Commentary: Local Government Stepped Up in Light of National Changes

Commentary: Local Government Stepped Up in Light of National Changes

Montgomery County Council President Roger Berliner, who concluded his one-year term as council president last month, reflected on the work the council did in 2017 to reaffirm the county’s core values during a time of “great national turmoil.”

As my year as serving as president of this body comes to a close, allow me to share a few reflections on our year together as a council and on the past year generally.

2017 has certainly been an unprecedented year. There was a seismic change at the national level and this shift created an atmosphere of uncertainty and — for many — fear. This was true across the country and it was certainly true here. The actions of the Trump Administration consistently threatened, and continue to threaten, our community’s core values.

From day one of the New Year, we found ourselves at the forefront of the resistance. The words of the Pledge of Allegiance suddenly took on greater meaning: “one nation, under God, indivisible.” With that command in mind, we stood with our immigrant community and for public safety. And in the face of an uptick in hate crimes that many, including our police chief, laid at the doorstep of the President, we came together to reaffirm our county’s commitment to the safety of all Montgomery County residents, denounced racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, and provided funding to protect our houses of worship.

Local government, while always relevant to the day-to-day life of our residents, became even more significant. To the fabric of our society, to individuals fearing for their safety, to families facing a myriad of challenges, to the well-being of our environment, and to modeling and practicing civility in our actions and our public discourse. We marched, we spoke out on social media, and we legislated from the dais seeking to heal the divisions intentionally created.

Yet in the midst of this great national turmoil, we continued to do the work that was — and is — ours alone to do. And we did it for the most part with professionalism, collaboration, and good spirit. As a nine-member body, we will never agree on everything, but generally, I thought that we exemplified the civility that is one of the bedrock principles of our county’s political culture.

We balanced our budget without raising taxes and our fiscal responsibility was once again recognized by the bond rating agencies who unanimously reaffirmed our AAA bond rating. We did this while fully funding the Board of Education’s $2.52 billion operating budget that will continue class size reductions and fund initiatives to help close the achievement gap. We also added money to the operating budget to expand pre-k, one of the most important steps we can take to set children on a path to educational success.

We supported those in greatest need by maintaining and strengthening our strong safety net, supporting our county’s nonprofits that do such important work, raising the minimum wage in order to help low wage workers support their families, and as a result of a great deal of hard work by the Food Council, we received a strategic plan to end hunger and began its implementation. And we addressed the threat to our public safety posed by the scourge of MS-13.

AT THE SAME TIME, we recognized that the best way to meet the needs of our community going forward is to grow our tax base rather than rely on increasing tax rates. We supported our Economic Development Corporation as it continued to grow and mature and implemented a number of measures to help small businesses thrive here. We created and funded a Business Solutions Group to build upon the good work of the Small Business Navigator; we created a microloan program for aspiring entrepreneurs; and increased funding for the small business Impact Assistance Fund to help businesses negatively impacted by county construction projects. Small business is big business in Montgomery County and their success is critical to our economic future.

We committed significant time and resources shaping the future of many communities with the passage of five significant master plans this year. We strategically encouraged mixed-use development in the Lyttonsville Plan, funded important components of the Viva White Oak project, and laid the framework for future transit-oriented development in the Bethesda, White Flint 2 and Grosvenor-Strathmore plans. And we took a look at the challenges and opportunities of the Rock Spring area and implemented strategies to help boost the commercial office market thereby creating a more mixed-use, inclusive area. Planning for growth in the most sustainable manner possible, ensuring that the infrastructure necessary to accommodate growth materializes, and increasing our affordable housing stock were appropriately at the forefront of each of those discussions.

THIS YEAR marked the long-anticipated groundbreaking of the Purple Line, a much-needed transit and community revitalization project decades in the making, and plans for key BRT corridors moved forward. At the same time, the council also increased funding for road resurfacing that affirms our commitment to a core local government responsibility. And we look forward to partnering with the state going forward to address the unacceptable congestion our residents endure every day on the beltway and 270 all the way to the American Legion Bridge.

At the same time as our President continues to do everything he can to weaken environmental protections at the national level, our council took several strong positions and actions to help fight climate change. It is, as a resolution before us even today states, a global emergency. We urged the state to ban fracking, something our council banned years before in Montgomery County; we urged our investment boards to divest from investments in fossil fuels that undermine our commitment to this work; supported increased use of renewable energy; and adopted a new green building code that will increase energy efficiency and sustainability. Our commitment to the environment and a sustainable future has made our county a national leader in this realm.

EVERY MEMBER of the council was busy this past year and has much to be proud of in terms of individual accomplishments that have made our county a better place to live.

• In addition to serving as vice president of the council, Hans Riemer advocated strongly to expand Head Start and WPA child care subsidies in order to level the playing field for more children;

• Sidney Katz played a key role in the establishment of Mental Health Courts in both the District Court and the Circuit Court, which will provide a critical tool to better address the needs of individuals in the criminal justice system due to mental illness;

• Craig Rice played an instrumental role in funding the MCPS operating budget as chair of the Education Committee and the establishment of the Summer Rise program which connects thousands of county youth to real-world career experiences.;

• Nancy Floreen carried a heavy load on the PHED Committee as always, shepherding through an impressive five master plans and 14 ZTAs that will shape the future of our county;

• George Leventhal worked diligently to establish the county’s first safe visitation/exchange centers which will serve survivors of domestic violence and their children;

• Nancy Navarro was able to see the fruits of her labor in Wheaton with the groundbreaking of the Wheaton Revitalization project and the continuation of the small business assistance program she helped launch to aid small businesses in the area;

• Marc Elrich was the lead sponsor of a bill that will raise the minimum wage in the county to $15, helping hard-working families make ends meet; and

• Tom Hucker sponsored legislation that cracks down on vacant properties in order to preserve the character and safety of our residential neighborhoods and remained attentive to his District 5 constituents hosting a variety of events for his constituents.

WHILE MUCH was accomplished this year, there is so much still to do, so much that must be done if we are to realize our full potential as a community and create opportunities for prosperity for all our residents.

It is work that we could not do, and I certainly could not have done, without the contributions of our superb professional staff. The backbone of this body is “the fifth floor staff” who has been led so capably and superbly by Steve Farber. His commitment to this institution for the last 26 years — to the staff, and to the residents of this county — is second to none. He is a statesman’s statesman, and he leaves big shoes to fill as he retires. As anyone who has served as president of this body knows, Steve is the one who really keeps the train running. Along with Linda Lauer who is also leaving us after 47 years and a distinguished career at the council. Together they are quite a team and they will be sorely missed. Mr. Farber and Ms. Lauer — we applaud you with enormous gratitude.

I know I speak for all my colleagues when I say thank you to all the policy analysts, legislative aides, clerks, and staff who support us day after day so we are best equipped to do our jobs. They are the heart of this institution and are extraordinary public servants, each in their own right. We should also take a moment to express our gratitude to the residents who allow us to do this work on their behalf, volunteer their time on our commissions and advisory boards, and provide their input to help make our community a better place.

And as all of my colleagues appreciate, none of us could do this work without the abiding support of our personal staffs. And I feel particularly blessed in that regard. Warren Hansen, Aaron Kraut, Vikrum Mathur, Matt Higgins and Zac Trupp all stepped up to meet the challenges that the office of the presidency presents. And I thank them for their hard work and loyalty. And last, but certainly not least, there is my chief of staff, Cindy Gibson. I cannot begin to do justice to what her unerring judgment, wisdom, strength, conviction, warmth, work ethic and loyalty has meant to me. She is most remarkable, something that all of you who had the good fortune of working with her know. When times are tough, as they can be here, it is our chiefs of staffs that are the glue that hold us together. Thank you, Cindy Gibson — from the very bottom of my heart.

In closing, I want to thank each of my colleagues and their staffs for their professionalism and collaboration this past year. Especially Hans Riemer who served capably as vice president and a good sounding board for me this year. I wish him well navigating the unique challenges of the year ahead, challenges that now include starting his term dealing with a savings plan we will receive shortly. I know he will approach each day and each challenge with a good spirit and a can-do attitude. That is who he is.

It has been a true honor to serve this body as president once again. I thank you for the privilege, and I thank you for all the ways you have made our county a better place to live.