Montgomery County executive candidates David Blair, Marc Elrich, Tom Hucker and Hans Riemer on Sunday debated issues related to public safety and schools in a virtual forum hosted by Bethesda Magazine and Bethesda Beat.
The four Democrats — Elrich the incumbent seeking re-election; Blair, a businessman; and Hucker and Riemer as council members — traded verbal jabs as they addressed the rise in crime, the role of police in schools, the county executive’s role in education and mental health resources for students. Hundreds of people tuned in to watch.
Elrich said the rise in crime is not unique to Montgomery County and has been seen across the country. He stressed the importance of addressing mental health issues, adding that the county had mental health clinics decades ago, but they are gone. Replacing those services in some form in a must, he said.
Blair, however, said he “loses all energy” when he hears comparisons to crime rising nationally. Local decisions on policing have an impact, he said.
“The number of police officers that we cut from the budget last year really has you scratching your head and how that relates specifically to what we see going on here in Montgomery County,” Blair said.
In last year’s budget, Elrich proposed cutting 29 positions from the Montgomery County Police Department, including 25 sworn officers. Council members ended up cutting 27 sworn officer positions, many of which were vacant, including five school resource officers.
Blair also criticized the county’s decision to remove school resource officers from schools last year. Of the four candidates, he had the strongest call to return police to schools in some form, something Montgomery County Public Schools Interim Superintendent Monifa McKnight has proposed to county elected leaders.
While Blair agreed on the need to have mental health professionals in schools, the other three candidates focused on the effort to hire those workers, versus having police officers take on disciplinary actions or try to mediate various conflicts in school buildings.
“A different professional will be far more successful at having those relationships with kids where we need to know what’s going on, where there are kids that are having a beef and it’s going to escalate,” Riemer said. “Trained counselors will be more effective in that role.”
Montgomery County Public Schools has said its attempts to hire 50 new social workers for schools is happening more slowly than hoped because of a shortage of people to fill those jobs.
Hucker said Elrich has been too slow in addressing the mental health crisis in schools. He said temporary fill-ins should be hired to handle the “emergency,” and the pay should be increased in the long term to attract more people to fill vacancies.
Candidates differed in their take on the role of the county executive in supporting Montgomery County Public Schools.
Blair said it is “important to connect the dots,” serving students from pre-K through college and connecting them with apprenticeship programs and Montgomery College and other local institutions.
Riemer criticized Elrich’s handling of the return to public schools in September and January during the coronavirus pandemic.
Hucker said Elrich has not lobbied enough in Annapolis for state funding and failed to convene enough stakeholders, to fulfill various needs for public schools in the budget.
Elrich said the council has not provided enough flexibility within the council’s spending affordability guidelines to allow more spending on the capital and operating budgets for MCPS. He said he worked with other county executives to secure a greater share of state funding for school construction and renovations.
Regarding mental health in schools, Elrich said the county should reintroduce clinics similar to ones that operated when he was growing up.
“The absence of that has left many families unable to afford mental health care, which is stunningly expensive,” Elrich said. “And the old county clinic system had sliding scales and was affordable to everyone. So I think … the reintroduction of clinics of that nature would be something we should be looking at.”
Hucker agreed that the model would be good. He said he’s heard from county officials and friends who have had to send their children to other jurisdictions to receive adequate mental health services.
“It’s really terrible how little we have in Montgomery County for our teens that are undergoing mental health challenges,” Hucker said. “Nobody in Montgomery County should have to send their kids to other jurisdictions out of state, rather than being provided services we need that are vital, right here in Montgomery County.”
In response to a reader question about whether the candidates would keep Marcus Jones as the county’s police chief, Blair said he would and the county is “fortunate” to have Jones.
Elrich and Riemer both said they have had success working with Jones and would keep him initially. But they added that they would consider a new chief in the coming years if the department didn’t make enough progress on changes to policing.
Hucker said it is “premature to talk about personnel decisions.”
Blair, Elrich, Hucker and Riemer are the only four candidates in the race and will compete in the June 28 Democratic primary. No Republican candidates have filed to run.
Another potential candidate, Devin Battley, had filed his intent to use public financing in a Democratic run for county executive, but had not filed to run as of Sunday afternoon.
The filing deadline for candidates is March 22.
Steve Bohnel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org