In Montgomery Council budget hearings, even body language comes under scrutiny

Montgomery County council member George Leventhal (D-At-Large) took exception to the “body language” of Management and Budget Director Jennifer Hughes at a recent budget hearing.
May 19, 2014

Late in every Montgomery County Council budget season comes a moment when pent up frustrations breach the surface and words start to fly. Add a June 24 Democratic primary to the mix, and some council members can become slightly unhinged.

Such a moment came at a May 6 hearing when council member George Leventhal (D-At-Large), who is running for another term, took exception to the “body language” of Management and Budget Director Jennifer Hughes.

“Ms. Hughes, you are conveying through your body language and facial expressions that you feel put upon,” Leventhal said, according to a video of the session available in the council’s archive (Tune in at the 2:51:30 mark).

There are only brief cutaways to the witness table, so it’s not possible to see exactly what Leventhal was talking about. In an interview Monday, he said: “She was mugging, she was making exaggerated expressions of impatience and disagreement...rolling her eyes and arching her head back.”

Hughes denied making any inappropriate gestures or expressions, but beyond that declined to comment.

This all started during a budget discussion with Department of Technology Services (DTS) officials, who disclosed that county servers are still supported by Microsoft 2003. The company stopped servicing that software in 2011, officials said, service that included updates to security. (2:12:26)

Council members expressed astonishment at the news, which is particularly embarrassing given that Montgomery aspires to become a hub for civil cybersecurity research, in partnership with the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

DTS officials apparently kept quiet about the whole thing until this spring, when two outages affected the mobile communications of about 11,000 county employees. Council member Nancy Navarro (D-Midcounty) chair of the government operations committee and also up for reelection, recounted a letter she sent to DTS chief information officer Sonny Segal that the security risk “calls into question the judgment of DTS leadership.”

But what really ticked off council members was that the technical issues had thrown their Microsoft Outlook calendars out of sync with their mobile devices. Schedules that were supposed to automatically update did not. Members complained that they were late for meetings or missed appointments altogether.

“This is not a matter of personal convenience. It’s a matter of Montgomery County business,” said Council President Craig Rice (D-Upcounty), another one of the candidates in the June primary.

“I am totally dependent on my calendar to tell me where I have to be and when. Without it, I am totally lost,” said council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), who is running as well.

To underscore the desperate nature of his situation, he added: “I am now having my staff print out and fax me my calendar!”

Segal’s explanation seemed to boil down to this: the department didn’t have the fix cost of $4 million , and was reluctant to ask for the money. Officials eventually managed to scrounge up $1 million to help convert to a cloud-based system. But they decided to focus on sending out the 2014 property tax bills first.

In eight to 10 weeks, Segal said, everything would begin to “migrate to the cloud.”

For council members, this was not the right answer.

“I know that for the county executive and the nine of us, there is no time more crucial than the next eight to 10 weeks,” said Leventhal.

At that point Hughes, tired of watching Segal getting hammered, intervened (2:47:32). She said that county staff had made a judgement call to give the tax bills priority.

“ I don't think you would have wanted to see the risk of . . .

Rice broke in to admonish Hughes: “I’ d ask that you not assume what this council would have done. . .

“Well, okay. Let me rephrase it,” Hughes said. “The CAO [chief administrative officer Tim Firestine] did not want to put at risk the tax assessment system in order to ensure that the tax bills went out correctly and on time. . .

Leventhal said he’d raised the calendar problem privately a month ago. “I did not want to bring this up in public session,” he said, wanting to avoid what he called “this long, drawn-out expression of intense frustration and disappointment.”

Then he turned to the subject of Hughes’ body language (2:51:47), which was followed by this exchange with Hughes and Segal:

Leventhal: “Is it correct that we are operating on a 2003 platform? Are we using Microsoft Office 2003? Yes or no?”

Hughes: “If I can. . .

Leventhal [tone rising] “Yes or no?”

Hughes: “If I can first..”

Leventhal: Could I ask my question Ms. Hughes? I have the floor Ms. Hughes! I have the floor! Are we operating on Microsoft 2003? Yes or no?”

Segal: “Yes”

Leventhal: “Thank you. What year is this? What year is it? What year is it?”

Segal: “2014.”

Leventhal: “Thank you. Now, Ms. Hughes, was there something you wanted to say?”

Hughes [tremors of anger in her voice] “Yes, actually there was. I don’t think you should make assumptions about what I mean with my body language. I find it insulting and unnecessary.”

Leventhal: “Thank you. Okay. That’s great.”

At which point Rice said it was time to move on.

Leventhal conceded Monday that he comes off as having a short fuse. “I know I have a reputation for being aggressive or lacking people skills,” he said. But he added that had not intended for the exchange to become a personal confrontation with Hughes.

“I just wish we had mobile devices,” he said.

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.
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