May 26, 2014

IN MONTGOMERY County, memories are fading too quickly of the past decade’s exuberant spending spree and the ruinous effects it had on public finances and political harmony when the recession hit.

Having showered dollars on every agency, service and special interest for the better part of a decade, county officials suddenly found themselves retrenching once the money dried up . Now that things are looking up again, some politicians have vowed never to repeat the past, others are flirting with renewed profligacy, and a few first-time candidates for the County Council behave as though they have never heard of a recession — and as though a similar setback could never befall the county again.

That is why this year’s elections for the nine-member council are critical.

Montgomery — the richest and most populous locality in Maryland and among the most diverse — needs leaders with the sobriety and common sense not to fall again into the trap of extravagance. At the same time, the county needs to step up its game to compete for employers and good jobs, lest Fairfax County continue to best it in economic development year after year.

County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) understands that; he ably navigated the recession and has done what he could to detoxify residual hard feelings between the county and its public-employee unions. He needs help from the council.

In the at-large races for council, four Democratic incumbents seek renomination in the June 24 primary, which, in a heavily Democratic county, is tantamount to a general election. All four are better bets than their challengers.

Nancy Floreen, seeking a fourth term, was one of the first members to shine a spotlight on the county’s abysmal record of attracting and keeping top-notch employers, and she has been a leading voice on doing something about it. A former land-use lawyer, Ms. Floreen has pushed for biotech and other good jobs by helping formulate land and transportation infrastructure to support them between Rockville and Gaithersburg and around White Flint. She deserves reelection.

George L. Leventhal, also seeking a fourth term, is a smart, substantive and effective advocate for the homeless and for community health centers that have helped thousands of uninsured residents. His efforts to rein in spending cost him the support of unions — and helped restore some balance to county finances. Mr. Leventhal’s somewhat officious style can rub colleagues and constituents the wrong way, but there is no question about his preparedness or passion.

Like Mr. Leventhal, Marc Elrich, a two-term council member and former teacher, had the courage to break with his union allies when it made sense to further good governance. As the council’s leading in-house skeptic on development and the author of the county’s first minimum-wage bill, Mr. Elrich is anathema to many in the business community; however, he has also been the chief driver behind an ambitious plan to develop a network of dedicated lanes for fast buses, which would make Montgomery more livable for residents — and more attractive to employers.

Despite a sharp learning curve in his first term, Hans Riemer took the lead on measures to restore a key anti-poverty program and modernize the county’s approach to open government and online disclosure. He also stood firm in the face of bullying from unions, which threatened to unseat him for daring to help get spending under control at the height of the downturn. That was a trial by fire for Mr. Riemer, and he passed.

Of the two challengers for at-large seats, just one, political newcomer Beth Daly, has mounted a viable campaign; unfortunately, her message for the county is dead wrong. She is justifiably concerned about crowded schools in some areas, but her proposed cure — slowing the county’s already anemic rate of growth — is misguided. Without jobs and economic dynamism, the county will not have the resources it needs to tackle school modernization or traffic.

Three of the five district primary races are competitive; Nancy Navarro in District 4 is unopposed, while in District 2, Craig Rice, the current council president and an excellent first-termer, faces only nominal opposition from Neda Bolourian, a political novice.

In District 1, Roger Berliner, who is seeking a third term, is vastly superior to Duchy Trachtenberg. Mr. Berliner, an environmental lawyer, is respected on the council for his command of environmental issues and superb constituent service. By contrast, Ms. Trachtenberg, who lost her at-large seat in the election four years ago, was widely regarded as disorganized, unfocused, polarizing and inattentive to constituents.

The open-seat race in District 3, which Phil Andrews is giving up after 16 years to run for county executive, is wide open. The strongest of the four candidates is Tom Moore, a smart and savvy lawyer and Rockville city councilman who would be a champion for open government and affordable housing.

His two main rivals are Sidney A. Katz and Ryan Spiegel, both elected officials in Gaithersburg. Mr. Katz is a decent, principled and well-liked businessman who has served as mayor for 16 years, and as a councilman for many years before that. He would be an able councilman, though perhaps less energetic and proactive than Mr. Moore. Mr. Spiegel, a likable lawyer, has served seven years on the Gaithersburg City Council, most notably as the author of a financial literacy program for indigent residents. However, he is prominent among those candidates who seem not to have absorbed lessons about the perils of overgenerous spending.

In the open-seat race in District 5, five Democrats are seeking to replace two-term council member Valerie Ervin, who resigned. The best is Evan Glass, a communications consultant and former CNN producer who has been a community activist in Silver Spring. Mr. Glass, who would be the council’s first openly gay member, is pragmatic and deeply committed to the community, where he’s been an effective advocate for affordable housing. He’s the sort of independent-minded candidate who could make an important mark on the council and help rebrand Montgomery as a more welcoming place for employers.

His main rivals are Del. Tom Hucker and Christopher Barclay, a school board member, both of whom are in thrall to the unions and would set the county back on a path toward profligate spending. Mr. Barclay, in particular, is exactly what Montgomery does not need. He pays lip service to the county’s need to attract good employers and jobs but then says he would oppose new development around Purple Line stations, many of which would be ideal magnets for good employers and jobs. In addition, Mr. Barclay has been dogged by a scandal involving his use of a county-issued credit card for personal expenses.