Monday, January 04, 2010

The Top Stories of 2009, Montgomery County

Just as we did last year, it’s time to review the top stories of 2009 in both Montgomery County and the rest of Maryland. Everyone who reads this blog knows that your author is wholly unqualified to choose these stories on his own, so naturally I chose the people who know all: you the readers. Thirty-seven of you rose to the challenge. Here are your picks for the county.

1. Budget Crisis, County
28 votes

Reader: Duh!

Reader: The budget crisis was the beginning and ending of every story in Montgomery County in the year 2009. It was in the background, the foreground, and the elephant in the room. All politics, priorities, and policies were shaped in one way or another by the ongoing budget crisis.

Reader: This is the driver of county business right now. Because of a lack of political leadership, at every level of government in the county, no one knows how this will really be dealt with.

Reader: Montgomery County’s been pretty spoiled over the years, and for the first time, voters will have to get used to hearing “no.” This won’t help anyone in elected office next year as they all have to play the bad guy.

Reader: This story is an iceberg: we saw it in the distance but it keeps getting larger and larger. We thought we knew how deep it was, but boy were we wrong. And unlike the victims of the Titanic, we see this one coming and are going to have to push something overboard.

Reader: Did we somehow miss the gnashing of teeth, the wringing of hands here? As one who attended the budget hearings, I was struck by how much seemed to be the usual speeches by the local educational clusters all sent in to make certain school budgets were untouched – inordinate numbers of cluster coordinators all saying pretty much the same things as if they were pre-scripted. Both they and the few community groups that got a chance to speak in this three minute exercise of democracy known as public testimony were mostly ignored by the Council Members who often chatted amongst themselves, scrolled through their blackberries and asked no questions, except occasionally of the legal teams representing some corporation or official entity in the county. Was there ever adequately conveyed a sense of this financial mess – a proverbial voice from on high –this dismay was just not seen at the council level. We are going into an election year with no money; can we really assume that this council will properly make these hard decisions? At the level of the County Executive – there were town hall meetings on the budget and forums where people could email or call-in that explored the budget issues much more in an in-depth bread-and-butter approach that sent a message of urgency.

Reader: This is really a management crisis. The county has $119 million in reserves, pays upfront for many capital projects, has wasted money on Strathmore and Blackrock, and failed to plan. With an AAA bond rating, a relatively low debt level, low unemployment rate, and generous waivers of negotiated pay increases by employee unions, the County can pull through. It is time for county managers to sacrifice their pay, bonuses, and benefits to show some leadership. Ike needs to part with his perks like a staff of drivers and a private bath. His predecessors did fine, in better fiscal times, without the frills.

2. District 4 Special Election
26 votes

Reader: People we assumed would never vote came out to support Nancy Navarro in an election characterized by mud-slinging and melodrama. We may have awakened a sleeping giant in MoCo’s Latino community, increasingly empowered, affluent, and demanding a role in County politics.

Reader: Nancy’s win shifts the balance on the Council in ways we’re only just beginning to see. Kudos for MPW’s coverage of the primary campaign. It was the “go-to” resource and outshone the Post and the Gazette by a mile.

Reader: Changed the balance of power on the council, elected the first Latina to the council, proved that organization can beat old money in MoCo, and elevated David Moon and Jackie Lichter.

Reader: Two special elections in such short order, each with intriguing back stories, made for interesting reading and lots of dirt.

Reader: Not so clear at the time, but what a pivotal election it turned out to be, in terms of turning the tide of power on the County Council. Don't believe it -- ask Roger Berliner!

Reader: The election in District 4 that changed the council alignment was a big deal that led directly to the “coup” that selected Nancy Floreen contrary to tradition. This was the single biggest story and will likely have further repercussions and increase polarization on the Council, as Nancy is not likely to bring unity.

Reader: The District 4 special election in my view has been a game-changer in Montgomery County politics. Nancy Navarro crushed the myth that old political names and family dynasties are unbeatable. That myth has been totally busted. The second myth she crushed was “Ike Leggett has major coattails.” She beat Ike in his precinct, Ben Kramer’s precinct, and in Mr. and Mrs. Praisner’s precinct. The most important myth of all is that in order to win an election in the East County you must win Leisure World. Nancy held her own in Leisure World by keeping the same percentage of voters from the first special election to the second election. Her campaign targeted neighborhoods that had been forgotten and overlooked for many years. They were able to tap into the youth vote, the union vote and the immigrant/people of color vote. Nancy went on Spanish language radio and was able to recruit volunteers and new voters. She won in all of the African American precincts. As we await the 2010 census we will see the enormous demographic shift that has occurred in Montgomery County over the past decade. The paradigm has shifted. Let’s see if it has any bearing on the future of election results in the county for 2010 and beyond.

Reader: Three points. (1) Elections have consequences and this one tipped the balance of power. (2) This was a bona fide election. That is important because when there has been an election, the Council vice-president has not always moved up to be president. Such is the case this year. (3) Elections matter. Roger Berliner made an ass of himself in not acknowledging the will of the voters in District 4.

Reader: This race was the only game in town this year, and it was a nail-biter. Not only that, Navarro’s victory upended conventional wisdom, as well as the old power structure in the County. This can only foreshadow the shifting political dynamics in the County that will be driven by demographic changes in the future.

3. Maintenance of Effort
23 votes

Reader: Education is the most important issue to county voters and the county government has treated it that way for decades. Their reward? A kick in the face by a policy that is in no way designed to target Montgomery County. This has implications for the budget and Council/School Board/Superintendent/MCEA relations.

Reader: A well intentioned rule applied in an idiotic manner. Still, it’s great theatre when Wily Weast tries to cast blame in public.

Reader: The rhetoric regarding the process until now borders on the absurd, not the least of which is Mr. Leggett calling the MOE legislation “Stupid” at the CFM breakfast. It’s likely to get stranger before it’s over.

Reader: The cacophony of whining coming out of Rockville on this issue is extraordinary, and it’s going a long way towards showing that even the most avowed supporters of education start to falter when the going gets tough.

Reader: It is a good thing King Jerry has said he is going to be leaving or his head may roll on this one; if he backtracks and tries to stay – he may be in for a rough ride. If the County had not been spending more than was required for years and years, (it even built some of its own schools during the Ehrlich years), perhaps we could be faulted. This is another power play and should be couched as that. Why not take an accounting all of the dollars over those minimally required for all those years and apply those over expenditures to the credits for Maintenance of Effort – we would probably be laden with educational spending credits far into the future. Jerry Weast was in error for complaining to the state and he should remember he is an employee; he was out of line on this one.

Reader: A well-intentioned, but obviously ridiculous law that does not allow for use of the “smell test” when economic circumstances render it to be out of step with reality. In one sense, Montgomery County is consistently criticized for paying its teachers and staff too much, with pay raises that are criticized as too generous. In another sense, when Superintendent Weast begins the ball rolling for the elimination of all pay raises - a cost-savings of $89 million, to help solve the county's budget problems - that very action leads, ultimately, to... a state penalty? This from the same state government that a year earlier had underpaid Montgomery County for schools, thanks to a $24 million “accounting error,” and hoped nobody would notice!

Reader: A joke. No credit for exceeding the MOE level in other years. But gives Jerry Weast an angle to outsmart Ike and to squeeze the County Council.

Adam: What a cruel irony that MoCo is paying the price for Baltimore City’s sins. As a matter of fact, that central fact summarizes the state’s entire fiscal structure.

4. Council Infighting (includes Council President)
22 votes

Reader: This is a political blog and when it comes to county politics, this intrigue is where it is at.

Reader: MoCo no-growthers got to make a spectacular fuss about “special interests” ignoring the will of the public. District 1 residents got to whine that ritzy Bethesda and Potomac somehow weren’t being given enough attention. And everyone else, including the five Council Members who voted for Nancy Floreen, went on with their daily lives.

Reader: This reality became exacerbated after the passing of Marilyn Praisner. But as you have written, “elections have consequences,” so when Nancy Navarro finally won a seat on the council, the power shift was felt in Rockville. Like it or not, we only have one more year of this dynamic. Or not.

Reader: The council bickers while the county burns. Seriously, there are three members of the council I would keep. The rest are little more than children.

Reader: They make the words “pathetic” and “moronic” look kind.

Reader: Here is a shout-out to all the Gen-Xers. I don’t think I need to say anything else.

Adam: Unfortunately for the Council Members, many in the general public lump them together. So when Council Member X does something outrageous or Council Member Y blows a gasket, some people will blame it on “the Council” and assume that the entire body is dysfunctional. That accounts for at least part of the reaction to the recent disputed election for Council President and will only intensify as the primary approaches. All of this increases the chances of success for Robin Ficker’s term limits initiative.

5 (tie). Montgomery College Scandal
18 votes

Reader: The impact of Dr. Johnson’s spending, leadership style, and dismissal may be felt for a while. The Trustees managed it beautifully. Thanks to Valerie Ervin, Ike Leggett, and Herc Pinckney, it did not become a racial issue…but it could have!

Reader: An important lesson for all Montgomery leaders, present and future: Communicate with key audiences, respect the community and play the MoCo political game. Oh, and it helps not to excessively spend public money on yourself.

Reader: Wait, let me get this straight... it is Harvard on the Pike, right? “Why would anyone be denying me ‘Harvard-like’ benefits and lavish spending sprees on my AmEx card?” Hit the road, Brian K. Johnson. Charlene Nunley was a friend of ours... and you, sir, were no Charlene Nunley.

Reader: Scandalous. Forget a background investigation, did anyone do a Google search? The Trustees failed us and we will pay the price.

Adam: Next time, I’d be happy to help with the background check!

5 (tie). Silverman Joins the Leggett Administration
18 votes

Reader: This was a combined stroke of genius for Ike… and a signal as to how desperate his administration was for business outreach. It’s remarkable how quickly Pradeep’s name has faded. I wonder where he is…

Reader: A coup on a number of fronts. Good man for the job and bringing a formidable election foe onto the team. Skillful move by Ike.

Reader: One of the clearest signs of Ike’s inability to lead; a real show of weakness.

Reader: Ike’s admission of incompetence.

Adam: Why hire the best guy for the job and then cut his budget – TWICE? If the Department of Economic Development actually creates jobs, then its budget should be increased during a recession.

7 (tie). Growth Policy Debate
14 votes

Reader: Growth is why the Council is divided. As a broad issue, it covers so much of what local politics is about – housing, transportation, and education to name a few. The growth policy, for those of us who do not camp out in Rockville, was actually less of a story than one would have expected leading up to it, partly because Leggett punted which I thought was a failure of leadership on his part.

Reader: Planning Department head Rollin Stanley’s ideas are nothing short of revolutionary, and people are slowly catching on, as witnessed by support for the new White Flint plan. But those who aren’t jumping on the bus wonder if they’re being misled. We’ll see the Growth Policy and bigger questions surrounding it – like what kind of place MoCo wants to be – looming over the 2010 campaign.

Reader: If the budget crisis was the iceberg of 2009, this is literally the car engine under our hood. Approving the Purple Line was the easy choice for the council, but the debate has only just begun over Science City and continued growth in our urban cores and suburban areas. Hopefully the council’s new majority will be visionary when they select a new planning chairman in 2010.

Reader: Two words: Smart Growth. Build homes and jobs near Metro stations. You don’t need to build out when you still have under-utilized urban centers such as Wheaton.

Reader: Only in Montgomery County could this issue make the top 10 list.

7 (tie). Unions Give Up Raises
14 votes

Reader: They deserve a lot of credit for this, did not get much, and will likely be less and less accommodating in the future.

Reader: The wave of the future?

Reader: I know I’m biased as a union member, but in the midst of all the political gamesmanship, the bickering, the childishness and backstabbing among our purported leaders, tens of thousands of county employees voted to give up negotiated raises so that their colleagues wouldn't have to lose jobs. Far be it from the politicians to acknowledge it, but it's the most decent and honorable thing to happen in county politics this year.

Reader: Did I not hear the Washington Post and Ficker saying thanks for going the extra mile? Damn greedy unions.

Adam: How can you give up your raises and still be the bad guys? I don’t get it and neither does the Washington Post.

9. I-270/CCT Debate
12 votes

Reader: It’s the future of county development and transportation and Phil Andrews actually did a great job of working it through the council.

Reader: We get to see who cares about the environment and who simply pays lip service.

Adam: For all the debate at the county level, the important decisions will be made by the state and federal governments.

10 (tie). ICC Tolls
11 votes

Reader: MoCo’s new millionaire tax!

Reader: Pro-ICC people are struggling to save face for supporting one of the most expensive highway projects in the state, if not the nation. Anti-ICC people get to say “I told you so” and legitimately say they’ll never drive it – because they can’t afford to.

Reader: Yes, it is possible to have been a long-time supporter of this roadway and be critical of the exhorbitant toll prices. Nothing hypocritical about that. Had this road been built when it was supposed to - when Glendening was Governor - things would have been a lot different.

Adam: Sit back and watch people run on this issue for offices that have absolutely no influence over toll setting!

10 (tie). Live Nation Deal
11 votes

Reader: Passed despite inept handling by the Leggett administration.

Reader: Another step forward. But when will we hear the music?

Reader: In bad fiscal times, Ike has money to pay for what DC gets for free. Incredible...

Adam: Stop bitching, people – this is a big achievement by Ike Leggett. When the place finally opens, no one is going to remember how long it took to get it done.

12 (tie). Council Challengers
10 votes

Reader: All the names dropped and it looks like it's coming down to a typical MoCo political campaign - a progressive (potentially) running and a person running who claims to be a progressive despite her past record.

Reader: Hans, please run. The County desperately needs a Gen-Xer to represent our interests.

Reader: This race could go many different ways, as there are so many moving parts right now. We’ll have to check back in May to see what the race will look like.

Adam: With the economy in shambles and some of the incumbents going after each other in public, you would think that more people would be running. In 2006, thirteen candidates ran for Council at-large.

12 (tie). Hilton Chooses Fairfax Over MoCo
10 votes

Reader: If people aren’t worried about this, they should be. There are a lot of things wrong with Fairfax County, but a lack of jobs is never one of them. Pro-growth elected officials and aspirants will point to this and say “we told you so.” With the economy as bad as it is, they might have a lot of people listening.

Reader: The message it sent to other corporations: No Vacancy.

Reader: MoCo threw in the towel before negotiations even began. Let’s just hope Marriott isn’t next.

Adam: Our competitive spirit is beginning to resemble the Washington Redskins.

Most Underrated Story: Hilton

Here’s how pathetic this is: our county was unwilling to put down more than $150,000 to get over 300 international headquarters jobs. The income tax revenues we would have received if we had won would have exceeded that amount in just one year. Yes, we lost this competition before Steve Silverman became the Director of Economic Development, but since our combined state and county offer was nearly doubled by Virginia, would we have a chance to win this fight even now?

“Whenever I talk to our elected officials about the need to compete with Fairfax,” says one of our business community sources, “most of them give me a blank stare and go silent.” Here’s some news for MoCo’s elite: we’re just not that special. If things continue as they are, we can very well get our butts kicked by Fairfax, D.C. and even (gasp) Prince George’s County. I challenge all candidates to read our Economic Engine of Maryland series and respond with a guest blog recommending specific measures that will help us compete. Come on people, surprise us!

Tomorrow, MPW readers will pick the top stories of 2009 in the rest of the state.