Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Staff of Life (and the Life of Staff)

When someone gets elected to the County Council, it becomes very clear to them very quickly that there is no way they can effectively represent the needs of their constituents without a lot of help. Remember, in the County Council there are five district councilmembers who represent specific geographic areas in the County and four at-large councilmembers who are elected County-wide. So, district councilmembers represent about 200,000 people and at-large councilmembers represent nearly 1 million people! As you might imagine, that many people have a lot of important issues that need to be addressed, and we could spend all of our time just going to meetings, and returning phone calls. While individual councilmembers may set the tone for how they address issues, or interact with their constituents, the staff that we have in our offices allow us to really get things done.

There are two categories of staff who work at the County Council. There is the permanent council staff, affectionately referred to as the "Fifth Floor," because most of their offices are on the fifth floor of the Council Office Building (COB). This staff covers analysis of specific issue areas for all Councilmembers, handle the Council's administrative activities (i.e. scheduling, preparation of packets for Councilmembers and the public, etc.) and generally make sure the Council operates on a daily basis. The Fifth Floor staff generally outlast the terms of specific Councilmembers and provide the institutional perspective for County policy.

The second category of staff are the staff members who work in individual Councilmember offices. Each Councilmember has an individual office budget and hires administrative and policy staff as they deem appropriate within the constraints of their budget. While staffing varies from office to office, each councilmember generally has 4 - 5 staff members. One position, the oddly named Confidential Aide position, is mandated in the County Charter and basically serves in the capacity as chief of staff for each Councilmember's office. Other positions can include administrative support, policy analysts, constituent case-workers, and communications. Although in most offices the lines between these specific positions is usually blurred and everyone chips in to get the job done depending upon the issue.

Without the support of the Fifth Floor staff, and the staff in each of our individual council offices there is no way that Councilmembers could ever meet the needs of the residents of our County and we are grateful for their assistance and support. While Councilmembers run for office and generally recognize the changes that will occur in their life if they win, our staff can generally be impacted by many of the same changes although they may not recognize it right away. One of the things that our staff works very hard to do is to maintain some semblance of a life away from their efforts on our behalf at the Council and I continue to be amazed at some of their undertakings.

Currently on the Council staff we have a newly published author (Brian Jay Jones on my staff who has just completed a biography of Washington Irving), an entrepreneur who owns and operates a clothing boutique, a budding Texas Hold'em poker player who is not quite ready for the World Series of Poker, but is close, a Park Ranger, the chair of the Commission for Women, students working on various college degrees, a number of political activists at the state and national level, a number of very proud parents and grandparents and many community volunteers and advocates.

The Councilmembers may actually vote and establish the County's laws and policies, but it is our staff who provide the effort to make us successful representing the residents of our County. It is important to remember all of the other folks on the fifth and sixth floor of the COB who often work behind the scenes on behalf of our County and who are all amazingly accomplished in their own right and excel everyday -- without them none of us get very far.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Hit the Ground Running

Our launch last week went well, and I thank you for your positive and constructive comments. Keep on writing! I'm sorry that the county's current template for blogs doesn't yet allow for readers to post comments just below mine -- but if you click on the envelope icon at the bottom of this entry, you'll be able to send an e-mail whizzing directly to my inbox. By all means, e-mail away!

It has been an eye-opening couple of months to be an elected representative. As a public official, I find that there are many hospital visits, memorial services, calling hours, and funerals that I must attend. Each of these events reminds you of the frailty of human life, and the amazing significance that each of us can have in the world.

As most of you know, two of my colleagues had significant accidents that required extended hospitalization and medical care. I am pleased that both Marilyn Praisner and George Leventhal continue to make tremendous improvement and that both will be back with us when the Council reconvenes this week. I am also saddened that our State has lost two legislative leaders during the past two months. Delegate Jane Lawton passed this past November, and many of us have been mourning her loss. And now, just this past weekend, Senator Britt from Prince George's County also passed away. As we begin this New Year, we must remember how important it is for us to do as much as we can with each day and to thank those around us for all they do.

This week the Council goes back into session, and it promises to be an interesting time. We start out our day on Tuesday walking across the street to the County Executive's office where he will provide us with his recommendations for our bi-annual Capital Improvement Plan (CIP). The Council is looking forward to seeing the Executive's priorities, and then beginning the process of public hearings and review. There will be many points of interest, but one worthy of note is that Montgomery County will likely spend approximately $265 million next year for the Montgomery County Public Schools capital budget, while the Maryland General Assembly will likely approve just $300 million in capital funding for schools for the entire state! Just something to keep in mind if you have a chance to interact with your state delegate or senator!

Once we receive the capital budget, the Council will go into session with three big issues. First, we will get an update from our public safety officials and Verizon about why calls weren't getting through to our 911 system one day in December. This is a critically important issue since this happened twice in a three month period; clearly we need to get this resolved quickly and effectively.

Second, we will receive a briefing on the draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) regarding the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission recommendations to close Walter Reed and move most of its activities to Bethesda Naval Hospital. Obviously, this shift will have a huge impact on downtown Bethesda, and Navy isn't recommending sufficient funds for us to provide adequate access to a world-class medical for our nation's veterans.

Finally, the Council will review the County Executive's recommended budget reductions for this current fiscal year. A number of councilmembers have real concerns about the recommended reductions impact on public safety and services for some of our most vulnerable populations. And that's just the morning agenda!

Later in afternoon, the Council will hear two zoning cases, and we will conclude the day with an evening public hearing on development districts -- a resolution to eliminate the development district in Clarksburg and legislation that will refine and strengthen the development district law. It's gonna be a busy first day and week, with some very important issues impacting many of our residents. Stay tuned!

Monday, January 7, 2008

Kicking Off "The Socks"

I’d like to welcome you to my inaugural posting on “Starting with the Socks.” I know the name appears a bit unusual, but it’s really a simple concept. It comes from the great former UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden. Each year at the first practice of basketball season, he would sit down with his entire team – even if they were all seniors who had played for him before – and would teach them the proper way to put on their socks. His thought was this: it would be very difficult for any of his players to play basketball well, or at all, if something happened to their feet, causing blisters or turned ankles. So, one of the simplest ways to avoid this problem was to ensure that his team knew how to do the simple but often overlooked things well, like putting on their socks. If the simple issues were adequately addressed, then the more complex challenges could be tackled.

In government, business, and our personal lives we tend to forget that if we don’t do the simple things well, it‘s virtually impossible to handle the harder tasks. It is my goal through this blog to focus on the basic things that we in government need to address – and first and foremost is our need to communicate. I hope to share some insights with you about what’s going on in government that may be of interest to you, and I want to listen to the perspectives that you may have to share. We live in a great community and I want to make sure that we’re all working together to continue to make it better. And we can do that by getting the simple things right.

The County Council has been in recess since December 14 and will reconvene on January 15. Most people assume that recess equates to vacation – and sure enough, it does give some of us on the council an opportunity to reconnect with our families and friends. However, it is also a time to focus on items that we may not have time to address throughout the year. For example, this past week three councilmembers were volunteering for Presidential candidates in the caucuses in Iowa and the primary in New Hampshire. Three other councilmembers were attending the Maryland Association of Counties (MACO) Winter Meeting in an effort to build better relationships with elected officials in our neighboring jurisdictions, and to better understand the issues that will be coming before the General Assembly when it convenes later this week.

One of the biggest issues that has required our attention is a possible budget shortfall in the coming fiscal year that begins July 1, 2008. According to the assumptions in the County’s current fiscal plan, it appears that we could be facing a shortfall of nearly $400 million, or about 10% of this year’s budget. It is important to remember that the fiscal plan is based on a number of assumptions which can change as the year progresses, but we need to be prudent and prepare ourselves.

As a result, the County Executive has recommended certain budget reductions in our current budget in order to help save some money for next year. Councilmembers have been reviewing the County Executive’s recommendations and we have submitted a series of questions clarifying some of what has been proposed. We will then review, refine, modify and ultimately approve a resolution on these proposed reductions when we return on January 15. While it is important to be prudent, we must also be careful about not damaging programs where we have great need or where significant progress is being made – I am particularly concerned about police, fire and rescue, and some of our programs in health and human services.

We must also be mindful of what is happening in the General Assembly when it convenes on January 9. During the special session of the legislature this past Fall, the Governor was directed to reduce State spending by $550million. The Governor will present his proposed budget—with these reductions—to the General Assembly on January 15. We need to work with our legislators to ensure that Montgomery County isn’t further impacted by significant reductions in funding that we receive from the State.

On a more positive note, difficult fiscal times can really force us to make sure that our programs and services are working as efficiently and effectively as possible. Too often we get caught in the trap of saying that a program is successful because we have provided a lot of funding for it, but we forget to check and see if it is meeting the needs of the people it is serving. This gives us a real opportunity to make sure our programs are really working.
Well, this is probably enough to get us started. I hope that you will take the time to share your perspectives with me, and I'll continue to provide a glimpse into what the County Council is up to, and how we can all make Montgomery County better simply by "starting with the socks."