Montgomery lawmakers delay curfew, approve revised tuition assistance

December 6, 2011

The Montgomery County Council on Tuesday reinstated a controversial tuition-assistance program and snubbed County Executive Isiah Leggett’s push for a youth curfew.

Lawmakers voted 6 to 3 to delay action on the curfew plan, which would make it generally illegal for those younger than 18 to be outside late at night. They also tightened restrictions on the widely criticized tuition program, which led to county and federal investigations last year.

Delaying the vote on the divisive curfew bill allows council members to abandon the Leggett administration’s proposal, introduced last summer after a gang fight in Silver Spring. Council members have said that crime in the county is not dire enough to warrant the measure.

Leggett (D) quickly issued a statement: “The County Council’s refusal to even take a yes or no vote on the proposed youth curfew is a failure of leadership. Leadership means stepping up to the plate and deciding — yes or no — on critical issues that face our County. The youth curfew legislation has been before the County Council since July. It has been discussed exhaustively. We don’t need more talk — we need action.”

Administration officials said they will continue pushing legislators to bring back the bill.

Soon after council member Hans Riemer (D-At Large) motioned to table the measure, colleague Craig Rice (D-Upcounty), a curfew supporter, tried to block the move, saying it wasn’t allowed by parliamentary rules. After a council attorney said the delay was permitted and the council president declined to hear Rice’s additional objections, Rice said the council had committed a “travesty of justice.”

Council members had been concerned about this vote for weeks. At Leggett’s urging, they scheduled the vote for Tuesday, but they had privately expressed doubts, according to council staff and county officials. A few floated the idea of delaying the measure, and by the middle of last week, a majority of council members agreed.

Rice made a last-minute plea Tuesday, urging council members to vote on an amended version of Leggett’s proposal. He offered the revised version as a non-expedited bill, which would have needed five votes. As an expedited bill, Leggett’s proposal needed six.

Before the meeting, Rice’s office was rushing to figure out ways to block the delay. His staff studied Robert’s Rules of Order, which county officials have modified to create their parliamentary rules.

Based on his research, Rice argued that although tabling is mentioned in the county rules, it is never explicitly defined and therefore should retain the definition found in Robert’s. Because of this, he said, Riemer should not have been able to make his motion. In an interview, Robert’s co-author Thomas J. Balch agreed.

But Michael Faden, the council attorney who ruled in favor of Riemer, said after the meeting that the Robert’s definitions apply only to motions not mentioned in the county rules. County attorneys could interpret a different definition for tabling based on context from the rule book, he said, adding that he stands by his decision.

If lawmakers ever revive the bill, they will have to discuss amendments by council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large) and Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), because the council majority is unlikely to approve Leggett’s proposal without changes. Elrich and Floreen wanted to allow Leggett to impose limited curfews at his discretion.

Both amendments have raised constitutional concerns. The Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said Tuesday that the amendments may flout the equal protection clause. Council members said they would consider the concern.

Some council members worry that their colleagues won’t act on the bill until it’s too late. “My worry is that somebody will be hurt if we don’t do something to be proactive,” said council member Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring), a supporter of Floreen’s amendment. “I think there are opportunities for serious situations to arise.”

The council tabled a loitering bill introduced by curfew opponent Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville) as a counterproposal, even though a majority of members oppose it. They also voted unanimously to bring back the tuition assistance program, which they halted in 2009 after determining that some employees used it to take what critics called questionable classes such as “Textiles” and “Life on the Down Low.”

Legislators will receive annual reports on the revised tuition program, and only non-unionized employees will be allowed to participate for now, county officials said. Tuition assistance is subject to collective bargaining.

Launched in the 1970s, the program permitted employees to take classes at cheaper prices. County officials have said the program had overly lenient criteria based on previous county labor agreements. It cost the county about $1 million a year.

What were seen as abuses sparked investigations into whether public funds were used to get equipment for public safety employees at cheap prices during subsidized classes. The county later sued a police officer, alleging that he defrauded it of about $400,000 by providing cheap firearms to police officers who attended his subsidized classes. The lawsuit was dismissed.

The County Council also voted in new leadership Tuesday. Roger Berliner (D-Bethesda-Potomac) will serve as president, and Nancy Navarro (D-Eastern County) will serve as vice president, the first Latina to hold the post.

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