The official who won environmental accolades for Prince George’s County has set his sights on the county’s neighbor and sometimes rival, drawn by the progressive vision of new Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D).
Adam Ortiz, who has led the Prince George’s County Department of the Environment since 2012, helped catapult the county to the top of state rankings for recycling and waste diversion. He oversaw the development of one of the largest municipal composting facilities on the East Coast, created a partnership with minority businesses to address storm water runoff and built an online tool to track litter.
“We achieved the things we set out to do,” Ortiz, who lives in Hyattsville, said in an interview. “It’s time to grow.”
Former county executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), who hired Ortiz, said that for decades, “the county was not seen as one that was environmentally progressive — a lot of majority African American communities aren’t.”
“Now, we are leading in areas where no one ever thought we would play a role.”
Ortiz said he has mixed feelings about leaving Prince George’s but is excited by Elrich’s ambitious environmental agenda, which includes drastically reducing waste and greenhouse gas emissions in the county of 1 million people.
Elrich, who upon taking office added an electric car to the county executive’s fleet, said he chose Ortiz to head the Department of Environmental Protection because of the innovative work he had done dating to his time as the mayor of Edmonston, a Prince George’s town of about 1,500. His nomination will be considered by the Montgomery County Council, probably in coming weeks.
“I feel lucky to bring him over here,” Elrich said.
Ortiz was paid $154,000 in Prince George’s and would make about $190,000 in Montgomery. His predecessor in Montgomery, Lisa Feldt, left in November 2017, citing personal reasons. Patrice Bubar, her deputy, has served as the acting director since then.
Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D), who took office when Elrich did, had asked Ortiz to stay on. Her spokesman, John Erzen, said Alsobrooks appreciates the work Ortiz did and wants the county to continue to be a leader on the environment. Ortiz’s former deputy, Joe Gill, is acting director of the department.
One of the largest issues the next department head in Prince George’s will have to address is trash pickup. Under Baker and Ortiz, Prince George’s moved from twice-weekly trash collection to once-a-week pickup to save money, reduce emissions and encourage more people to recycle rather than throw things in the trash.
The change prompted an outcry from some residents, who said they were blindsided by the decision, and Alsobrooks promised on the campaign trail to bring back twice-a-week pickup. She said last week that she intends to keep the pledge, although she is still working out the details.
Ortiz, who strongly opposes twice-weekly pickup, said he and his team attended more than 120 community meetings on the subject to inform residents of the benefits of once-a-week trash service and explain how it would work.
He said the prospect of returning to twice-weekly pickup was “a concern” but not one of the primary reasons for his departure.
In Edmonston, Ortiz launched a “green street” project in 2007 that used trees, rain gardens and permeable concrete to reduce flooding on the main street. The effort was one of the reasons Baker tapped Ortiz to lead his newly created Department of the Environment. Now 44, he was one of the county’s youngest agency heads when he took the job.
Shortly after he started, the county entered into a consent decree from the federal government and was fined $175,000 for failing to meet deadlines on a federally mandated project to clean up the Potomac and Anacostia rivers.
Ortiz, who initially headed Baker’s CountyStat program, said he used data and community outreach to move quickly to meet his goals, including reducing the amount of impervious surfaces in the county. Impervious surfaces, which often include roads, sidewalks and parking lots, repel water and increase storm water runoff.
Across the region, churches have been particularly hit hard by fees to help pay for storm water mediation projects. Ortiz met with Prince George’s church leaders and negotiated a deal that reduced their fees if the churches would adopt programs to curb runoff.
He headed the creation of a public-private partnership to retrofit 2,000 acres of impervious surface in Prince George’s with green infrastructure, which includes mentoring to help small, minority businesses successfully bid for storm water management projects.
“They did it in a way that was profoundly quiet . . . but I can’t think of a stronger example in the country for how to address this issue,” said Timothy Male, a Montgomery resident who is executive director of the Washington-based Environmental Policy Innovation Center.
Montgomery activists say the county’s progress on the environment has slowed in recent years, which they hope Elrich and Ortiz will address.
Montgomery, which is Maryland’s most populous jurisdiction and one of its wealthiest, is the only county in the state that is subject to the consent decree for failing to reach the storm water reduction deadlines set by the federal government, Male said.
Former Montgomery county executive Isiah Leggett (D) did not return requests for comment.
Prince George’s, which ranked 11th in the state on waste diversion rates when Ortiz took office, beat out Montgomery for the top spot for three years beginning in 2014. In 2017, the most recent year for which data is available, Montgomery edged narrowly ahead of Prince George’s.
Baker said he used to poke fun at Leggett, his longtime friend and mentor, as his jurisdiction made bold strides on protecting the environment.
“We were pushing the edge, and they were just standing there,” Baker said. “That was through Adam’s leadership.”
Jennifer Barrios contributed to this report.