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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Elrich (second from left) and Gov. Larry Hogan (right) both attended the grand opening of the new Biomedical Sciences and Engineering building at the Universities at Shady Grove in November. Photo by Michael Ventura

Navarro remained concerned in an interview early this past fall. “By now, I would have liked to see a bit more of a stable administration in terms of the leadership in the different departments,” she said.

Elrich and his top lieutenants contend that the previous two incoming county executives—Doug Duncan in 1994 and Leggett in 2006—had a two-month head start in putting together an administration: Both men had all but clinched the job in Democratic primaries that were held in September. In 2018, “you had an active [November] election campaign where I don’t think people were certain what the outcome was going to be right up to the end,” says Budget Director Rich Madaleno, among Elrich’s first appointees.

Once the hiring effort got underway, Elrich was at times unhappy with the lack of racial and gender diversity of the applicant pool. “We took longer than we wanted to fill positions,” he tells an October budget forum in Bethesda, recounting that the search for candidates was reopened and those conducting it were instructed “to get us another set of applicants.”

Kleine offers another explanation for the slowness of the process: “Unlike a lot of administrations, here and elsewhere, the county executive didn’t come in with a bunch of cronies. He doesn’t have cronies.”

Elrich agrees. “I could have filled this administration right away if everybody who asked for a job had been given a job,” he says. “I had to tell a lot of people who I really like that I wanted to do searches—that they’re welcome to apply in searches, but that I was going to do searches.”

One of those searches—for a new police chief—resulted in the highest-profile controversy of Elrich’s first year. After longtime chief Tom Manger left his position in April, Elrich narrowed the search to two finalists in early July. One, Takoma Park Police Chief Antonio DeVaul, quickly withdrew, leaving Tonya Chapman, forced out four months earlier as the police chief of Portsmouth, Virginia, as the sole candidate for the job.

Councilmembers criticized Elrich for pushing Chapman after city officials in Portsmouth refused to provide Montgomery County’s executive office with information about her departure. The nomination “just never got traction because [the county executive’s office] didn’t answer the basic question of, ‘Was her tenure there successful?’ ” Riemer says. In the face of such questions, Chapman opted to withdraw her candidacy in August.

The absence of the full story on Chapman “points to bad leadership” on Elrich’s part, says Knapp, also widely seen as being in the candidate mix for county executive in 2022. “[Elrich] identified a person who I don’t think was a great candidate, but rather than actually nominate that person, he left her alone to fend for herself. She had to go make the rounds to see if she could round up five votes for herself,” Knapp says. “He didn’t take the lead on that.”

If he had it to do over again, Elrich says he might opt for a less expansive selection process. “The price, apparently, of involving 40 or 50 people in a process is that nobody will be quiet. Things leaked out at various stages that shouldn’t have,” he says. “And it created issues before issues should have been created.”

But he stands by his support of Chapman while discussing the episode in combative terms. “I feel pretty strongly about Tonya being the right candidate,” Elrich says, adding of the council: “I do think they were unfair. I could have been more forceful and walked over there and said, ‘She’s the person,’ but I was really trying to avoid putting them on the spot. Maybe I should have put them on the spot, and they could have voted no—and everybody gone their separate ways. I was trying to be accommodating; they didn’t take it that way.”

A pension-related issue sank Elrich’s next choice to head the department, Darryl McSwain, chief of the Montgomery Parks division of the Maryland-National Capital Park Police. It left Elrich little choice but to nominate—reluctantly, according to council sources—Marcus Jones, who had been acting police chief since June. Jones was confirmed in early November.

Elrich says he has no regrets over repeated statements during the past year that someone from outside the department was needed as chief to ensure change. “The council has criticized the police department pretty heavily, to the point where they want to take over making police policy,” Elrich says. “And there’s a lot of frustration, and sometimes it seems generational to me, about how people view the police department. I thought because a lot of these problems are sort of systemic—we have community policing, but most officers say they were never trained in community policing—that I wanted to bring somebody in who could start over and say, ‘We’re going to go at this differently.’ ” Elrich says he has confidence that Jones will pursue the changes he seeks, notably community policing. “At the end of the day, Marcus is a professional, and he understands what’s what,” Elrich says. “I’ve been pretty clear about what I’d like to see.”

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