ROCKVILLE – Sweeping changes came into the Montgomery County Council on Dec. 3, 2018, when four new councilmembers entered the chambers for the first time in their new roles. The council became younger and more racially diverse than previously in recent years.
The changes allowed the all-Democratic group to peruse sweeping legislation tackling broad topics from race to policing.
By the end of the year, the council showed itself as a unified group in introducing and passing reforms during both spring and fall sessions that touch different communities in Montgomery County.
At the helm of the changes was Councilmember Nancy Navarro, who was the first Latina to hold the council president role in Montgomery County.
Meanwhile, the council added new blood with Will Jawando, Evan Glass as Andrew Friedson, and Gabe Albornoz entered their first terms as councilmembers.
Despite the changes and challenges that lied ahead, the council experienced few hiccups and passed significant legislation each time there were presented.
“I can say that I’m really proud because, in my opinion, it was a very productive year under a lot of trying circumstances with all the changes,” Navarro said. “But this council was able to produce a lot of really important not only pieces of legislation but also launch important initiatives so for that I am really grateful and really proud of the work.”
Recently, the council, with support of Council Executive Marc Elrich, passed the Racial Equity and Social Justice Act, which would establish a racial equity and social justice program as well as an Office of Racial Equity and Social Justice in the executive branch of the county government.
A new Social Justice Advisory Committee will also be established, comprised of eight public members with a new $2,000 annual stipend, and seven members representing the county department or agencies.
The bill had been in the works for more than a year after local leadership came together with the council in early 2019 to examine the problems with racial equity in the county.
Residents were also able to provide input into the bill through three community conversations, which saw more than 10,000 people participating.
“Hopefully, this is a place the rest of the country will arrive at, at some point, but having these conversations is absolutely critical, if you can’t change everywhere you can at least change the place where we live,” Elrich said.
For one of the new members, Jawando had two of his key initiatives passed with high praise from the council. First, his first bill was the Law Enforcement Trust and Transparency Act (LETT), which called for an independent investigation of the police officer-involved shooting, and that a report must be sent to the county’s State’s Attorney.
If criminal charges are not filed in the case, the report would need to be made public. The motivation behind the bill came from the death of Robert White by a Montgomery County Police (MCP) officer in 2018 and the investigation surrounding the incident. It passed unanimously by the council and signed into law in June.
“My bill focused on how to remove the responsibility of investigating out of our police department to an outside department, whether it be federal, state or local,” Jawando said. “That helps create more of a level of independence from, like the buddy of the guy that killed someone, investigating the incident.”
Together with Navarro, Jawando pushed for the passing of the CROWN (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) Act prohibits discrimination based on natural hairstyles such as braids, locks, afros, curls, and twists.
Anyone caught discriminating based on appearance can receive a penalty up to $5,000. The bill received national attention with other districts looking to introduce similar legislation.
Glass, the county’s first openly gay council member, introduced the Pay Equity Act, which proposed that the county no longer request a person’s salary history when determining an employee’s pay.
The goal was to bring up the pay gap problems women face in the job sector. The bill passed unanimously before the summer with Glass stating that this would positively affect women of color as well.
“Being raised by a single mom who worked multiple jobs, this legislation is very personal to me,” Glass said. “By eliminating the county’s use of pay history to set future salaries, employees will get paid according to their expected responsibilities and the experience they bring to the table, rather than their ability to successfully negotiate based on past wages.”
Meanwhile, the council joined together in protesting a proposed $11 billion widening project for Interstates 495 and 270. Councilmember Tom Hucker led the way with multiple town rallies and press conferences to ask state officials to listen to public pressure.
Current plans include the removal of several homes and businesses in the county during the construction process for the highway expansion with no input from local officials. Hucker and Elrich hope that with changes in the Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration (MDOT SHA) coming into the new year will make collaborating on highway expansion much easier.
“No one is more affected by congestion than we are, and our constituents are,” Hucker said. “No one has more expertise in relieving congestion and its causes and solutions (than we do). We are 100 percent for congestion relief here in Montgomery County, Prince George’s County and Frederick County, but MDOT’s process has shut us out.”
Heading into next year, the council elected Sidney Katz as its new president on Dec. 3. Katz, recently completed his fifth year of service with the council and has spent large portions of the year working alongside Elrich on the 4Business initiative, which engages the local businesses on how to better prosper in Montgomery County. He plans to continue his business-focus approach to build the county’s economic standing heading into the new calendar year.
“As president, I will continue to work with our local business community and with businesses that would like to relocate here,” Katz said. “A strong economy and growing tax base are the foundations upon which a thriving community is built and sustained.”
Hucker will be working alongside him as the vice president as the council looks to continue the trend of legislation that occurred in 2019. On Jan. 14, the council will be hosting a public hearing for several bills, including establishing an office of grant management and hiring deputies for the inspector general.
“We face challenging times ahead. We need to do more with less,” Katz said. “We also face new and exciting times ahead. I welcome both the challenges and the excitement.”