At-large County Council candidates such as Cherri Branson, top left, Loretta Garcia, right, Neil Greenberger, bottom left, and District 1 council candidate Pete Fosselman, bottom right, are continuing in county government positions while they pursue council seats in 2018 Credit: Provided photos

Multiple candidates running for Montgomery County Council are simultaneously overseeing significant county initiatives as county government employees while they vie for political office.

The candidates navigating the two roles say they’ve taken steps to ensure no conflict arises between their political campaigns and their work for the county. Meanwhile, some candidates have chosen to step down from their county or state positions to focus full-time on their campaigns.

At-large council candidates who continue to hold county positions include county procurement director Cherri Branson, public information official Neil Greenberger and Office of Human Rights attorney Loretta Garcia. District 1 council candidate Pete Fosselman, a former mayor of Kensington, oversees the county’s efforts to spur economic development in White Oak.

All four Democratic candidates are paid more than $100,000 annually by the county, according to government employee salary data. Their decisions to continue in their government roles while they campaign differ from fellow Democratic council candidates such as Gabriel Albornoz and Andrew Friedson. Albornoz, running in the at-large field, took a leave of absence from leading the county’s Department of Recreation to focus on his campaign. Friedson, a former adviser to state Comptroller Peter Franchot, left his state job when he launched his campaign last year for a District 1 council seat.

Each candidate, among dozens seeking council seats in the June 26 primary, offered different reasons for staying on or leaving their positions.

Branson said she is remaining in her job to pay for her son’s college tuition. She oversees the delivery of about $1 billion in county contracts each year as the county’s procurement director, a position for which she received $198,200 in pay in 2017.

“The bottom line is that right now, I just need to finish paying tuition for this semester, which hopefully will be soon,” Branson said.

She would have to take a sizable pay cut if elected to the council—members are paid about $136,000 annually. However, Branson noted that she serves at the pleasure of County Executive Ike Leggett as an appointee and Leggett, who is retiring, must leave office in December due to term limits. She noted her term as procurement director ends Dec. 1.

Seven candidates are running to replace Leggett as county executive and the winner will likely appoint new leaders to fill high-profile positions such as procurement director.

“I’ve spent my career in public service and it’s never been about the money,” Branson said, noting that her job doesn’t involve awarding county contracts.

 “As procurement director, I don’t actually reward contracts,” Branson said. “I sign the rewards, but the recommendation for an award happens at the department level.”

Branson said the department’s staff reviews contractors to make sure their services align with the county’s requirements for a potential contract. If the contractor meets the benchmarks set by the department, then it receives the contract.

“That’s how I avoid conflicts,” Branson said. “I don’t have the responsibility of awarding per se. I validate or do not validate the department’s recommendation for an award.”

Branson said she cleared her decision to run for a council seat with the county ethics office and Chief Administrative Officer Tim Firestine. She added that she works on her campaign at night or on weekends—but not during work hours. She told Bethesda Beat that she took the week of March 19 off from work to attend campaign events during the day.

“If I do anything during the campaign that’s campaign-related, I do take off a half day or all day,” said Branson, who may take a longer leave closer to the June 26 Democratic primary. “Realistically, I still have plenty of annual leave.  I could take that.”

She’s using traditional campaign financing to fund her campaign, which allows her to accept individual contributions up to $6,000 each as well as money from business entities. However, she said she is refusing donations from businesses and to her knowledge has not taken any money from developers. Nor has she solicited contributions from anyone who has a county contract.

“I’ve been really careful, but quite frankly I have a few contributions from people who have businesses in the county, but they’re personal,” Branson said. “I would assume a few of those contributions are from people whose businesses have contracts with the county, but they are from their personal money.”

In January, Branson reported receiving about $5,000 in campaign contributions, but spent about $11,200 in 2017—leaving her with a negative campaign cash balance, according to her state campaign finance report. She said she’s only accepting contributions of $350 or less, which is reflected in the state fundraising report.

Branson is one of the few candidates in the field of 38 candidates running for four at-large council seats that has previous experience in an elected office. Branson served for nearly a year as council member for Silver Spring-based District 5 after being appointed by the council to the position when Valerie Ervin resigned from the seat in early 2014.

Prior to her brief tenure on the council, Branson served as a lawyer and general counsel to Democratic staff of the House Committee on Homeland Security. She became the county’s procurement director in the spring of 2015 after Leggett recommended her for the position.

At the time Leggett said in a press release, “Cherri has worked to help increase the participation of small, minority and women-owned business in federal contracting opportunities. And she supports my goals of making it easy to do business here and to ensure that all businesses get a fair shake.”

Greenberger, a public information officer for the county, is no stranger to council politics. He worked as the council’s spokesman for 11 years before being transferred to a position in the executive branch’s Office of Public Information shortly after he announced his at-large council campaign in the summer.

He requested the transfer to avoid conflicts that could arise between his campaign activities and duty to be impartial while providing information to the public about the council, according to a memo about the transfer from Steve Farber, the now retired council administrator who was Greenberger’s former supervisor.

Greenberger said this month he believes he’s “the only [candidate] who had to transfer positions.” In his new role, he provides information to the public about the county’s Wheaton revitalization project and highlights events in downtown Silver Spring.

He says he never mentions his campaign during public meetings related to his county responsibilities and coordinates his campaign outside of work hours. He noted he was speaking to Bethesda Beat on his lunch break.

“I’ve been very aware of the situation … . If I’m going to spend an hour on the phone or take a meeting for the campaign—I take leave,” Greenberger said. “I had a lot of leave built up and I’ve tried to be meticulous in advance.”

After years of working for the council, Greenberger has chosen to criticize his former bosses regularly. At a Leisure World forum earlier this month Greenberger said current council members “thought they were elected to tell you what you need. I think we need people who listen.” He added that there was no need for the council to raise the property tax by 8.7 percent in 2016 and has vowed during his campaign that he would not vote for a property tax increase.

Greenberger, whose annual salary is $157,000, would also be taking a pay cut if he were to win a seat on the council.

He said he chose to continue working for the county while he campaigns rather than step down because he is not a department head, but a “single working guy.” He added that he plans to use paid leave to spend more time on his campaign as the primary nears.

“I will take paid leave just like any employee is entitled to use as they wish,” Greenberger said.

Greenberger intends to use the county’s new public campaign financing system to fundraise. As of the end of February, he has not raised the required $20,000 in contributions of $150 or less needed to qualify for public matching funds.

A third at-large candidate, county attorney Loretta Garcia was paid about $108,000 in 2017 to handle discrimination claims against the county, according to her LinkedIn profile and county salary data. She did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday seeking information about how she is managing both her job and running her campaign. She was previously ruled ineligible to receive matching funds under the public campaign financing system.

The situations of Branson, Greenberger and Garcia differ from that of Gabriel Albornoz, the former director of the county’s Department of Recreation. Albornoz took a formal leave of absence this year from the position that paid him about $196,000 in 2017. He said he’s not taking any salary from the county during his leave, which will run through the June primary.

“I didn’t see it as possible to serve as the public official of a very large department while also running for countywide office,” Albornoz said, adding that he was concerned his campaign may infringe on his county work. “That would not be fair in any way, shape or form to the employees or residents we serve as public officials.”

He added that by taking the leave, he believes he can be spend the “huge time commitment” required to win the Democratic nomination for one of the four at-large seats in the June primary.

Albornoz declined to comment on his thoughts about other county officials retaining their jobs while campaigning for the same elected office.

“Everybody else’s situation is unique and I respect that,” Albornoz said.

In the District 1 council race, candidate Pete Fosselman holds a prominent county position overseeing the implementation of the White Oak Science Gateway Master Plan. The role requires him to work with area residents as well as developers such as Percontee, which is developing a mixed-use “life sciences” town center on 110 acres of land near Route 29 and New Hampshire Avenue. The county sold the land to the developer for $10 million.

Fosselman said he has been juggling his campaign and county position “very carefully.” He was paid about $128,000 by the county in 2017. He said he uses paid personal leave to handle campaign activities that interfere with his position.

“The job comes first,” Fosselman said. “I’ve had to turn down some campaign activities to go to community events for White Oak.”

Fosselman is using traditional campaign financing and has pledged not to take contributions from White Oak landowners, builders or developers. He said this month he plans to return one check from a donor involved with White Oak, but did not go into greater detail.

He said he hasn’t made any decisions in his county role that could impact his role on the council if he were to be elected. He noted that District 1, which includes Bethesda, Chevy Chase, Potomac and parts of the upcounty agricultural reserve, does not include the White Oak area.

He has considered taking a leave of absence, but has not made any formal decision yet. “I do a good job,” Fosselman said. “My reviews have been excellent.”

One of Fosselman’s competitors for the District 1 seat, Andrew Friedson, left his state job to focus full time on his campaign.

Friedson said this month he was making about $100,000 working as an adviser to Franchot when he left the position last fall.

“I’m a strong believer that public service requires personal sacrifice,” Friedson said. “I didn’t want there to be any question or any conflicts about everything I say and do when I’m running for this seat, be that as a candidate or future council member. It’s a full-time job, so I thought it was important to be a full-time candidate as I ask voters for their support and their trust.”

Friedson declined to comment on whether other candidates should give up their government jobs while running for the council.

“I’ll leave individual decisions that individual candidates make to them,” Friedson, a Bethesda resident, said. “I felt very strongly that I didn’t want there to be any question of where my commitment was and that’s why I made the decision that I did to sacrifice my salary and the comforts of a steady paycheck to try and serve the only community I’ve ever called home.”

Image above left: Gabriel Albornoz, provided; image right of Andrew Friedson, provided