On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) joined The Politics Hour to discuss the D.C. budget, police funding and more.
The D.C. Council’s Heated, Virtual Budget Debates
- A council debate on Tuesday grew contentious over a provision to issue a new 3% tax on the sale of advertisements. Mendelson proposed the tax as part of the council’s efforts to cut $18 million in the budget to balance the District’s projected revenue loss.
- Some D.C. councilmembers voiced concerns over what this would mean for local media outlets — many of which were vocal in their opposition of this tax. Another concern raised by councilmembers was the way in which taxes were being determined in the first place.
- On Wednesday, Mendelson said he regretted introducing the tax and planned to reverse it, having found other ways to cover the revenue loss.
- The council voted to repeal the tax on Thursday before unanimously approving the budget.
What’s Next For D.C. Police Reform And Funding?
- D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser signed the emergency police reform legislation that was unanimously passed by the council last month.
- But when it comes to funding for the Metropolitan Police Department, that’s still to be decided. Bowser’s proposal increased MPD’s budget by $18 million — which is 3% over the previous year. The council is proposing a 1.6% increase from last year’s proposed budget.
- Bowser has criticized the reduction to her proposed police funding and says it should be examined by D.C.’s chief financial officer Jeffrey DeWitt, who must certify the city’s budget.
- On The Politics Hour, Mendelson said, “I spoke with Jeff DeWitt as recently as Wednesday night. There are no certification issues.”
- The D.C. Council voted on the budget July 23, and will vote on its accompanying laws July 28.
Reopening D.C. Schools
- After reports that D.C. Public Schools would open with a hybrid model of in-person and virtual learning this fall, Mayor Bowser punted the decision to July 31.
- Many local unions representing school employees say that they have been excluded from talks on how best to reopen.
- When asked on The Politics Hour about schools reopening, Mendelson praised Bowser for following public health recommendations. “I think the safest course is for us to be heeling closely to what the recommendations are for public health,” he said.
Leaders in Montgomery County are coming up with a plan to address the disproportionate effect of COVID-19 on Hispanic residents. Councilmember Gabe Albornoz (D – At Large) joined The Politics Hour.
Supporting Hispanic Residents During The Coronavirus
- In June, more than 70% of new positive coronavirus cases in Montgomery County were Hispanic residents. Hispanic residents make up about one-fifth of the county’s population.
- “The two biggest indicators nationally of whether or not you have the virus are race and income level,” Albornoz said on The Politics Hour. “And that unfortunately is true in Montgomery County.”
- Montgomery County Councilmembers Albornoz and Nancy Navarro are proposing the council spend about $7.5 million to establish “Por Nuestra Salud y Bienestar (For Our Health and Wellbeing)” to enhance testing and resources for Hispanic residents. The council would partner with the Latino Health Initiative and local nonprofits.
- Hispanic residents have faced challenges when it comes to accessing tests, including not having adequate testing sites in Latino communities and a lack of Spanish-speaking contact tracers and testing site workers.
The Debate Over Police Officers In Schools
- Montgomery County Councilmember Will Jawando proposed taking 12 of the 23 active school resource officers out of schools and reassigning them to other police department duties. The proposal was voted down 5-4 by the council.
- But, as part of the county’s saving plan, the council has supported freezing 27 police officer positions; five of those are student resource officer positions.
- “I believe all of my colleagues unanimously feel that we need to re-look at and re-imagine policing, and policing in schools as well,” Albornoz said on The Politics Hour. “I think the difference of opinion is the timeline and how we should go about doing that.”
- This isn’t the end of the county’s conversation around SROs. The council has tasked Montgomery County Schools Superintendent Jack Smith with compiling school arrest data by October. Smith also will need to make a recommendation on whether to continue the SRO program by January.
Montgomery County Council Criticizes Hogan’s Election Plan
- The Montgomery County Council has spoken out against Maryland Governor Larry Hogan’s plan to have a regular, in-person election in November. Under the current plan, every registered voter will receive an application for an absentee ballot in the mail, but not the ballot itself.
- Next week, the council will vote on a resolution calling for the state to automatically send ballots to all registered voters with prepaid return envelopes. It also asks the state to provide drop-off boxes for ballots.
- The resolution also asks that more power be granted to local Boards of Election to decide how many in-person polling places and early voting centers will be opened.
- On The Politics Hour, Albornoz called Hogan’s decision “short-sighted.” He acknowledged that some Montgomery County voters received their ballots late or not at all. “But let’s fix those problems rather than have a business-as-usual election,” Albornoz said.
Sorting political fact from fiction, and having fun while we’re at it. Join us for our weekly review of the politics, policies and personalities of the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia.
Produced by Cydney Grannan
KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to the Politics Hour starring Tom Sherwood. I'm Kojo Nnamdi. Tom is our Resident Analyst and Contributing Writer for Washington City Paper. Tom Sherwood, welcome.
TOM SHERWOODHello, everybody.
NNAMDILater in the broadcast we'll be talking with Gabe Albornoz. He is an At-Large Member of the Montgomery County Council. Joining us now is Phil Mendelson, the Chairman of the D.C. Council. Chairman Mendelson, welcome.
PHIL MENDELSONThank you. Good afternoon. And I promise not to be detailed, Kojo.
NNAMDIBriefly, Tom, before we get into the conversation with Chairman Mendelson and, of course, he and everybody else in this region is interested in this. The Washington Football Team is now going to be known in the interim period I suspect as the Washington Football Team. Tom Sherwood.
SHERWOODUh, yes. It's the Washington Football Team although it doesn't play in Washington. It's headquartered in Virginia and plays in Maryland. But, of course, this is the fallout from the team announcing that it would change or get rid of, retire the name Redskins, which it's had since like 1933. But they don't have a new name yet. There's lots of speculation about what it will be.
SHERWOODSo I did check, though. I went onto the team website. I'm going to say the name because it's important. The team is saying it will go by Washington Football. But you still can go to redskins.com and order Redskin team apparel with the name emblazoned across the chest of various pieces of apparel. So this is a slow moving process for the team to finally after decades to say it's going to change its name has now done that an interim name until it gets a permanent name, but it still has some work to do about its online presence.
NNAMDIChairman Mendelson, do you approve?
MENDELSONAbsolutely. The Council went on record years ago saying that the team should change its name.
NNAMDISo the team has changed its name and so we can move on to a piece in Washington City Paper this week by Cuneyt Dil about "How the District is losing Money on Garbage Disposal." Tom Sherwood, full disclosure here Cuneyt Dil's story in City Paper was sponsored by Spotlight D.C., which is an organization that was formed on which I happen to be on the board and which Tom Sherwood has served as an advisor for the purpose of investigative journalism in D.C. But what's happening with D.C.'s waste management, Tom?
SHERWOODAnd Spotlight just so people will know is a new organization that's been put together by Colby King, the editorial writer for The Washington Post, a columnist for the post and Harry Jaffe, who was my co-writer on "Dream City." So get all of the conflicts out of the way.
SHERWOODThis was an 18 month investigation into commercial trash hauling in the District of Columbia. Not the DPW, folks who come to your house. But the waste management and republic, the two big firms that pick up trash from commercial buildings and buildings with three or more residential units. It found that over since 2010 the city has foregone 53 something million dollars, because it doesn't charge enough at the trash dumping sites. The city several years ago got rid of its own dump sites. But there are two in the city, private ones. And people go and they dump trash day in and day night there. And they pay a tipping. That tipping fee according to this story is about $36 a ton cheaper than what it should be, and because it's so cheap trash is being brought in from the suburbs and dumped at D.C. dump sites.
SHERWOODThe story says that the city -- Mary Shay is the Chair of the Committee that oversees DPW, the Department of Public Works, will be looking at this some more. But the bottom line is the District is getting stiffed on the trash that it's taking care of for the city and the region.
NNAMDIChairman Mendelson, should we be looking at this some more?
MENDELSONYes, Kojo. However, I think there is something in the budget. I'd have to double check. But I think there is something in the budget that's increasing the tipping fee.
NNAMDIOkay. Then on to the budget. Yesterday the D.C. Council unanimously passed the 2021 budget. This vote was supposed to happen on Tuesday. The delays were in large part due to a heated debate over a tax proposal of yours that was would have put a three percent tax on the sale of advertisements. What was your intent with this tax and why did you end up taking the lead on repealing it?
MENDELSONWell, the idea for the tax actually came from another councilmember. And my reading of the tea leaves was that the Council was going to support it. And so by my including it in what I put forward with the budget, I thought that I would have some control over it including having a lower rate. Initially it was scored as I said by another councilmember at about a 10 percent rate, and then there was talk about a six percent rate, and what I put forward was a three percent rate.
MENDELSONMy calculation was that by doing that as well as a couple of other moves that were tax related that that dampen the ability of other councilmembers to come in with some tax increases that I knew they were going to propose such as to the income tax and complete repeal of one business tax that actually makes us competitive in the area of IT. I miscalculated. And in fact other tax proposals were put forward and were approved except for the income tax. I miscalculated and then of course there was enormous opposition to the add tax.
MENDELSONSo on Tuesday I came in. I wasn't initially -- well, on Tuesday I wasn't proposing a repeal, but the way it had been written up was different than the way I had talked about it. It was supposed to be simply a sales tax and my proposal on Tuesday was to fix that. However that sparked a rather lengthy debate about the add tax completely. And so I put forward a challenge. And the challenge was, okay, if you guys don't like the add tax are you willing to accept cuts? And to my surprise the seven members said yes. They were willing to look at cuts.
MENDELSONAnd this was a long debate about a couple of hours. But when it was clear that there was a majority members that were willing to look at cuts instead of just tax, tax, tax, then I said, well, let's take some additional time to look for cuts. That's what happened on Tuesday.
NNAMDIFor most members of the public that's fairly complicated. What is most important for D.C. residents to know about this budget that was passed?
MENDELSONIf you're talking about the budget overall or this particular issue?
NNAMDIYes. The budget overall.
MENDELSONThis budget overall is remarkable for its maintaining and in fact slightly increasing some social service programs and spending on public education. We are losing one and a half billion dollars in projected revenues this year through next year that's fiscal year. And in spite of one and a half billion dollar drop in revenues we are increasing spending in public education. It's a three percent increase in the funding formula. And then we are increasing spending on other social service programs such as fixing the healthcare alliance recertification process, putting $50 million into public housing repairs. Not only maintaining the mayor's proposed $100 million for affordable housing, but leveraging an additional $88 million for affordable housing. I could go on.
NNAMDINo. Please don't.
MENDELSONThere's quite a number of programs.
NNAMDIBut I just wanted those highlights. Tom Sherwood.
SHERWOODThank you for being with us, Chairman. Let's get right to some of the politics here on The Politics Hour. I was surprised that during all of this debate the original idea of raising an advertising tax on all advertising placements in the city as I understand it came from Councilmember David Grosso, who wanted to do a 10 percent tax. If you can confirm that for me, I would appreciate it, But that in your negotiations with him you reduced it to three percent. During all of these very tough, very strained debates he said virtually nothing.
SHERWOODSo I was surprised you took the heat on that rather than trying to bring him in. But it was a very rough budget session. And it was unusual for you Tuesday to postpone it until Thursday to get all of the ducks in a row. There was a lot of personal assaults at the end. Several councilmembers kind of apologized for the tone of their remarks. But it's clear there is an increasing maybe progressive wing of this Council that wants to spend more and tax more, because they say it's needed despite the pandemic that we're facing now. You're having a hard time wrangling these other 12 councilmembers.
MENDELSONAll right. So how do you want me to respond? I think that --
SHERWOODWell, briefly as possible, but do you recognize -- you've talked about it that this Council is not recognizing the financial crisis the city has been in and that had we not had this very big reserve fund we would be in a pile of mess right now. And you think the councilmembers don't recognize it -- some them don't recognize it.
MENDELSONOh, totally. I think that I would agree with that on all points. There's been some debate over the last several years about how we should spend down our reserves while in fact we were able to build our reserves. Well, now that we are in this recession we are spending down our reserves. And if we didn't then we would have to be making more drastic cuts. It's also my view and this is consistent with what you were just asking, Tom, that we cannot tax and spend our way out of a recession. We just can't.
MENDELSONAnd I do think that that dichotomy of view is becoming more apparent. That's really what happened on Tuesday when I said to members, "Well, are you willing to look for cuts to get rid of this tax?" And as I said a majority, but it was bare majority said, "Yes." There was even a prediction from one member who wasn't on that prevailing side that we would never be able to find $18 million, but as you saw yesterday we did.
SHERWOODOkay. Every budget cycle can have it's tough parts. But let me ask you, do you think was one of the toughest budgets that you've had to do in your two terms as Council Chairman? You're up for reelection in 2022. Are you telling people that you plan to run again for a third term?
MENDELSONI am planning to. And in all honesty, Tom, I don't know that I would say this is the toughest. Each one has been a little different. There was a budget a few years ago that then Mayor Grey vetoed. So, you know, each budget is unique.
SHERWOODWhat about the personal strains among the councilmembers members that, you know, you've seen it. I think you even mentioned them. Some of the sides about one councilmember to another does seem to get quite personal. That's not very professional.
MENDELSONWell, I think some of the -- I do think that some members need to be more careful about some of their rhetoric, because there are folks in the community who pick up on it. And it's not -- I would say it's not reasonable. It's appropriate and it's not necessary.
NNAMDIWe only have about 40 seconds left in this segment. But Bill Rice tweets, "Please, explain what happened with the new D.C. Archives and Office of Public Records in the fiscal year 2021 budget vote yesterday." You have about 30 seconds, Mr. Council Chairman.
MENDELSONWell, on the operating side nothing was changed. On the capital side, which is the need to build a new Archives that was put off, but the full funding hasn't been in the budget. We're setting up an advocacy committee to really help the Council be better about facing up to the needs for a new Archives.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. By the way, hello, Bill Rice. We're going to be coming right back. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back our guest is Phil Mendelson, the Chairman of the D.C. Council. Chair Mendelson, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser signed the emergency police reform legislation passed by the Council. But her plan for funding the MPD and the Council's don't match up. She proposed an $18 million increase in funding. Without it she says, critical programs will get cut and the department will have to reduce the force by 250 officers. What do you say?
MENDELSONWell, the Council tried to find a balance between demands to defund the police and to maintain public safety. The Council accepted the report of Judiciary Committee and cut the MPD budget, which was really a reduction in the increase totaling about $15 million dollars. And redirected that money mostly to other programs related to violence prevention, restorative justice and victims assistance.
NNAMDIBowser also said that the city's chief financial officer, Jeffrey DeWit might not sign off on the spending plan, because the reduction in officers will lead to more overtime. What then?
MENDELSONWell, you know, Kojo, I just love this stuff, because every year when we do the budget it's that we didn't do enough or we did too much. And the sky is falling. I spoke to Jeff DeWitt as recently as Wednesday night. There are no certification issues. It is true that there will be through attrition a reduction in number of police officers. And if it turns out that is deleterious to public safety then we have the ability a year from now to revisit it and increase spending.
NNAMDIWe had the Chair of the Police Union, Greg Pemberton on our program earlier this week. He said that the Union hasn't been involved in any of the conversations about reform or funding. Is that because of the current climate of defund the police or would that just be normal?
MENDELSONI'm not sure how to answer that. You know, the lead at the Council with regard to public safety or the police is the Judiciary Committee. And I don't know to what extent the Union works with the Judiciary Committee. I do know that when I chaired the Judiciary Committee a decade ago that I did work with the Union. I think it's always important to hear from all the different stakeholders when it comes to criminal justice.
SHERWOODSpeaking of police, out in Portland, of course, they're having a hell of a time there with demonstrations. And President Trump has authorized federal officers to go into that city and suggesting they'll be going into other cities like Baltimore, etcetera. The District is uniquely in a position where federal forces could kind of overwhelm the city if it chose to do so. Are you at all concerned that the president in his fighting these various protests might send armed soldiers into the District again?
MENDELSONLet me answer this way. I'm very concerned with what the president is doing, and he's doing it right now in other cities, but recall that he did it here around in the beginning of June. That was the horrible incident where he cleared out H Street to Lafayette Square so that he could do his little photo op at St. Johns. Those tactics on the part of the president are incendiary. The actually make things worse. They're counterproductive.
MENDELSONOur MPD and in fact all of the public safety apparatus in the city worked hard to try to protect property and protect First Amendment rights and to ensure order at that time. And what made things worse was the president's intervention. Do I think that that could happen here again? I hope not. My sense is for reasons I don't understand it the president has decided it's an opportunity to pick on other cities. I say fi on him.
MENDELSONI am somewhat concerned that he could turn his eye back on the District. But that doesn't seem to be what he's doing. And we've already made it clear to him, hands off. It's not necessary.
SHERWOODLet me ask you about schools. The biggest issue facing the city now is that next Friday a week from today Mayor Bowser has said she would decide or announce what she's going to do about reopening the schools, a hybrid system of some at home learning, some distant learning, all distant learning. Do you have an individual personal view of what should be done and what do you think is seriously being considered. What do you think?
MENDELSONWhat do I think? Well, let me start with this. I think that the mayor's done an excellent job at following public health officials' recommendations, which is something I wish that the federal government would do. And it's because that she's followed public health recommendations that we're in a relatively good place right. We still are moving toward further reopening. I hope that doesn't get set back ,because of the bad policies in other states. My own view is that the mayor should continue to follow the recommendations of public health experts. And we will see where she is a week from now when she makes the announcement.
MENDELSONThere's a lot of anxiety about how schools will reopen. And I think the safest course is for us to be healing closely to what the recommendations are for public health, because in the end that's what's going to enable us to continue to move forward and ensure that public health is protected or we will see that we join the ranks of other states that are seeing setbacks.
NNAMDIHere's Ann in Columbia Heights. Ann, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ANNChairman Mendelson, I'm confused. You accuse the more progressive councilmembers of just wanting to tax and spend. And yet you came up with a tax that I never heard of before. I don't think anybody else had, and eventually you took it down when people didn't support it. There was lot of support across this city for small surtax on folks earning more than $350,000 a year or $250,000 a year. And you were dead set against that one. I don't get it.
NNAMDICouncil Chair Mendelson.
MENDELSONWell, let me try to explain again that I made a tactical decision that turned out to misfire. That if I came in with the add tax, which is just an extension or expansion of the sales tax that that would block some of the other tax proposals. In fact, what happened was that in addition to the add tax there were three other taxes that were adopted by councilmembers including one, a change to the inheritance tax, who had been circulated to members less than 24 hours before. The add tax had been discussed among councilmembers in the previous weeks. I do believe that we should not be taxing our way out of recession. And as I said, my strategy was to try to prevent some of these other taxes and that was a miscalculation.
MENDELSONYou know, the larger picture is that there are a number of advocacy groups that have been demanding increases in taxes. They've been doing it year after year. And this year it was a more orchestrated campaign including a push poll that alleged that 80 percent of residents support the kind of income tax increase that the caller just mentioned. In fact, we restructured our income tax a few years old. And if one looks at our income tax there's no question that those who earn the most are paying -- are sharing the highest burden of our income tax. We're not like any other jurisdiction when it comes to the income tax. We have the most progressive income tax of any jurisdiction in this country. The rich pay the most. The poorer pay the least. And I'm not just talking about in real dollars I'm talking about in percentages.
MENDELSONBut the debate seems to have been all about taxes, maybe for the sake of raising taxes. And we really have to face up to that. And if the public really does want us to tax and spend then that's where the Council will go. But I have not seen that that works. And in the long run, I think it can be counterproductive.
NNAMDIAnn, another Ann, tweets, "Why did Chairman Mendelson put a 10 year extension of the rental housing act in the budget support act instead of holding hearings on this critical area, which needs reform."
MENDELSONWell, in fact, there have been some hearings. And I think what's really at issue is that there are a number of proposals to make changes to rent control. And whether those proposals are necessary or not, they're controversial. Rent control will expire this fall. And rent control is at risk of expiring, because it gets hung up with all these other proposals sort of like the perfect is the enemy of the good. And so to take that off the table that is the risk that rent control will simply expire and there will be no rent control to allow for a fuller robust discussion about these other proposals to improve rent control I put forward the 10 year extension. And the 10 year extension --
NNAMDIYou only have 30 seconds left.
MENDELSONI believe that's what we did last time was a 10 year extension. And I believe that was the bill that is pending and that's the bill that's already had a hearing.
NNAMDIPhil Mendelson is Chairman of the D.C. Council. Chairman Mendelson, thank you very much for joining us.
MENDELSONThank you, Kojo. Thank you, Tom.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll be talking with At-Large Member of the Montgomery County Council, Gabe Albornoz. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Joining us now is Gabe Albornoz, an at-large member of the Montgomery County Council. Councilmember Albornoz, thank you very much for joining us.
GABE ALBORNOZThanks, Kojo. It's an honor to be back on the show, and hi to Tom, as well.
NNAMDITom, before we get to Montgomery County, what's going on with the mysterious disappearance of a check written by Christian Dorsey, the Arlington County board member who had to leave the Metro Board when he had received a check from the Amalgamated Transit Union for $10,000 for his campaign? And that forced him off the board.
NNAMDIHe then wrote a check for $10,000 to the union, but that check apparently never made it to the bank. The bank said that numerous checks were mailed in a single envelope, but that envelope was somehow damaged in the mail, never arrived at the bank. But Christina Dorsey's check was the only one of the bundle that was lost. It's a mystery inside of an enigma. Can you explain?
SHERWOODI don't think it's too much of a mystery. Unfortunately, I have to say that Christian Dorsey may have lost a lot of credibility now that he may not be able to get back. This has been nothing short of political self-sabotage. He was embarrassed last year when that $10,000 check was announced. He said he would return it. In January, he said he did. That turned out not to be true. In February, he wrote that check that somehow got the magical mystery tour in the U.S. postal service.
SHERWOODAnd then, in July -- he knew the check had not been cashed, because he has the bank account. In July, when he had to file a financial report of spending that he should've reported the $10,000 returned, he didn't. So, Patricia Sullivan from the Washington Post said, hey, what's up? And then the union and he came up with this cockamamie idea that somehow or other his check alone had been lost in the mail. That he did not make sure that the check was cashed is, frankly, an embarrassment too far for many people who have given him a great deal of benefit of doubt. And I'll be surprised if he survives this. This is -- he did file for bankruptcy last October.
SHERWOODBut all that said and done, he has given so many false comments about this check. On June 12th, he was on the Kojo Nnamdi Show, a very popular show here in town, on The Politics Hour, where I asked him about this check. And he said he was working to regain the trust of citizens. He must've known then the check had not cleared. So, I've pretty much washed my hands of what he can say and do until he actually demonstrates, by his actions, that he's trying to be above board.
NNAMDIGabe Albornoz, in June, over 70 percent of the positive coronavirus tests in Montgomery County were Hispanic residents. You and Councilmember Nancy Navarro introduced a proposal to help those residents through the pandemic. Tell us about it.
ALBORNOZWell, thank you, Kojo. Yes. It's just been shocking and terrible and tragic to see the disparities in our overall health system prior to COVID be completely exasperated through the virus. And that has been true especially here in Montgomery County. The two biggest indicators nationally of whether or not you have the virus are race and income level. And that, unfortunately, is true in Montgomery County with African-Americans being the largest percentage of our population that is dying of the virus, and Latinos making the largest percentage of the population testing positive.
ALBORNOZAnd, as you said, we learned from Dr. Gayles just a couple weeks ago that more than 74 percent of positive test cases since June are Hispanic. Every other demographic has gone down, but Latinos have gone up exponentially. And so I was proud to join my colleague Nancy Navarro to work with her Latino health initiative which is made up of key stakeholders in the community, organizations such as Casa de Maryland, the Mary Center, Identity and other clinics, to come up with a plan to enhance testing, to enhance language-proficient contact tracing, and to also stand up these one-stop shop hubs where families can address food security issues, get information. And we are now working with the Executive Branch to stand up this initiative. We will be voting on it on Tuesday. This has the unanimous support of all of my colleagues.
ALBORNOZAnd our hope, Kojo, is that this serves as a template for our other populations that have also been disproportionately impacted by the virus to follow, so that we deal with those systemic issues. And the other thing I'll say about this, it's important to note, particularly within our immigrant community, is that you can draw a straight line between the policies of this presidential administration and the all-out assault on our immigrant community through policies such as public charge, and even recently, trying to impact students who have to learn online, international students that have to learn online.
ALBORNOZWe've seen clear evidence that a number of our immigrant population have been hesitant to get tests to access medical care because they're worried that it will, in some way, impact their immigration status. And if they're even having the slightest bit of hesitation, or worse yet, not getting tested at all, that creates a public health emergency for all of us. So, we felt strongly it was our moral obligation to stand up this plan. And I was proud to work with Councilmember Navarro and all of the folks in the community to get it off the ground.
SHERWOODWelcome, Councilmember. I know when you said food security, I always like to tell people that means we're talking about people, families that are hungry.
SHERWOODFood security sounds like you can't get into your front door.
SHERWOODLet me ask about rent there. In the State of Maryland, there's something like 190, almost 200,000 households that rent. In Montgomery County, there's a substantial number. County Executive Marc Elrich has suggested, I think, $20 million to assist in rent payments, or somehow. Can you tell me what's happening with that proposal? I know the Montgomery Renters Alliance is worried that the money will not first, come, and secondly, won't be spent properly. Where are we on that? Housing, of course, is the fundamental issue, if you're not starving.
ALBORNOZYou're absolutely right. And true to the bureaucratic term of food security, I appreciate that comment. But we are all losing sleep and really anxious about the tsunami of evictions that we think await us. We have established policy to basically freeze rent through the pandemic here in Montgomery County. And we have now put forward several tranches of funding to help specifically with renter assistance. And have also provided funding for Direct Cash family assistance for families who were not eligible to receive those $1,200 checks disseminated by the federal government several months ago. And we know that as much as even tens of millions of dollars is a drop in the bucket compared to what's going to be needed, moving forward.
ALBORNOZThis does have the full support of my colleagues and I, and I do anticipate that it will move forward. And we are keeping our fingers crossed that Congress will move forward one final tranche of funds before the November election., because we have already spent down the vast majority of the CARES Fund that we received that was supposed to get us through December 1st. And we know that over 130,000 county residents have filed for unemployment. Our employment rate is now over 14 percent. It was 3 percent just three months ago. And so there is just tremendous pain out in the community. And one of the most foundational things we can do as a government is to support our residents and keep them in their homes.
NNAMDIWe got an email from someone who says: Why do county council members send out no-reply messages to county residents? I find it insulting and ridiculous as a medical professional working more hours than I can count. Why do they use an email format full of large logos and display items rather than a factual presentation of data? All councilmembers use the same format. I do not know what this person is talking about, but I'm hoping that you, Gabe Albornoz, do. (laugh)
ALBORNOZI'm not exactly sure, Kojo. She may be referring to some of the taglines we use in our emails with regards to the census that we send out as a notification in our email system. And we also provide other alerts that come up. So, I'm not exactly sure what the emailer is referring to. But if she wants to email our office directly and contact us, I'd be happy to follow up and look into that issue.
NNAMDIThe council approved a new coronavirus testing strategy this week, with the goal of increasing accessibility of testing, as well as the number of sites. It's my understanding that this plan was largely put together because the council wasn't happy with how County Executive Marc Elrich was handling testing. Are there tensions between the council and Elrich about testing? What do you think about his leadership through this pandemic, in general?
ALBORNOZWell, thank you, Kojo. And let me just begin by saying, we are all on the same team. I have a great deal of respect for Dr. Gayles, Dr. Crowl, Dr. Stoddard, all of the leadership of the Executive Branch and the county executive who have been working around the clock to address this issue. And because of the lack of federal response and direction, all local jurisdictions have effectively been on our own to navigate PPE, testing. And so it certainly has had its fair share of challenges.
ALBORNOZBut, having said that, I do think, you know, one of the roles of the council, as the Board of Health, is to make sure that we are moving everything forward as quickly as possible. And there have been some instances in which, I think, we could have moved a little bit more aggressively in certain spaces. But the great news is, thanks to the efforts of everyone -- and especially our residents who have been adhering to the guidelines and doing what we need to do to keep all of our residents safe, including our businesses -- the numbers overall have gone down in Montgomery County, and very significantly.
ALBORNOZWe're at the height of almost 600 positive test cases per day, to now averaging somewhere around between 60 and 80. And that's because we've all worked hard. But, having said that, there have been some areas where we think we could improve. We think that there should've been a more formal plan that people could react to, people could understand. That was recently stood up by the county executive and his team, which I think is a very positive step forward. And now, through these conversations over the last couple of weeks, I can say, with high degree of certainty, we are aligned. We are all moving in the right direction. And the benchmarks that have been set for 30,000 tests per week, I think we will achieve in October. And I'm confident we're going to get there.
SHERWOODLet me ask you about voting this November. Last week on the program, Brian Frosh, Attorney General for Maryland, quite critical of Governor Hogan for insisting that there will be in-person voting come this November, although he's encouraging people to vote by mail absentee, and that everyone will get an absentee ballot request form in the mail. Others say this will be just too convoluted, and it's going to be quite a mess. Everyone should just get a ballot and mail it to them and vote. Where are you on this?
SHERWOODDo you think your county can staff the precincts on Election Day and early voting to -- a lot of senior citizens who do that type of work simply are not going to go out and do that work, because they're afraid of the virus. Are you going to be prepared in Montgomery County on November the 3rd?
ALBORNOZWell, thanks, Tom, for that question. This is a very significant issue. And all of my colleagues unanimously joined in signing a resolution requesting that the governor reconsider his position on this matter and just as we did in the primary, mail out a mail ballot to every county resident who can vote. We think this is critically important, and we think this is just a no-brainer. And the governor said in his press conference yesterday that this has been politicized.
ALBORNOZI would feel this way, and I know all of my colleagues would, if a Democrat were in the governor's office, as well. This is a shortsighted approach. Yes, it is true. We had problems during the primary. There were too many residents that received their ballot late and, in some cases, not at all. But let's fix those problems rather than try to have a business-as-usual election, which I think is a nonstarter.
ALBORNOZThe Baltimore Sun, this morning, had an article that, statewide, we are projecting, right now, being 14,000 election judges short of where we need to be. That's 35 percent. And we suspect that the number will grow higher. And I shared this, as a personal story, yesterday with my dad, who is in his mid-70s and signed up to be an election judge. He's bilingual. He's exactly the kind of person who we need to serve. But to have him have to make a choice between his health and carrying out his civic duty is a false choice.
ALBORNOZWe need to relook at this, send out the mail ballots to everyone and, yes, increase the number of in-person voting sites than we had during the primary, but not have a business-as-usual election. That is too many steps backward and would put too many people at risk.
NNAMDIAs part of the budget cuts, Councilmember Will Jawando proposed an amendment to reassign 12 of the 23 active school resource officer positions to other duties in the police department. But that was struck down five to four by the council. One Twitter user asked: What was Councilmember Albornoz's reason for voting down the school resource officer item the other day? Police do not belong in schools. How do you respond?
ALBORNOZWell, thank you, Kojo. And let me just say that Councilmember Jawando is one of my best friends, and I am aligned with him on so many issues. And I think -- I want to state a couple things. I believe all of my colleagues unanimously feel that we need to relook at and re-imagine policing, and policing in schools, as well. I think the difference of opinion is the timeline and how we should go about doing that.
ALBORNOZOur Board of Education right now is in the midst of developing a deep analysis of our school resource officer program in the county. They're going to be talking to all of the stakeholders. They're going to be talking to teachers, faculty, administrators, students and parents. Because the context I come at this from is having served as the director of the recreation department for 12 years. We were the largest provider of afterschool programs in the county. And so I got to know many of the school resource officers, the school administrators, the teachers, the parents.
ALBORNOZAnd these school resource officers, I think, are more resources than they are officers. And I can speak in the first person about how they have intervened in a gang dispute and helped defuse the situation before it got exponentially better. And many people have understandably and correctly pointed to the alarming data from last year regarding the percentage of minority students, in particular African-American students, that were arrested. But even those numbers, we have to look deeper into, because a number of those arrests were for weapons, including guns.
ALBORNOZSo, I think we need to look at the program holistically. I am very open to and expect the program to change and evolve. But I'd like to conduct a complete analysis of that, give the Board of Education the time to do it. And then, frankly, come up with a transition plan rather than just somewhat arbitrarily eliminate -- the first proposal was all of the school resource officers, and now, almost half. But I think there's time for us to be deliberate about this, but end up in the same place, with a change to the program that takes into account the moment we're in, the concerns that have been raised, but also the public safety of our students.
SHERWOODOn this subject, as I understand it, of this county's 26 high schools, there are 23 high schools that have a school resource officer. But, again, to avoid the bureaucratic speak, that's basically a police officer. Are these officers sworn police officers? And, Mr. Councilmember, how do they work? Do they report to the school system? Do they report to the police department? Who sets the standards for what a school resource officer does? As you say, they can calm down students who might be troubled. They can arrest those who seriously violate the law. Or they can just be there as a reassuring presence. Who decides what they do, and are they sworn officers, and do they carry guns?
ALBORNOZThey are sworn officers, yes. And, yes, I believe they do carry guns. And it is a little bit of a hybrid. They report both to the school and the school administrators, but then ultimately to the precincts to which they're assigned. And I am familiar with the training that goes into these officers, because when I was at the Recreation Department, we had an initiative called Advancing Youth Development, which was a training program that we gave to all of our afterschool providers. And the SROs participated in that training.
ALBORNOZAnd I know MCPD, the Montgomery County Police Department, is very intentional on the front end of the recruitment of these officers, to make sure that they are in the best possible position, and feel very comfortable working with youth. And so there is an extensive amount of training that goes into the program, as a whole.
ALBORNOZAnd they are a key component of the overall infrastructure of our schools. And so that's why I think there does need to be an analysis of exactly how this has been rolled out. And I don't think it's the same in each school. And so there has to be a complete evaluation of the program. And after that evaluation, I don't think it's bureaucratic to wait to see what the outcome of that is, and then make a determination on how we move forward.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Kathryn, who writes: I work for a small nonprofit and my husband works for the county, and we're expecting our second child in the winter. While county employees are allowed to take some earned leave as parental leave, there is not dedicated leave for the birth or adoption of a child. Because of this, we have to piece together enough leave and save nearly $10,000 to replace lost income and then put our baby in daycare at four months old. Are there any proposals or plans to offer dedicated paid leave for new parents in Montgomery County so that parents can take more time with their babies and mothers can have more time to heal before having to return to work?
ALBORNOZWell, first, congratulations on the welcoming of a new member to the family. I have four kids, and it's just such a blessing on every level. And I really appreciate that question. The previous council did enact legislation that was particularly progressive. But I think there's more work to do moving forward. And I will say, you know, it's interesting, as one of the silver linings of COVID is tele-working. And the way that we administer government, just like every other sector, public, private, nonprofit, everybody is reimagining the way we work.
ALBORNOZAnd I think that there are going to be some important lessons learned that will make Montgomery County, and hopefully all of our places of business, more family friendly moving forward so that we can fully support our children. And, my goodness, they are going to need that support, especially in the upcoming year with, you know, the devastation of COVID and how this has impacted our social and emotional wellbeing of our kids. I think families need maximum flexibility to be able to support their families during this time.
NNAMDIYou seem to be suggesting, however, that because of the budget rules brought on maybe by COVID-19, at this point, the county council is no longer considering any kind of proposal that would allow a dedicated leave for parents who have newborns.
ALBORNOZI'm not aware of anything that anybody has put forward right now, but I know that it's something that many of us are interested in. And we've not been bashful about moving progressive policies forward. And so I would be happy to work with my colleagues on moving something forward. And I really want to acknowledge Councilmember Nancy Navarro as our chair of our Government Operations Committee, who's done an outstanding job in a number of different areas. And I think this could cross over into the committee that I chair, the Health and Human Services Committee. So, it's an important suggestion, and I think we should move it forward, and I'm very open to doing that.
SHERWOODQuick question. What kind of grade would you give Marc Elrich, the county executive, as of right now?
ALBORNOZOverall? You know, I think -- that's a good question, Tom. I would say...
SHERWOODThat's why I ask it.
ALBORNOZI know. I know. Look, I think, you know, an across-the-board grade, I think, it's still to be continued. I have appreciated his efforts when it comes to making sure that we are enacting policies to protect our renters.
SHERWOODOkay. Okay. All right. Let me ask you a question you can answer, since you're not going to answer that one. (laugh)
ALBORNOZ(laugh) All right. All right.
SHERWOODAll right. There are twenty -- I think there are -- you were the recreation director for 12 years.
SHERWOODThere are 21, I think, recreation centers in the county of Montgomery County. They're all closed, as I understand it. Is there any summer program or is there any hope that these vital community centers will ever reopen this year?
NNAMDIWe only have about one minute left, Mr. Councilmember.
ALBORNOZYeah, so I -- thank you. Yes. I've been very proud of the efforts of our Recreation Department, particularly the Youth Development team and the team that works with our senior population. They have been -- in fact, I had a conversation this morning with Director Riley about plans that they have to carry out programming into the fall. The loss of extracurricular activities, including high school sports, is devastating to kids.
ALBORNOZAnd so -- and with the amount of screen time now that we're requiring them to do, it's going to be critically important. And so I'm also working on a bill right now for a special appropriation, along with my colleague Councilmember Craig Rice and others of my colleagues, as well, to do more support in the recreation space, because we need it.
NNAMDIGabe Albornoz is an at-large member of the Montgomery County Council. Thank you so much for joining us.
ALBORNOZThank you, both. It's been an honor.
NNAMDIThat's it for today. Today's Politics Hour was produced by Cydney Grannan. Coming up Monday, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan announced earlier this month that the state will conduct in-person voting for the November elections. We'll discuss voting during a pandemic, and if voting by mail is an effective alternative during this crisis.
NNAMDIPlus, she's a bestselling cookbook author and the host of an Emmy Award-winning talk show. It's Kojo For Kids with Chef Rachael Ray. That all starts Monday, at noon. Until then, you have a great weekend and stay safe. That applies to you too, Tom Sherwood. Any big plans?
SHERWOODBirthday week, and I'm looking at expensive ROMs (sounds like) my son can buy me.
NNAMDII'll try to subscribe to that, too. You all have a great weekend and thank you for listening. Stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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