Five Issues Facing Montgomery County in 2019

Five Issues Facing Montgomery County in 2019

A look ahead at some of the county’s major political issues

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The 2018 political season began with 33 candidates running for four at-large County Council seats in the June 26 Democratic primary. Then there was Marc Elrich’s 77-vote win against David Blair in the county executive primary, and Sara Love’s 12-vote win in the District 16 delegation primary.

The excitement continued into the general election campaign, with Nancy Floreen’s late entry into the county executive general election race.

Elrich was ultimately elected county executive on Nov. 6 along with new council members Andrew Friedson (District 1), Will Jawando (at-large), Evan Glass (at-large) and Gabe Albornoz (at-large).

Although there will be no elections in 2019, here are a few of the more contentious issues that will likely come before the county:

What will be on the chopping block in Marc Elrich’s administration?

County Executive Marc Elrich campaigned on working to increase government efficiency and restructure county government.

He also has said he will not raise taxes during his first year in office. Last month, Elrich confirmed that he was working to come up with a $44 million savings plan for fiscal 2019, which ends June 30, with the goal of maintaining a general fund reserve level of close to 10 percent of governmental revenue, or $492 million. The county’s reserves helps fund the county during emergency financial situations, such as a recession. The county’s large amount of reserves has also helped the county maintain its triple A bond rating since the 2008 recession, according to former County Executive Ike Leggett.

Elrich has already said that salaries for some of the county’s top-level positions would decrease from levels set under Leggett’s administration. A memo to the County Council stated that there will also need to be cuts made to the Maryland-National Park and Planning Commission along with other county government departments.

The county cannot make changes to the Montgomery County Public Schools budget or Montgomery College due to maintenance-of-effort laws that require funding remain at consistent levels. That leaves a host of other agencies such as The departments of Transportation, Health and Human Services, Recreation, Environmental Protection, libraries and law enforcement as possible areas facing cuts.

Will Brian Frosh’s challenge to Maryland’s redistricting order succeed?

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh has appealed to the Supreme Court a federal appeals court decision that ordered the state to redraw its congressional districts in time for the 2020 election.

The lawsuit that precipitated the ruling claims that the current map is gerrymandered in a way that limits the power of Republican voters in the Sixth Congressional District. The district stretches from Potomac at its southern edge through the entirety of Western Maryland. It was redrawn after the 2010 census in a way that includes significantly more Democratic voters in Montgomery County. Frosh’s office has stated that the 2011 redistricting did not infringe on the rights of Republican voters, as the lawsuit alleges.

Republican Roscoe Bartlett represented the district in the House from 1993 to 2013, but was defeated by Democrat John Delaney in the 2012 general election, which was the first held after the redrawing. Delaney did not run for re-election last year and instead started a presidential campaign. Democrat David Trone defeated Republican Amie Hoeber. Trone has filed an amicus brief in support of Frosh’s appeal. Meanwhile, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) appointed an “emergency” nine-member redistricting commission composed of three Democrats, three Republicans and three independents, charged with redrawing the borders. Any redrawing must be approved by Hogan and the Democratic-controlled state legislature.

Will Hogan’s I-270/I-495 toll proposal come to a grinding halt?

Hogan’s $9 billion proposal to widen Interstate 270 and the Beltway to add toll lanes has drawn ire from a number of state legislators in the county, as well as concerned citizens’ groups.

Project studies and designs are moving ahead with the awarding of a $90 million contract that will allow three private-sector partners to conduct an engineering study.

State Treasurer Nancy Kopp has expressed skepticism about whether Hogan’s plan will relieve traffic congestion. Additionally, Elrich has said he opposes any widening of the Beltway, and supports reversible lanes on I-270 instead of the toll-lane proposal. Elrich plans to meet with Hogan in Annapolis in January, he said.

State Del. Al Carr, of Kensington, also plans to introduce a bill in this legislative session that would require the County Council to approve any state toll road project affecting the county.

Who will fill Julie Palakovich Carr’s seat on the Rockville City Council?

Rockville City Council member Julie Palakovich Carr will officially step down Jan. 8, one day before she is sworn in as the newest state delegate from District 17 (Rockville/Gaithersburg), joining delegates James Gilchrist, Kumar Barve and Sen. Cheryl Kagan.

It isn’t yet clear who will fill Palakovich Carr’s seat on the city council.

Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton and the four remaining council members will discuss the process for naming a replacement at their Jan. 7 meeting, according to City Clerk/Director of Council Operations Sara Taylor-Ferrell.

What will be the fate of the small cell antenna bill?

The Montgomery County Council will likely consider a zoning text amendment that would allow small antennas in residential parts of the county for the next generation of cellular telephone and data services, known as 5G.

The council has debated regulations for two years, but the devil has been in the details. Council members have not been able to agree on the required setback distance from properties or on whether some of the antenna placements should be classified as a “conditional use,” meaning that a hearing examiner would need to give approval.

The council’s four new members who were elected in November, Friedson, Jawando, Glass and Albornoz (at-large) have not yet debated the small cell bill.

The county also announced in November that it was suing the Federal Communications Commission to force the agency to change the safety standards for microwave radiation, by further limiting the amount of radiation the towers can emit. The standards were last updated in 1996. The FCC prohibits local governments from making decisions on cell towers that are based on possible health effects.

Separately, the county is one of 40 jurisdictions from across the country that is challenging the FCC’s local preemption order, which includes a “shot clock,” by which localities must process applications for installing cell towers. Under the rule, the local government must approve any application for a new structure within 90 days, and any application within 60 days for an antenna to be attached to a preexisting structure according to The National Law Review. If the deadline is not met, the applicant may sue the locality.

Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com

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