ROCKVILLE – When asked about what he learned in his first year as the county executive for Montgomery County, Marc Elrich took a long pause before answering.
Elrich, 70, completed three terms with the Montgomery County Council before winning the Democratic nomination and ultimately the election with over 64% of the vote over at-large Councilmember Nancy Floreen (I) and Republican candidate Robin Ficker. Despite his experience in local government, the change in role was new for Elrich.
“It is a lot different than being a legislator,” Elrich said.
In his first year as County Executive, Elrich called it a good year. The flip from council member to executive is a more “challenging job” seeing a new perceptive in “making things happen” after a bill is signed into law. However, by working together with the Montgomery County Council, Elrich believes the county is heading the right direction.
“It has definitely been an interesting year,” Elrich said. “We started off with a lot of financial issues that we had to make some adjustments on, and once we got through that, I think this year was pretty good on that regard.”
He was proud that the Racial Equity and Social Justice Act passed through the county council, allowing him to sign it into law before the end of the year.
The bill establishes an Office of Racial Equity and Social Justice in the executive branch and creates a program that focuses on issues of racial equity. It will also develop an advisory committee with eight public members and seven county representatives.
For Elrich, the passage of the legislation, proposed by Councilmember Nancy Navarro, was one of his campaign promises “very important to me.” Alongside tackling race, Elrich was happy with the speed that inspectors at the Department of Housing and Community Affairs found problems at the county’s apartment buildings, with 96% of those violations resolved by August.
“We finally went after the biggest and worse buildings in the county and got them to start making repairs that they need to make to bring up their living conditions up to they should be,” Elrich said.
While he and the council do not have to agree all the time, Elrich said he appreciates the “differences in opinion” that both sides have from time to time. Despite working together in improving the county’s early childhood education efforts and other high priority topics, Elrich believes a higher priority should have been placed done affordable housing. Heading into 2019, Elrich hopes to work with Council President Sydney Katz and the rest of the council to address his concerns on housing in the county.
“We will be sending over some stuff, and hopefully, the council will want to work with us in order to make a dent out of the problem,” Elrich said. “Hopefully, it will be move out of rhetoric and make some changes happen.”
While his political appointments for positions in his cabinet did not receive much fanfare, attention rose at Elrich during the selection process for a new chief for Montgomery County Police (MCP).
The process, which began following the sudden retirement of former Chief Tom Manger in April, included public input Elrich mentioning the goal of completing a hire before the end of August, but the deadline passed with no nominee announced. Former Portsmouth, Virginia Police Chief Tonya Chapman, a rumored candidate, dropped out the race. Ultimately, Acting Police Chief Marcus Jones was nominated and selected as the new police chief.
While the optics show that it was not his first choice, Elrich said he supports Jones and believes the search was complicated when leaks on candidates began to happen before announcements were made.
“Marcus (Jones) was one of the top choices by the committee,” Elrich said. “…It was an overall good process and it shed a light on how people support the police department and what people want to see change in the police department.”
There were missteps in his first year, including the roll-out of his executive order that bars county employees from asking a person about their immigration status and from keeping a person in custody longer than the court system requires for the sole reason of responding to a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainer.
Following its announcement, the county received negative feedback which several news outlets highlighting cases of rape performed by undocumented immigrants arrested by county police. In August, the administration clarified that police will communicate with ICE when dealing with “requests for notification of the release of individuals charged with serious crimes.”
Months later, Elrich and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan traded shots after MCP state received a blue, white and black American flag with a blue stripe across the middle.
The online backlash on the flag’s symbolism and appearance similar to a flag used at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017 caused the county executive to announce that it would not be displayed at the station. Hogan responded by having a similar flag displayed in his house and showing it on his social media platforms.
The two faced off in the similar back and forth comments throughout the year, especially during the state’s push to pass two widening proposals for Interstates 495 and 270. While the county stands to benefit with traffic congestion relief through the widening, county officials do not want to see the removal of homes and have not liked the lack of communication with the Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration.
Overall, the county executive said his administration “interacts well” with Hogan’s staff and does not have any animosity towards Hogan.
“We talk to each other when we see each other,” Elrich said. “We have personal disagreements; I don’t make a big deal about it. He is in Annapolis, and I am here, so you do not get a lot of interaction on day-to-day bases. You run into each other, you talk. But you affectedly talk through the people who represent you, and I feel really good with the way they work with us, and that is a reflection on him.”
Heading to 2020, Elrich would like the county to focus its efforts on affordable housing during the next proposed FY2021 budget. On Dec. 12, an action report by the Purple Line Corridor Coalition asked that the county raise its Housing Initiative Fund from $65 million to over $100 million to assist more affordable housing projects in areas near the light rail project.
Elrich agreed with the additional affordable housing funding calls along the Purple Line route. However, he would like to make sure that the county remains financially stable before proceeding in providing extra funds.
“We know it is going to be another tight budget but not like last year,” Elrich said. “We hope that current trends continue and we are able to expand some of the work that we wanted to do, like more money in affordable housing and early childhood development and transportation.”