Marc Elrich: The First Year as Mongtomery County Executive

The first year

A political gadfly for most of his career, County Executive Marc Elrich’s transition to being the person in charge has not been easy

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The October forum with constituents was the second in a series leading up to the introduction of the county’s operating budget early in 2020. Photo by Michael Ventura

The union letter surfaced just days after it was revealed that the county ethics commission was investigating Kleine’s relationship as a consultant for a Denver-based public policy strategy firm before that company did business with the county. While he has repeatedly declined to discuss the investigation, Kleine—to whom all department directors in the county report—says, “I haven’t done any consulting work since I took this job.”

Elrich vigorously shakes his head when asked if he might have been better served by a CAO with a background in managing a large government.

“It was the unions that came to us [saying], ‘We need to get a handle on the size of county government, and you need to get this thing right-sized so that we’re in better shape to weather hard times that may come upon us,’ ” Elrich says. “I thought Andrew would be the right person to do that.”

In City on the Line, a book written by Kleine and published in 2018, the CAO describes himself as a “good government guy” and advocates for data-driven techniques to improve government management. Elrich and Kleine reside near one another in the Silver Spring-Takoma Park area and have known each other since Elrich’s time on the Takoma Park City Council before being elected to the county council in 2006.

“He had an understanding of what it would take to train managers,” Elrich says. “When I talked to him about how he envisioned the workforce, he said what was important to me, which was, ‘We’re going to involve the workforce in the process of restructuring.’ So for me, the most important thing for the county was not somebody who could run the ship the way it was being run—because in my mind that meant running it over a cliff.”

Among the most prominent planks of Elrich’s 2018 campaign platform was his pledge to work to find savings in government—and to free those funds for investment in future initiatives—through a restructuring of the public workforce. Critics point to a lack of visible progress on that front to date, noting that the county workforce has continued to increase—by more than 100 positions in the current fiscal year.

“His entire rationale in a lot of ways about his candidacy was that we were in difficult times, and that he was a leader who would work where other candidates couldn’t to bring the unions to the table and tackle sustainability—by figuring out how to do more with less,” Riemer says. “To me, it feels like the administration has laughed that off—and that’s disappointing, but not surprising, because I never believed it.”

Elrich responds to such complaints with another headshake. “I think people really misunderstand what we’re trying to do,” he says. “I’m not hiring a company to come in here and look at the structure of government and tell me how to redo it like they did in [Office Space]—because it would work about as well as it did in the movie.” (His reference is to a 1999 cult classic movie in which two consultants brought in to downsize a business trigger a staff revolt and a torching of the building.)

Meetings involving managers and members of the county’s rank-and-file workforce are underway, with Kleine and Renne expressing optimism that some initial restructuring proposals can be included in the county budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Elrich describes it as “kind of a two-pronged approach” involving “working with managers to train them to understand what we want to work toward, and…engaging with the workforce to do that.” According to Kleine, the goal “over the next few years” is to keep the county government workforce from expanding or possibly to reduce its overall size.

“That’s not going to be easy,” Kleine says, “because there are some places where we need more bodies.”

In May, the Elrich administration received an unwanted surprise when its choice to head the county’s Department of Technology Services appeared for an interview before the council.

When the nominee, Vennard Wright, allowed that he was seeking to leave his current post at the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission due to “burnout,” several councilmembers voiced strong concern. Barely an hour later, Wright withdrew his candidacy.

“All I can tell you is he said some things in that interview that he had not said to us, which was unfortunate,” says Kleine, adding that the county executive’s office had exercised “due diligence” before submitting Wright’s name.

A month after Wright’s withdrawal, nine county departments and agencies were still without permanent directors—prompting Navarro, in her June memo to Elrich and Kleine, to question the pace of hiring.

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