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By Nickolai Sukharev
ASPEN HILL — As Election Day approaches, the candidates seeking to be the next Montgomery County Executive faced off at a forum in Aspen Hill on Thursday evening.
Though the forum covered a variety of topics, five of the 12 questions referred to development issues in the County, exposing disagreement between the candidates.
Moderated by the Elliot Chabot of the Friends of the Aspen Hill Library, the forum featured Republican candidate Robin Ficker, Democratic candidate Marc Elrich and independent candidate Nancy Floreen (I-at large). The format consisted of candidates each taking turns to respond to questions from an audience of approximately 50 people.
While answering a question about benefits for domestic partners of County employees, Floreen stated, “the County Executive has close to no role whatsoever in dealing with development.”
“Those master plans … are a function of the County Council, the County Executive can weigh in [but] the County Executive does not control that conversation,” she added, calling it a “dirty little secret.” “The County Executive can enter into agreements with the private sector to do certain things and the County Council has to approve it … but most of the private-sector issues are resolved at the council level on a consensus-based majority vote.”
“So, what the heck is she or anyone else worried about?” Elrich asked in response to Floreen’s claim. “I can’t roll back the master plans, I can’t roll back the zoning, I can’t not approve projects moving forward; I can’t do any of that stuff.”
“I thank Nancy for bringing up the point that I actually can’t cause the harm she says I’m going to cause,” Elrich said, receiving applause from the audience.
Facing a question from Paul Bessel, Chair of the County Charter Review Commission, on a potential Elrich administration, Floreen said she realized her colleague did not win a majority of the votes at the June 26 Democratic primary, adding that she did not have to run but decided to enter the race out of concern for the “fiscal future” of the county.
“Marc has a track record of saying no … and creating distrust in the business community,” she said.
“They’re the ones that came to me saying we don’t trust this future with Mr. Elrich.”
Ficker added that he is relying solely on small individual contributions, while Elrich is benefiting from a “parallel” union campaign.
Elrich responded to Ficker. clarifying that one person working in the land-use industry happened to donate to his campaign and saying that Floreen was responsible for the relaxation of transportation rules and opposed Bus Rapid Transit.
“If you’re going to do development, you need schools, and you need transportation,” Elrich added.
Responding to a question about developer fees, Floreen and Elrich sparred on policy approaches.
“This isn’t about development; this is about creating jobs,” Floreen, who was first elected to the County Council in 2002 after serving as the Mayor of Garrett Park, said. “We have plenty of empty offices … I’m focused on having people come who will fill those buildings and who would provide those jobs that are better than the minimum-wage jobs.”
Elrich, a former public school teacher, former Takoma Park City Council member, and County Council member since being elected in 2006, responded saying that the “fight in all master plans has nothing to do with jobs,” adding that discussions about development plans focus on density, height, traffic patterns, and school impact.
Touching on other development issues, each of the candidates took the opportunity to differentiate themselves from each other.
Floreen stressed that she would support more coordination of community and County stakeholders, attracting more businesses to the County and promoting job creation, while Ficker added he would not raise fees on developers and place an emphasis on road improvements.
Elrich explained that he supported “set-aside areas” for small retail businesses, development districts, ensuring proper traffic studies, improving on site-selection processes, and reintroducing citizen advisory boards to weigh in on master plans.
Many of the issues turned into a discussion on growing the County’s economy.
Recalling his prior experience in managing law and real estate firms, Ficker, a local activist attorney, said the establishment of Amazon’s second headquarters in the County would bring “lots of small businesses.” He also added that the County missed an opportunity to bid to bring the FBI to the area before the agency halted its search for a new headquarters in 2017.
Elrich explained that he would support small-business-assistance centers while also expanding workforce education to expand opportunities – adding that he supported the continuation of the Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation.
Believing that the “future is changing,” Floreen explained that she would work to bring a major research institution to the County to support “creativity and investment.”
Ficker reminded the audience that a $15 minimum wage would take effect in 2024 and explained that many businesses, including Discovery Communications, had relocated out of the county – “seeking freedom” from “professional regulators and tax increasers.”
Responding to an audience member claiming Floreen had voted against the minimum wage, the candidate clarified that she supported the eventual legislation, adding she was concerned about layoffs and hiring at small businesses. Floreen also said that some entry-level jobs are not reported, and employees don’t get benefits or Social Security.
“At the end of the day, who wants [a] minimum-wage job … what we want are better-paying jobs, and that’s why my focus would be on … employers who would bring good jobs,” Floreen added.
Elrich explained that the demand for minimum-wage jobs, in fast-food establishments and restaurants, will continue to exist in the County but added that a lack of training and literacy skills continue to plague the County’s potential workforce.
“We’ve got a ton of kids that have left our public schools not able to read properly and aren’t employable … you need to have a plan for educating kids from early on so they can be successful,” Elrich said. “If you can read and write, I can train [you] for a whole bunch of things, if you can’t … then I can’t just train you for anything, I have to go back and get you reading and writing.”
Taking a question about crime in the County, Elrich stressed proper funding for the County’s law enforcement agencies, adding that he was working to put more cameras in schools, expand the state’s attorney office, and develop specialized police units to address domestic violence and organized crime.
“We are investing as we’ve been,” Elrich said. “If you look at the overall crime statistics, they’ve been pretty decent.”
Adding to Elrich’s response, Floreen said she would expand community-policing programs and mental health services, calling both an “underlying issue.”
Ficker brought up child molestation allegations against three teachers at Cloverly Elementary School in Silver Spring, adding they were “just as bad” as school shootings.
“We’re going to put policies in place that simply don’t tolerate messing with our little kids in a sexual way,” Ficker said, reminding the audience that he plans to replace Montgomery County Chief of Police Tom Manger.
Election Day is on Nov. 6.