2015 | News

Leggett Puts Office of Legislative Oversight in the Hot Seat

Recent reports from researchers have brought criticism, but council president says group is 'possibly the most important tool the County Council has'

From left to right: OLO Director Chris Cihlar and analysts Natalia Carrizosa, Leslie Rubin and Craig Howard

Aaron Kraut

A report last week showing high-ranking county government officials are among the highest paid in the country spurred a highly critical response from normally even-tempered County Executive Ike Leggett.

Part of that response was no doubt political: County Council President George Leventhal, the council member who requested and then lauded the report, has openly questioned whether some department directors and other Leggett deputies are making too much money. Leventhal’s criticism comes as Leggett considers a property tax increase.

But many of Leggett’s criticisms were aimed squarely at the Office of Legislative Oversight or OLO, the little known yet very busy office of 11-staff members on the fifth floor of the County Council Office Building in Rockville that produced the report.

Each year, council members assign the OLO about 18 topics to research, which can include behavioral health in Montgomery County, how to establish business improvement districts or how Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) spends its money.

“They ask a question and we are then tasked with independently doing the analysis,” said Chris Cihlar, director of the OLO. “Sometimes, the answers are what the council members were expecting. Sometimes, they’re not. We’re not going to write a report to give a council member the report they wanted. But we are going to answer the question.”

It gives the analysts in the OLO a unique role. They are technically County Council staff, but separate from the core council analysts who provide background and make recommendations on individual bills. They are also independent from the staff members of each individual council member.

“We’re here to help the council solve problems and make sure they have the best information,” OLO senior legislative analyst Craig Howard said. “We’re not trying to make decisions for them. We’re trying to make sure they have all the facts and details that they need to make the decision.”

Howard and senior legislative analyst Leslie Rubin authored a 126-page report published in February on Montgomery County’s unique and controversial alcohol control system.

The report, requested by council member Hans Riemer, was a deep dive into the county’s Department of Liquor Control and presented five options for moving forward that ranged from increasing efficiency within the existing set-up to full privatization of alcohol distribution and retail liquor sales in the county.

In July, the County Council passed a resolution calling on state lawmakers to privatize the distribution of craft beers and wines, one of the options presented in the OLO report.

A January OLO report on the poor fiscal condition of the county’s Bethesda Parking Lot District led to changes made by the council in how that fund is handled.

Reports sometimes require research into similar issues in other jurisdictions and discussions with administrative officers who assist Leggett. Cihlar, who has a doctorate in research methods from Cornell University, said those conversations with executive branch staff are “usually pretty collegial” and “not horribly uncomfortable.”

There are also long work days, especially near deadlines. Most of the analysts are professional researchers with graduate degrees in public administration. Some have additional background in law or education.

“It’s not a 24/7 sort of thing, but we always want to dot our i’s and cross our t’s, to make sure that the facts we have are correct and the information is solid and reliable,” Rubin said. “We’re not as boring as we seem.”

Lately, executive branch and MCPS staff have found OLO reports anything but boring.

“While it is altogether appropriate for the Council to evaluate relevant issues, this report seems to fall far short of OLO’s historic high standards,” Leggett said in response to the salary report released last week.

The report compared the salaries of the county’s 27 agency and department directors to the salaries of directors in the federal government, in 10 other jurisdictions in the region and other similar jurisdictions around the county such as Westchester County in New York and Orange County near Los Angeles.

OLO researchers found that the average director salary in Montgomery County government is $206,685, the third highest of the jurisdictions with which they compared pay rates and 15.6 percent higher than the combined average for the rest of the jurisdictions.

“I think the facts in the salary report are unimpeachable. I was very disturbed at [Leggett] suggesting that OLO is anything less than entirely professional,” Leventhal said. “OLO follows the facts wherever they lead. I really think the county executive’s comments on the salary report were just beneath him. OLO does not try to slant its reports or modify to suit council members’ preferences.”

But Patrick Lacefield, Leggett’s spokesperson, said the OLO salary report did slant the facts in a few ways. One of the executive branch’s chief complaints is how the report compared the salaries of the 27 Montgomery County department directors to those in neighboring Fairfax County.

Because Fairfax County has 39 comparable department directors, the OLO report found their salary average by averaging just the 27 highest Fairfax salaries.

“So the 27 we have cover the same ground as the 39 they have. Our [Health and Human Services] director is doing the same work as three directors in Fairfax,” Lacefield said. “You have to compare apples to apples.”

Many in the executive branch were also unhappy they didn’t get to review the full report before it was released, as is customarily done so agencies under review can correct any technical mistakes.

OLO staff did present the report to high-ranking executive office staff. Lacefield said it was the only glimpse Leggett’s office got of what was coming.

Leggett also said the salary report was one of three “deeply flawed” reports from the OLO this year, pointing to the report on the county’s alcohol control system and a report on how MCPS distributes resources to schools with students from low-income families. Interim Superintendent Larry Bowers and others roundly criticized that report.

"We feel like OLO has been politicized over the last few years," Lacefield said. "The analysis seems to fall more on one side than another."

“We’re not a ‘gotcha’ group,” Cihlar said. “We try to put forward the facts the best we can in a way that is as independent as possible. People get mad at us sometimes.”

Cihlar pointed to another report on MCPS this year that found mistakes in how the school system was prioritizing schools for revitalizations and expansions. Cihlar said the school system at first criticized the report. Later, MCPS officials told the council they would fix some of the issues, changes that are reflected in the six-year construction budget recently recommended by Bowers.

“The OLO is possibly the most important tool the County Council has, particularly with respect to the school system because we don’t have direct authority of the school system,” Leventhal said. “Unlike the Republicans running for president, elected officials in Montgomery County actually feel that facts matter. That’s why the OLO is so important here.”