Credit: CRYSTAL PARK

It’s safe to say that most Montgomery County residents have never heard of Steve Farber.

However, before stepping down last Thursday, Farber for more than a quarter of a century exerted major influence on the way that the County Council did business—even if he is quick to dispute those who would insert the adjective “powerful” in front of his name.

Nearly 30 elected members have served on seven different councils during Farber’s tenure. Hired in 1991 as the council’s chief of staff (a title changed to council administrator in 2013), Farber, now 75, had accumulated 25 years of experience in the public sector even before arriving in Rockville.

After earning an undergraduate degree from Harvard and a master’s degree in public administration from Princeton, he worked for then-New Jersey Gov. Richard Hughes, followed by stints with then-Harvard President Derek Bok, then-Indiana Congressman John Brademas, and the National Governors Association—where he was executive director for eight years.

When hired by the council, he headed a national advisory firm on fiscal and intergovernmental affairs that he had formed several years earlier. He now plans to return to the latter enterprise, having been succeeded as council administrator last week by veteran legislative analyst Marlene Michaelson—who has assumed Farber’s long-time role of overseeing a central council staff that now numbers nearly 50.

Shortly before his departure, Farber, who lives with his wife in Chevy Chase, sat down for a wide-ranging interview on the role he played and the changes he witnessed during his tenure.

Bethesda Beat: After many years of working at the state and federal level, what first brought you to the County Council’s top staff position?

Farber: We had moved to Montgomery County in 1989 from the District; we thought very highly of the county. I saw an ad for this job and applied … I’m told there were 309 applicants, and they made the mistake of choosing me. [Smiles.]

The real world of state and local government was a place I thought it would be exciting to return to. Of course, I had [been at] the National Governors Association, but that was a step removed. And Montgomery County is like a small state. In population and budget, it’s larger than six states. It’s a polity unto itself, a fascinating place.

BB: Yours is not a role with which many outside county government are familiar. Can you describe what you see as having been the major aspects of your job?

Farber: The job is really to help the council perform the full range of its duties under the charter. It is the land use authority, of course, for planning and zoning. It is the fiscal authority: The council’s budget is the county’s budget. The executive recommends a budget, but the council may modify it as it sees fit.  Of course there is the legislative role—the passage of legislation—and the council also serves as the board of health.

My job is … also to oversee the staff. One of the great joys of my job has been the opportunity to bring aboard over the past 26 years a range of really outstanding people. 

BB: Looking back, is there an achievement of which you are proudest?

Farber: What I think has been most important is the work I’ve done on the council’s fiscal management and integrity. The county has had a triple A bond rating since 1973, which we understand is the longest run of any county in the nation. It’s extraordinarily important to everything we do that we have strong fiscal management.

When I arrived in November 1991, we were afflicted by the post-Gulf War recession. I found that the council was completely rewriting the budget it had approved only six months earlier. It was about 18 days after I started that I found myself in front of the council next to Neal Potter, the county executive; Bob Kendall, the budget director; and Tim Firestine, the finance director. The council president was [future County Executive] Ike Leggett and he said, “All right, what are we going to do?” So it was trial by fire from the get-go.

In my time, we had not only the post-Gulf War recession, we had the dot com recession of the early 2000s, and of course the Great Recession. All of them were very demanding, and it was crucial for the county to step up and deal with these fiscal challenges fully and effectively. And I have devoted the lion’s share of my time to that task.

BB: You worked on Capitol Hill for a while, where those heavily focused on fiscal management are sometimes called budget hawks. Would you put yourself in that category?

Farber: I wouldn’t use that term. What I’ve tried to do is help the council make our resources and our needs fit as well as they can. Robert Browning said, “A man’s reach must exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” Well, that’s true, but you’ve got to be careful.

BB: You mentioned Tim Firestine, who was first the county’s finance director and later its chief administrative officer during the years that you were council administrator. You and he have sometimes been described by insiders as the two most powerful figures in county government of whom most voters have never heard. Speaking for yourself, your reaction to such depictions?

Farber: I don’t consider power or powerful to be the right word … I see myself as trying to help the council achieve good outcomes on the full range of activities before them.

BB: Adam Pagnucco, who—as a former chief of staff to council member Hans Riemer—watched you operate up close for several years, recently wrote in the Seventh State blog:

“Every year, the council proposes to add millions of dollars to the executive’s recommended budget. Their vehicle is the reconciliation list, which is a ledger of spending additions and reductions that must be balanced out at the end.  One of Farber’s tasks is to find a way to pay for this list. No one else in the building fully understands how he does this. His unique, encyclopedic knowledge of the county budget enables him to locate money under the couch cushions that few others know about. Try as they might, it is impossible for the executive branch to hide money from Farber. He never funds the entire reconciliation list—and constantly warns the council members (often futilely) not to overstock it—but he finances enough of it that the council is usually satisfied. It’s an incredible and invisible source of power.”

Is this portrayal of you accurate?

Farber: Again, I would not use the word ‘power’ or ‘powerful’. As we go through the budget, what the council does is to agree with the executive on many things. And there are some things the council would like to add to what the executive has recommended, and there are some things it will subtract.

My job is to help the council bring it home, and to do so in a way that will not conflict with our very strict fiscal policies on reserves, on funding our retirement funds, on pay-go—that is, cash instead of bond funding. In other words, a whole set of policies we developed in 2010 and 2011 to ward off a rating downgrade in the Great Recession. We almost lost our Triple A rating. But the council and executive stood firm, and we developed and then implemented very rigorous policies.

At the same time, I understand that the council, as a body and as individual members, feel that there are certain items in the budget that should be added. And my duty is not to say no to that. My duty is to help the council identify appropriate resources to make that happen. And I do that.

As far as institutional knowledge is concerned, I’ve had a great deal of experience. Tim Firestine says I never forget anything and, notwithstanding my advanced years, my memory remains pretty sharp. When you’re trying to take on a new challenge, understanding what the history has been is very important.

BB: In contrast to the Maryland General Assembly, where much of the power lies with a handful of people, the council has been described as nine independent operators. Has one of your roles been to ensure that they’re working together to the degree possible?

Farber: When you have a legislature of nine people, that’s quite different from a very large legislature … . People are policy entrepreneurs. They have individual and independent ideas and initiatives. Part of our job is to help them develop those and flesh them out. And it is fully understandable that you would have initiatives from all nine council members.

At the same time, the council must take certain actions. And, while there are different perspectives, they do come to votes and conclusions—and do work together to perform their functions. To the extent that I’ve been able to help, I’ve certainly done that—particularly, for example, in bringing home the operating budget every spring.

One very important point to me is that our elected officials have been chosen by the people. They have placed themselves before the people for judgment, in a way that others have not—and they have prevailed. And it seems to me that, in our system, that gives them a validity that should never be forgotten.

I’ve never had the courage to stand for elected office. I love what I do, but I have great respect for those who have had that courage and who do the jobs that they do because the demands on them are 24/7. I think sometimes people don’t appreciate that enough.

BB: Is the council a very different body from the one you saw when you got here in 1991?

Farber: That body was on the whole older, and it was a body that had sprung from the civic traditions—when the Civic [Federation] and other groups were at their apogee. I would say that over the years, what has happened is that many more council members have had backgrounds from Capitol Hill … starting in the late 1990s, and certainly in the 2000s. I think many people who work on Capitol Hill see the appeal of themselves serving in elected office. That’s not an easy thing to do, certainly at the federal level.

Neal Potter and [former planning board chair] Royce Hanson were instrumental in the 1968 county charter, which created the office of county executive and made it, at least from our perspective, a weaker rather than stronger executive—and vested fiscal and other authority in the council. That is not true in other counties in Maryland, and it’s not true in the [state] Legislature …  . This council has the authority to do really important things. So it’s a great job. And you can see that from all the people running at large this year.

BB: Email, smartphones and the World Wide Web weren’t around when you first arrived in Rockville. How has technology changed the way the council does its business?

Farber: It’s not that there weren’t forums and myriad meetings, but it’s different now, because you cannot escape your smartphone. Many council members used to do outside work of one kind or another. That has really changed, and I think the reason is that the job itself is so demanding. And it’s partly technology. For [council members now] it really is a 24/7 job. They’ll spend a long day here, but then they’ll have a full evening. A council member can have four of five meetings in a given evening. And the weekends are fully committed as well.

I think there was more time that the councils of old had to reflect. Like the society as a whole, we have changed and it does make a big difference—in terms of the speed of required decision-making. And the process becomes, I think, a more political process.

I think all council members today wish they would have more time for digging even more deeply than we do into issues. They are very well-informed, they initiate many interesting ideas of their own, but they are pulled six ways to Sunday. We as analysts write packets—and we kill a lot of trees. And because of technology they’re available online to the community immediately, in a way that never used to be. And that’s great, but it’s very demanding to absorb all of that stuff. And the council today has to do that along with everything else.

BB: Has technology made the process more transparent? For example, there was a time years ago when the chair of the council’s education committee negotiated privately with the superintendent of schools, and the result would then be presented publicly as a fait accompli.

Farber: The MCPS [Montgomery County Public Schools] budget is not put together that way today; there are too many actors, too many interests. And the players have changed, too. It’s a very open and transparent process, and I think technology has been very, very positive on that.

BB: You clearly have tremendous respect for people who run for and serve in elected office, but we clearly live in a time when that view is not shared by many in the electorate.  Some interpreted the 2016 term limits vote as part of a national wave of anti-incumbent sentiment, others as a more localized reaction by many voters unhappy with a large tax increase that year. Your thoughts?

Farber: I think that in the nation at large there has been disquiet. That has only grown worse, particularly in the last year. Fortunately, in Montgomery County, we do not have the toxic climate that we have nationally. But there are great pressures. I think the tax increase was one factor. I think another factor may have been that we have many new communities in this county who would like to be a stronger part of the process.

BB: As someone who has sought to act as a fiscal steward, would somewhat more restrained fiscal growth over the years have mitigated the size of that tax increase—and, perhaps, muted its political impact?

Farber: Keep in mind one factor was the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in the Wynne case [which forced the county to provide credits to residents who had paid income taxes in other states]. What that did was to take away substantial revenue from the county that had to be made up in some way. A second factor was that the council wanted to make a major new investment in MCPS. The council had funded the MCPS budget at the maintenance of effort level [mandated by the state] for several years. But MCPS has tremendous needs, and the council wanted to be responsive to that … in the belief that this was crucial to the continued success of the MCPS, which is one of our crown jewels.

Keep in mind that Ike [Leggett] himself had recommended going above the charter limit. The council went a bit above Ike, but it was the same principle—he was motivated by the same concern for MCPS, and the same pressures from the Wynne decision. So I think it was really a common judgment that this was vitally important.

I think the decision of Amazon to place us in the top 20 out of 238 applications [for its second headquarters] is an affirmation of what the county has done right. What Amazon was saying was: “The way you have funded your schools and your college, the quality of life in Montgomery County, the way you have tried to strengthen the capability of the work force, these are things we think are extremely important. And we commend you having done that.” Well, there’s a price for that.

I hope we’re the one finally chosen, but to be in the top 8 or 9 percent of those applications is a tremendous achievement. And that is something that is a reflection of decades of effort on the part of our elected officials and our entire community. It doesn’t happen by itself, and it doesn’t happen overnight. I see it not only as an affirmation but a vindication of what the county has tried to do.

BB: Did you expect to spend a quarter of a century in this job?

Farber: I thought that if the council were to put up with me, say for a decade—and there was no guarantee of that, because I serve at will—I would have reached the county’s normal retirement age. That was 16 years ago. The truth is that I thought about leaving before, but I haven’t been able to because I enjoy it too much. I’ve worked with hundreds and hundreds of people. We don’t always agree about everything, but I’ve just found it an energizing and uplifting experience. I can’t wait to come to work in the morning and I find it hard to go home at night.

My wife reminded me that she married me for richer or for poorer, but not for lunch. So I am going to continue to be very active, but I will miss this job terribly. I turned 75 last April, and I thought that I could stay another 25 years. That would make me a centenarian, but the odds are against that. So I thought that while I have all my energy and enthusiasm, what I’d like to do is go out and to do other things while I’m still able to.”

BB: Speaking of the people with whom you have worked, they’ve included a one-term County Council member who went on to become a Cabinet secretary and chair of the Democratic National Committee. Did you expect Tom Perez to rise as far as he has?

Farber: Knowing Tom, it doesn’t surprise me. He’s enormously gifted.  

I remember something he once said. Tom was council president in 2005, and at the end of his term, he held a breakfast with the staff. And he said: “You know, I’m so tired of all this bureaucrat bashing that goes on downtown. I just have so much respect for people who work for government. Why, take Steve here. He’s one of the best bureaucrats I’ve ever seen.”

And so I said, “Tom, can I put that on my headstone?”