Trachtenberg, Berliner duke it out in first District 1 County Council debate

Wednesday evening’s biblical rains didn’t keep a standing room only crowd from packing Town of Chevy Chase Town Hall for the widely anticipated first debate between allies turned antagonists: District 1 Montgomery County Council member Roger Berliner and former at-large member Duchy Trachtenberg.

What the audience heard was agreement across a range of substantial issues between two veteran downcounty Democrats (mass transit, smart growth, spending) punctuated by some factually wobbly claims from Trachtenberg.

Trachtenberg has reconciled with county employee unions that worked to unseat her in 2010, in part by promising to help restore “effects bargaining.” This was a provision of county labor law — unique to the police — that required department leadership to negotiate issues that go beyond wages, benefits and working conditions, down to — commanders allege — a requirement that officers on duty check their e-mail. The council rolled it back in 2011, and voters approved the decision in a 2012 ballot proposition.

Trachtenberg said the repeal of effects bargaining “has had a negative impact on the morale of the police force” evidenced, she said, by an increase in aggravated assault and robbery in Bethesda in 2012.

Crimes against persons did increase in 2012 — 57 combined street and commercial robberies compared to 42 in 2011 — Bethesda District Police Commander Capt. David Falcinelli told Bethesda Now. But Falcinelli also reported significant drops in residential burglaries and auto theft. Following a nationwide trend, crime is generally down in the county since 2006, although reported rapes and commercial robberies were up in 2013 from 2012.

What all of this had to do with police morale, Trachtenberg never made clear.

Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) said it was the responsible decision.

“When the police chief says to us, ‘This makes it harder for us to provide public safety to our community,’ I listen,” he said.

Trachtenberg’s principal theme was her depiction of Berliner as unreliable and uncivil in his dealings. She said Berliner told a police union member to “go jump in the lake” — or words to that effect — during a discussion of his support for tightening rules on police disability retirements.

“I don’t operate that way,” Berliner said.

After the debate, Trachtenberg produced an April 28 e-mail from Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 35 member Torrie Cooke charging that Berliner went back on his word in agreeing to bring a police counterproposal to the council for a vote.

Cooke also said Berliner “told a member of Lodge 35 to ‘go F--- yourself.’”

Berliner confirmed the profanity, but said it came at the end of a heated conversation on the disability question.

“Did you hear what they said to me? It was something worthy of the response,” Berliner said, not elaborating.

Trachtenberg also effectively called Berliner a hypocrite for accepting campaign contributions from PEPCO, while establishing himself as the council’s foremost critic of the utility’s service lapses and its proposals to state regulators for rate increases. (The company announced Wednesday it would be sold to Chicago-based Axelon).

“You’ve publicly joked that PEPCO is your personal ATM,” Trachtenberg said. “How do you separate that from being a watchdog?”

Berliner denied the ATM comment but confirmed that PEPCO has contributed to his campaigns (precise amounts couldn’t be determined Wednesday night or Thursday morning).

“If PEPCO wants to give me money I will take their money, and you can judge whether it’s influenced our actions against PEPCO,” said Berliner, who has floated the idea of a publicly owned power company for the county.

“If they want to invest in me,” he said of PEPCO, “God bless them.”

After the debate, Trachtenberg said the ATM comment came in “private discussions” she witnessed in council offices during her term (2006-10). Asked who could corroborate the claim, Trachtenberg said at least two other council members heard the comment.

“I’ll ask. I’ll get back to you,” she said.

Berliner said he has described PEPCO privately from a purely political standpoint as “the gift that keeps on giving,” or a fat target, because of its poor service.

He called Trachtenberg’s comments “rumor mongering and hearsay.”

Trachtenberg also sought to deflect suggestions that she was “a poster girl for development.” A group of prominent members of the development community have supported her this year, in part because of their unhappiness with Berliner’s role in the council’s vote to sharply restrict new construction in the Ten Mile Creek watershed.

Her supporters distributed a list of contributions, based on Maryland campaign finance records, purportedly showing what she and Berliner have collected from that sector.

The list reaches back to 2006 to show Berliner receiving $42,025. Trachtenberg, who has said she didn’t take developer money in her 2006 campaign, reported $8,350 going back to 2009.

Asked what her next donor report, due later this month, is likely to show, Trachtenberg said it will still reflect heavier development support for Berliner.

Toward the end, in a move away from politics, moderator Charles Duffy asked them to reflect on some event that had shaped them personally.

Trachtenberg described her adult son’s mental illness and how she converted her pain into political activism. Berliner spoke of losing a son to sudden infant death syndrome and the decade he spent misdiagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

“These are things that stay with you forever,” 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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