The 20th Montgomery County Council has visible differences from councils past: with 11 seats, it is the largest to date, the majority of members are women (all six are in their first term), and the members have varying ethnic and racial backgrounds.
Stark differences exist below the surface, too: Compared with prior County Councils, it now has a larger progressive wing, perhaps primed to align with County Executive Marc Elrich more than the previous one did. There is opportunity for more disagreement, both privately and publicly, than in prior years, according to multiple members and observers.
Members have had two full council meetings so far, and another meeting to review proposed state legislation. At the first, they disagreed publicly over the unanimous election of Andrew Friedson (D-Dist. 1) as vice president, and the allocation of committee chairmanships.
Will Jawando (D-At-large), Kristin Mink (D-Dist. 5) and Laurie-Anne Sayles (D-At-large) raised concerns about the lack of people of color in leadership posts. In fact, a factor behind expanding the council from nine to 11 positions was to better represent the county’s population; a majority of residents are people of color.
With council meetings resuming this week after the holiday break, members acknowledged that more split votes on bills and policies would be possible—in committee and in final votes.
But both moderate and progressive members said the conflict over leadership was only one issue, and residents will need to wait and see how council members fall on other matters. Members are quick to say they expect debate to be civil, and they plan to collaborate to set policies related to housing, policing, climate change, and other issues.
New members, new math
Although all 11 members are Democrats, the presence of an enlarged progressive wing may present more opportunities for conflict with a centrist, business-friendly contingent over issues such as rent control, observers note.
Jawando, who is in his second term, proudly identifies as progressive and has championed issues such as law enforcement reform. He may find allies in two newcomers: Mink, a former educator and activist widely seen as one of the most progressive members of the council, and Kate Stewart (D-Dist. 4), the former mayor of Takoma Park who has been called a pragmatic progressive.
Jawando said each issue would reveal where each council member stood, but he appreciated having additional liberal colleagues.
“Is it nice that there are more people who might come into the conversation more predisposed to my viewpoint? Sure, that helps,” Jawando said.
Observers see a moderate, business-friendly bloc of the council evolving, too, with Friedson and Sidney Katz (D-Dist. 3) joined by newcomer Marilyn Balcombe (D-Dist. 2).
“I can’t stop what people think,” Katz said when asked about whether some people view him in the moderate bloc. “I would hope that … I would be known to look at each individual situation and evaluate it on its owns merits.”
Katz long ran his family’s department store in Gaithersburg. Balcombe was previously president and CEO of the Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber of Commerce.
Given their business backgrounds, Katz and Balcombe said they are focused on enacting policies to create a more business-friendly environment.
Steve Silverman, a former council member and former director of the county’s Department of Economic Development, said that he doesn’t believe the council is as progressive as some are stating, as he sees Jawando and Mink as the only really progressive members.
But he added that council members would vote on each issue differently, complicating the narrative that there are true coalitions.
“I think people are going to find their own identity, and I think it can be a moving coalition at any point in time … for the issues that the council has historically dealt with, the jury is out on where on the spectrum that the entire council is going to end up,” Silverman said.
Elrich and the council
Previously, Elrich has had an uneven relationship with the council, even when he was on it; over three terms, he was never elected president and was often the “1” in 8-1 votes, Bethesda Magazine has reported. The previous council easily overrode all three of his vetoes as county executive. Some members of the last council also criticized the flow of communication between the executive and legislative branches.
Among new councilmembers, several said that while they won’t agree with the county executive on every issue, the lines of communication have, so far, been open between the two branches of government. That included Mink and Balcombe.
Balcombe believes she can work with Elrich on economic development issues. She said that before the coronavirus pandemic interrupted it, the executive branch was doing a good job of helping residents with business ideas, through resources and information available at the regional services centers.
“I have every expectation of working closely with the county executive, he’s very interested in economic development, he’s very interested in helping entrepreneurs … Regardless of any political differences, I think the county executive and County Council want the same thing: we want job growth, and we want equitable job growth,” Balcombe said.
Given that the majority is now six votes, Elrich said council members would need to build stronger coalitions to reach consensus.
Elrich, however, did admit that he now likely has more council members that align with him on contentious issues.
“I’m working with a group where we may find more agreement than disagreement,” he said in an interview this month.
But like with the last council, Elrich believes he and all his fellow Democrats on the council can also find common ground on many policies.
He noted that he and former County Council member Hans Riemer (D-At-large) were able to work together on a building decarbonization bill, which the previous council unanimously passed in one of its last major votes. Not only did the two have bad blood dating back to a 2006 County Council contest, but they sparred on housing, economic development, and other issues as Riemer challenged Elrich during the Democratic county executive primary in 2022, alongside businessman David Blair and tech CEO Peter James.
Silverman said that the council has the power to go against Elrich if members want to.
But perhaps more important is whether the council—when it comes to working with Elrich and each other—wants to be a political workhorse, or a political show horse, Silverman said.
“Do they want to solve the problem, or do they want the issue? And you can translate that on a whole host of issues,” he said.
Calls for representation, transparency
As committee assignments were being made and votes for leadership were being taken in December, Jawando and Mink said that the council leadership should mirror the diversity of the new body. At the 20th County Council’s first meeting, after leadership votes were taken, Jawando said that it was “disappointing” that the new council and committee leadership did not reflect the diversity of the county.
Jawando, who is Black, was competing with Friedson, who is white, for the vice presidency.
“I will say we have the most diverse council sworn in [ever] … and I think our leadership should reflect that,” Jawando said the day before the new council’s first meeting.
Ultimately, members elected Evan Glass (D-At-large) as president and Friedson as vice president. Although Glass is Jewish and gay and Friedson is Jewish, the leadership team did not include the kind of racial and ethnic diversity that multiple members of color had called for. (The two also chair two of the most powerful committees, with Glass leading transportation and environment and assigning Friedson to lead planning, housing and parks.)
Jawando and Mink added at the meeting that all 11 members should try to make more processes transparent—political observers, like the county’s Parents’ Coalition, have claimed that there are “polls” for bills being taken before members get to the dais. More debate and discussion about bills and policies should be public, the coalition and progressive members argue.
Mink said that lack of transparency can lead to further racial and social inequities, and hurt marginalized communities. But she added she’s hopeful the council can look at its internal processes, and make them more transparent.
“I know that breaking the status quo is hard,” Mink said at the meeting. “We all know that it takes courage, but I think we are all in agreement … that it is the right thing, and I believe that we are up to that difficult task.”
Advance vote counting and discussions between a majority of members away from the dais could be violations of the state’s Open Meetings Act, the Parents’ Coalition and other observers have said.
Jawando said in an interview that he would help propose rule changes to accomplish this but didn’t offer specifics.
He added that there’s a difference between council members emailing each other amendments and changes to policies and bills—which is allowed, as long as the amendment is read and explained during a meeting—and a majority of members meeting behind closed doors to discuss and debate many aspects of bills and policies.
“If you don’t talk about it in public, a lot of times, council members aren’t talking about it directly with each other … you have [their] staff [members] talking to each other, and that’s kind of a loophole … and the spirit of the law is that that happens in public,” Jawando said about overall deliberations.
During the last council, the majority of votes on bills and policies that reached the dais were unanimous. There were more split votes on committee work, along with amendments introduced to legislation before a final vote.
Glass added that he takes any allegations of potential violations of the Open Meetings Act seriously. Two or three members can talk about issues away from the dais, but if a majority does, that would be against the law in many circumstances.
“If they are, that’s a violation of the law, and I would not let that happen,” he said.
Observers of the 20th council say the new members are still trying to figure out how they work together—or, in other words, how to govern.
Brian Anleu, former chief of staff to the county’s Planning Board, is now with the Apartment & Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington, serving as vice president of government affairs of Maryland. He said members of his association are anxious about Elrich and some council members’ recent push for rent stabilization. There also is concern about the potential high costs of new regulations requiring fire sprinklers in older buildings countywide.
No one is against making buildings safer, but there is concern about how the costs could impact renovation costs for some of the county’s older, more affordable housing, Anleu added.
Where previous councils focused on land use, Anleu notes attention has shifted to policing, the environment, transportation, and other issues that are more closely tied to state or national politics.
Brian Levine, vice president of government affairs for the county’s Chamber of Commerce, said that a new council committee—economic development, chaired by Natali Fani-González (D-Dist. 6)—should help advance issues like job growth, business creation and workforce development. But the chamber is still trying to figure out the exact impact that will have, and how each member will deal with economic development issues. Levine has been encouraged by all 11 members’ contact with the chamber.
Joanna Silver is a member and policy committee co-chair of the Silver Spring Justice Coalition, which advocates for changing how police serve the community. She said she’s encouraged that more members seem to align with Jawando on fundamental changes—like Stewart, Mink and Sayles.
But she said it’s discouraging that the council has picked Glass and Friedson as the leadership, because they don’t represent the racial and ethnic diversity of the county. That could impact how aggressive the council is on certain policies, including about policing, Silver said.
But the coalition is optimistic that there will be more robust debate regarding the role of police in communities.
Historically, “There is a dynamic of being conciliatory and it being common to have unanimous votes, and that some point of consensus [is reached], and that’s not how the legislative process is supposed to work,” Silver said. “Compromises do have to be made, but I think a lot of people will [now] stick to their positions.”
Last month, Glass said that the diversity of the body would lead to more robust debate. He said in an interview that as council president, he welcomes the ability to have such vigorous discussion on the dais.
“We see the dysfunction that is occurring on Capitol Hill and whatever other parts of the country. … Whatever policy differences exist at the council, we can debate those differences, but still come together at the end of the day to work with all of our residents,” Glass said.
Several council members, however, pushed back on what they saw as a narrative presented by some media outlets of conflict within the new 11-member body, focusing on the concerns over racial equity. Both moderate and progressive members said the disagreement about leadership was only one issue.
Balcombe said healthy debate should be expected.
“We are a diverse county with a diverse geography, and not everyone feels and thinks the same way,” Balcombe said. “Of course, there are differences in ideology. Montgomery County is not a monolith.”
Mink acknowledged that there will likely be more split votes on issues, including on final bills and appropriations. But she has found other members to be friendly and collegial.
“I expect to be working on policy with Marilyn and working on policy with Andrew,” Mink said. “I will be working on meaningful policy with every other member of the council, and I also plan to disagree with council members on other issues in a healthy, hearty way. And that’s to be expected in a governing body, in a democracy.”
Said Stewart: “We’ve lost the art in our country to be able to disagree, at all levels of our government. … Coming at a policy decision with different experiences and different perspectives … and then working together to make a better policy for our residents—that’s the way government should work.”