful experience," Potomac resident Peggy Dennis said at the beginning of her testimony against Friedson's bill, and in favor the Office of the People's Counsel. She spoke of the many hours residents in her community spent fighting a gigantic assisted-living development that was in violation of the area's sector plan and County law, which was proposed by "a well-heeled developer." Had the OPC been in operation at that time, Dennis argued, "all of that time would have been saved...That person could have introduced evidence in a hearing, called witnesses, pointed out" illegal violations. 

Such time investment is beyond the means and availability of most residents, Nicole Williams said. "We shouldn't have to" spend time trying to interpret zoning and land-use laws while developers have the advantage of expensive attorneys. After 13 years of failing to fund the People's Counsel, Williams said, it's "time to stop giving residents the runaround."

The reality, as Bronstein noted during his testimony, is that there are hardly any land-use attorneys who will represent residents, even when wealthier neighborhoods have the money to pay them. This is absolutely true. For years, Norman Knopf would take such resident and civic association cases. After he retired, his partner David Brown continued in that role. But Brown refused to represent the Westbard residents who sued Montgomery County over illegal actions during the approval of the Westbard sector plan. Michele Rosenfeld took the residents' case. With her victory on Kensington residents' behalf in the Costco gas station case, and partial victory in downsizing the density of the Westbard Square development, Rosenfeld is now the preeminent land-use attorney representing residents and civic associations in court and in administrative proceedings. 

But that can only help if you can afford to hire an attorney. With the large number of newer residents in the County either being low-to-moderate in income, and many not speaking English as their first language - as Present noted in her testimony, a public resource and representative like the Office of the People's Counsel becomes more vital every day. And with the Planning Board and County Council increasingly ruling against majority sentiment and ignoring resident and civic association testimony, it can be argued that - if anything - the role and power of the People's Counsel should be expanded and made more muscular.

Monday, April 17, 2023

Why Montgomery County needs an Office of the People's Counsel more than ever

The great irony of the attempt by some on the Montgomery County Council to permanently kill the long-dormant Office of the People's Counsel, is that the position is needed even more today than when the Council defunded it in 2010. Developers seized majority control on the Council in 2002 through their well-funded "End Gridlock slate" of candidates, and by 2010, controlled 8 out of the 9 seats. Yet there was still at least a cosmetic veneer of an idea that growth and land use issues were up for some debate. For initiatives or major master plans that were a heavy lift, County planners had to gin up elaborate presentations and supporting ideas like "smart growth," and "transit-oriented development," and even falsely state that rail transit lines, new highways and "vibrant town centers" would be part of "smart growth" communities like Clarksburg and Watkins Mill.

Once the Office of the People's Counsel - held by an attorney who could provide zoning and land-use advice to the public, and represent residents' interests at administrative hearings - was defunded, the public role in land-use decisions was rapidly phased out. An incredible series of events began to unfold. The Columbia Country Club - which had successfully held off construction of the Purple Line for decades - was defeated in that struggle by the county political cartel in 2013. That same year, the Planning Board stifled a potential Maryland Attorney General Investigation of the criminal Farm Road scandal, by appointing an investigator who had donated thousands of dollars to the Attorney General. 

In 2014, the County Council approved a new zoning code that essentially rezoned everything except single-family home residential neighborhoods as mixed-use. 2016 witnessed unanimous Council passage of the controversial Westbard sector plan, despite overwhelming resident opposition. From 2017 to the present, the Council, Planning Board, and Housing Opportunities Commission would continue to stymie and suppress all efforts to conduct archaeological studies on the Moses African Cemetery in Bethesda. And last fall, the Council passed the controversial Thrive 2050 over countywide resident opposition, a plan that will end single-family home zoning across most of Montgomery County.

Had there been an Office of the People's Counsel over these thirteen years, it's likely that none of these events would have transpired in the way they did, if at all. The People's Counsel would surely have tangled with County officials on the complex zoning matters at stake. Instead, we've seen a Planning Board and Council that completely ignore public input from individual residents and civic associations, and steamroll ahead with whatever developers want to do.

If anything, the Council needs to scrap Bill 18-23, and get about the business of restoring funding for the Office of the People's Counsel. You won't be surprised to know that the author of Bill 18-23, Councilmember Andrew Friedson, isn't just the recipient of developer campaign donations - - developers even host fundraisers for him.

What's needed is not just the return of the People's Counsel, but a beefed-up version of the office, with expanded authority. Sector plan updates should once again require a committee to be formed with representatives of all stakeholders, including residents, not the sham charrette process that replaced it. 

It's also time that a new layer of protection that District of Columbia residents enjoy is added to Montgomery County: Publicly-elected, non-partisan Advisory Neighborhood Commissions. As stated on the D.C. Board of Elections website, "Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners advise the District government on matters of public policy including decisions regarding planning, streets, recreation, social services programs, health, safety, and sanitation in their respective neighborhood commission areas. Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners are elected to two year terms every election year."

In an era where development interests are supercharged, it's time that residents also get a power boost from a People's Counsel, sector plan committees, and the establishment of ANCs.

The Council will hold a public hearing on Bill 18-23 tomorrow, April 18, 2023 at 1:30 PM. If the Council presses ahead with a vote on the bill before it adjourns for the summer, voters will want to watch closely. There haven't been enough votes on land use issues by this new Council to determine how many of the 11 seats are now controlled by developers. Any member who votes to kill the Office of the People's Counsel will have made crystal clear who controls their seat.

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.

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Montgomery County Council unanimously "reaffirms" appointment of James Hedrick to Planning Board

Montgomery County Planning Board commissioner James Hedrick will remain a member of the body, after his February appointment was unanimously "reaffirmed" by the County Council yesterday. County Executive Marc Elrich had vetoed Hedrick's appointment last Friday, leaving the Rockville resident's fate in limbo for several days, as supporters and detractors resumed their debate over his candidacy over the weekend. Hedrick had received eight votes from the eleven-member Council on February 28 to secure his appointment, and needed nine yesterday to survive Elrich's veto.

Hedrick found nine, and then some, when every councilmember supported his appointment at yesterday's Council session. Some councilmembers who showed unusual spine in opposing Council President Evan Glass's behind-the-scenes maneuvering when the new Council first convened last December found their knees buckling on Tuesday. A tweet prior to the meeting inadvertently revealed that the Council had already reached a decison to unanimously support Hedrick, an agreement that was come to off-the-record, out of public view. Some of the same councilmembers who took Glass to task for making decisions off-line in December about committee assignments went along with his ex parte process this time.

It's likely the Council circled the wagons in this case because Glass could have sold the Hedrick Holdouts the argument that this was a vote on principle, of the power and will of the Council versus the executive. Does this mean the more independent minds on the Council will now support the Glass agenda for the rest of his term as president? No, as the competing bills on rent stabilization clearly show.

Is the Hedrick appointment reason for opponents of Thrive 2050 and its threat to end single-family-home zoning to get their blood pressure up? No. As I noted Saturday, Hedrick's support of Thrive and upzoning are hardly unique on the new Planning Board. The Council will not appoint anyone who opposes Thrive. Hedrick's votes will likely be indistinguishable from any other commissioner this Council would have appointed in his place.

If anything, Hedrick's appointment may improve the quality of the Board's work. Even if you disagree with the plans and policies he might vote to approve, his experience as chair of Rockville Housing Enterprises gives him an expertise on some of the technical and practical issues of multifamily housing that has been lacking in some of the commissioners in recent years. Board observers won't soon forget the many classic "amateur hour" moments from the Casey Anderson era, such as commissioners determining the maximum height for a parcel in the Westbard sector by looking at a distorted Google Street View image during a meeting.

One thing is for certain: the Hedrick controversy aside, the developer campaign contributors to the County Council are over-the-moon about the Planning Board situation as a whole. By all rights, the many scandals that ended with the forced resignation of the entire Board last year should have triggered comprehensive investigations by the local media, the Council, the Maryland Attorney General, and the FBI - starting with Farm Road and ending with Liquorgate. Some people might have even been looking at time behind bars in federal prison. Few could have imagined that the Council would be able to not only entirely sidestep investigations, but also seize the unprecedented power to appoint an entirely new Board and Chair all at once. 

We can wonder why the media and those other levels of law enforcement agreed to look the other way, much as they did during the 2018 County government $6 million embezzlement scandal. But we can truly know why the Council found the chutzpah to sweep the Anderson-era scandals under the filthy Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission rug. 

Once again, it goes back to one of the most pivotal moments in Montgomery County political history: the victory of the County political cartel over the Columbia Country Club in the Purple Line struggle. The elected officials dared to grab the third rail (pun intended), and when the next election came around, they realized that they weren't electrocuted - they were reelected! Turns out, especially when you have the local media in your back pocket, the third rail is a brass ring. If we can beat the Columbia Country Club, they concluded, we can beat anybody.

Energized to try their luck, the 2014-2018 Council approved a massive property tax hike, and the Westbard sector plan. They even aggressively defended the cover-up around, and ongoing desecration of, the Moses African Cemetery in Bethesda. While they ended up getting term limits, albeit with extremely-generous 12-year terms, when the actual elections came around in 2018...the voters - whose posteriors were still smarting from a tax and Westbard spanking they had just received two years prior - voted for the same or similar candidates who had delivered the beatdown to them.

The Council couldn't believe its good fortune. Realizing it now enjoyed serious Trump-shooting-somebody-on-Fifth-Avenue immunity, it could now go for broke. "Smart growth" around transit stations and the 2014 pledge that "we just want the shopping centers, we won't touch the neighborhoods" suddenly gave way to developer fever dreams like Thrive 2050. Serious players like Kenwood and the Citizens Coordinating Committee on Friendship Heights who had to be bargained with in the past could now be ignored, resulting in decisions like the Little Falls Parkway road diet scandal, and the Westbard-area road closure fiasco.

Of course, the Anderson-era Planning Board was the harbinger of this iron-fist, winner-take-all era we've now entered. Gone are the days when well-argued testimony from a resident could lead a commissioner like Francoise Carrier, Amy Presley or Norman Dreyfuss to change their mind on an issue. When you come to a Planning Board session in recent years, you know how the vote is going to go, with extremely rare exceptions. Your only role as a resident or civic association officer is to at least get the opposing view on the record for posterity.

One can hope independent minds will somehow emerge on the new Planning Board. But the Council demonstrated such closed minds in its interview process, that it's hard to believe this new Board won't redefine the term "lockstep" with frequent unanimous votes. 

Consider that among the applicants for the interim board was former Rockville Mayor Larry Giammo. By every measure, Giammo was - if anything - overqualified to serve as a Planning Board commissioner. As mayor, Giammo successfully delivered the $400 million revitalization of Rockville Town Center. He also had served as a commissioner on the Rockville Planning Commission prior to that. And after leaving office, he has been a leading voice for the interests of City residents on growth, development and school overcrowding issues. In short, someone familiar with the nuts-and-bolts of development and its impact on public facilities and infrastructure, but with a record of representing the best interests of the community. That is the essence of what you would want in a Planning Board commissioner, right?

The Council didn't even include Giammo on its finalist interview list. 

That tells you everything you need to know about the credibility of the County Council in this process.

Sunday, March 26, 2023

Marc Elrich explains veto of Montgomery County Planning Board member

Most residents became aware of Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich's veto of the appointment of Rockville resident James Hedrick to the County Planning Board not through a formal announcement by Elrich's office, but through the reaction of Hedrick's supporters after the County Council was informed of the executive decision. The first press release would come from Council President Evan Glass, who was displeased by Elrich's rejection of the Council's choice of Hedrick. It's unclear if Elrich did not anticipate that Glass would go public with the issue over the weekend, as the executive did not lay out his thinking in the public realm on Friday. But whatever the reason, Elrich did respond Saturday by posting his Friday letter to Glass online.

"I met with Mr. Hedrick for almost two hours on Friday, March 10," Elrich wrote, "and have reviewed his participation in land use issues in Montgomery County, his comments on social media, and other work. After this review, I have decided to disapprove his appointment to the Planning Board." Elrich noted that the recent replacement of the entire Planning Board due to a series of scandals, none of which have been investigated by the County Council or Maryland attorney general to date, made restoration of confidence and public participation in land use decisions essential to establishing a functional board.

"In the nuanced work of planning, there is a need to recognize the opinions and lived experiences of others and to come to the table ready to work together," Elrich wrote. "During my interview with Mr. Hedrick, he made it clear that he has no interest in doing this difficult work. Instead, his comments to me, as well as on social media, demonstrate an ideological close-mindedness as well as a disdain for those whose views do not comport with his."

"Mr. Hedrick’s view is that we need greater housing densities everywhere, that he has 'heard the same arguments' from those who oppose his view, and that he 'doesn’t have a lot of patience with those people,'" Elrich continued. "He seemed unaware that over the past 16 years, master plans have been used to substantially increase housing densities. He also seemed unaware of the fact that the forecasts for population growth in the county are based on the densities adopted in these master plans. This demonstrates a basic lack of understanding of the county’s master plan process, one of the most important elements of the Planning Board’s responsibilities and one that requires balancing sometimes competing policies – what rezoning is needed to encourage buildout; what steps must be taken to promote racial equity and social justice issues such as displacement and gentrification; what consideration must be given to the environmental consequences of increased land coverage."

Elrich has long pointed out that Montgomery County has already approved sufficient new housing units to meet the forecasted need by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments by 2030. He has also sought to highlight a number of projects that would either preserve or create new affordable housing that his office has orchestrated since 2022. And many note that developers haven't even begun to fully build out all of the available "smart growth" areas near Metro stations in downtown Bethesda and Silver Spring alone - nor the numerous "dumb growth"areas not within walking distance from Metro that the Council has deemed "activity centers," such as Westbard. In this context, Elrich and other slow growth advocates are perplexed as to why developers are now seeking to rezone existing single-family-home neighborhoods for multifamily housing, before even cashing in on the many land-use victories they've already won since 2002.

The controversial Thrive 2050 plan approved by the Council and previous, scandal-ridden Planning Board will provide only more luxury housing at market rates, despite claims that the plan was designed to increase housing opportunities for those who can't currently afford to live in the county. Even the Council's own consultants warned councilmembers that they had failed to adequately solicit and obtain feedback from people of color on racial and equity issues surrounding Thrive 2050. While proponents said Thrive 2050 would increase options, it in fact reduces options, by eliminating the single-family-home neighborhoods that are the main draw for homebuyers who choose the suburbs. Home prices in the few cities that have eliminated single-family-home zoning have not fallen as proponents have promised, but only continued to increase. The ultimate winners have been developers, not homebuyers or the poor.

However, Hedrick was not the only Council appointee to support Thrive 2050. Elrich wound down his letter to Glass by emphasizing the need to reduce the "toxic atmosphere" of the previous Planning Board, arguing that the appointment of Hedrick would not contribute to that effort. The boards of the last decade have been seen by many residents as only responding to the desires of developers and their paid lobbyists, very few of whom have registered as such with the state. Resident concerns were typically ignored, or even belittled, by planning commissioners. 

"The appointment of a new Planning Board is an opportunity for a fresh start, removed from the toxic atmosphere that permeated the defunct Planning Board at all levels, including social media," Elrich wrote. "Unfortunately, Mr. Hedrick perpetuates, rather than alleviates, that atmosphere. He has made insulting and dismissive statements about those with opposing viewpoints. When asked about this, he disappointingly expressed no regrets."

"Such rigid views are anathema to restoring the reputation of the Planning Board and the public’s confidence in its decisions. Land use planning in Montgomery County is at an inflection point that will determine how we move forward in addressing housing and community building mindful of the important role land use decisions play in ameliorating the increasingly apparent effects of climate-driven storm events on our homes, businesses, and transportation systems. We need Planning Board members with good judgment who are open-minded, constructive, and, above all, interested in hearing from all sides in a fair and transparent process before they have reached a decision. Mr. Hedrick does not meet those standards."

Elrich concluded his letter with an almost-Trumpian touch of all-caps, declaring "the appointment of James Hedrick to the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission is DISAPPROVED." It was not immediately clear if the meeting between Elrich and Hedrick was recorded in any fashion, so that Elrich's characterizations of Hedrick's responses could be verified. Elrich's sizeable constituent base among homeowners countywide appeared to be satisfied by the decision, based on social media reaction. The move by Elrich was exactly the sort of action his voters put him in office to take, and puts the Hedrick holdouts from the February 28th Council approval vote on the spot this coming Tuesday, when Glass promised the Council would discuss Elrich's veto.