Thursday, July 24, 2008

In Praise of Phil Andrews

Margarita-drinking penguins surf off the sandy beaches of Antarctica. Osama bin Laden sips matzo ball soup in Tel Aviv. George W. Bush admits the Iraq War is a mistake. But in an even more unlikely event, I am praising Montgomery County Council Member Phil Andrews for winning a spending increase in this year’s budget. These are strange times indeed.

Regular readers know that I am a career trade unionist. During the last county budget round, I vigorously disagreed with Mr. Andrews’ recommendation to cut two percentage points from the public employees’ cost of living increase. I went out of my way to demonstrate how the unions’ contracts were affordable on this blog. And still Mr. Andrews faced down three hundred chanting, stomping union members and told them, “Employees need to do their part… It would be unfair to expect taxpayers to pay a tax increase to fully fund employee contracts that would be 8% next year.”

But Mr. Andrews is no mere budget cleaver. While he was pursuing labor savings, he was also trying to restore another part of the budget that was of utmost importance to the county. In his original budget plan, County Executive Ike Leggett proposed doing away with the police department’s community service officers (CSOs). The CSOs maintain regular contact with community leaders and citizens inside their districts and train them to implement Neighborhood Watch programs. My neighborhood had just started a watch program and feared seeing them abandoned just as we were creating one. Moreover, many African American, Latino and immigrant leaders protested losing an important communication channel to the police. The total savings from the elimination of the liaison officers was only projected to be $623,000 (out of a $297 million deficit).

Mr. Andrews, Chairman of the council’s Public Safety Committee, would have none of it. He declared:

The officers in these positions provide a crucial link between the department and the public and often are the main link between community members, HOAs and other groups... A relationship has developed between the CSOs and folks in the respective district that very much needs to continue.
Mr. Andrews promptly formed an alliance with Police Chief Tom Manger and guided the restoration of the CSOs through every step of the budget process. Other spending hikes and cuts would come and go, but the CSOs survived. Yes, Mr. Andrews wanted to limit spending in some areas, but he fought hard to fund a program he believed made sense. And as the summer crime season begins, the CSOs are working with my neighborhood and many others to greet the criminals with wary eyes in every house.

But that is not all. Last year, a group of nine civic associations in Silver Spring, Wheaton and Kensington representing 4,440 households wrote to the county asking for implementation of a bait car program. As we detailed in January, bait cars are decoys rigged with cameras and GPS devices by the police to catch car thieves. We asked Mr. Andrews to consider the idea, but that was before the budget crisis dominated Rockville. However, he never forgot about us and has scheduled a Public Safety work session on the issue on July 28. Perhaps he will agree with us that bait cars are a cost-effective way to fight vehicle crime and perhaps he will not. But the fact is that none of our associations are located inside his district and he had no direct self-interest in helping us. He listened to us anyway.

One of Rockville’s most brilliant lobbyists once told me, “I communicate with everyone. Someone might disagree with me nine times in a row, but they could be with me the tenth time.” And so it is with Phil Andrews. Even his detractors admit that he will tell you exactly what he thinks without hesitation and will stick to his word. Crime-weary neighborhoods are lucky to have him in Rockville; the criminals are not.