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Elrich promises change, ‘more just society,’ as he becomes Montgomery executive

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) is given the oath of office by Barbara Meiklejohn, clerk of the county circuit court, on Monday at the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
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Five minutes into his term, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich admitted to being a little nervous.

But the longtime legislator pressed on, using his inaugural speech before a packed audience at the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda on Monday to outline an expansive — and expensive — to-do list.

Elrich, 69, sounded many of the same notes as he did during his campaign, leading with his promise to expand early-childhood education in Maryland’s most populous jurisdiction, where mostly wealthy suburban communities increasingly include deep pockets of poverty.

“I believe we have a moral obligation to create a more just society now,” Elrich said after thanking his predecessor, Isiah Leggett (D), for his work during his 12 years as county executive. “I’m going to do everything I can with my administration to move that needle.”

Elrich, a former 12-year County Council member, promised to have a close relationship with the all-Democratic, nine-person council, which now includes four new members. Andrew Friedson (District 1) and at-large members Gabe Albornoz, Evan Glass and Will Jawando were sworn in Monday, along with incumbents Hans Riemer (At Large), Craig Rice (District 2), Sidney Katz (District 3), Nancy Navarro (District 4) and Tom Hucker (District 5).

Elrich acknowledged that his goals, which also include reducing greenhouse gas emissions at the local level and building the rapid-transit bus system he proposed a decade ago, were “ambitious” and “have price tags attached to them.” He said he would work with county employees to search for savings.

“We’re not going to be raising taxes this year,” Elrich said. The time-frame caveat, potentially leaving open the possibility of tax increases in future years, prompted Riemer and Navarro to exchange glances.

“It was a surprise,” said Navarro, who is expected to be elected council president Tuesday. “I don’t believe that our constituents have the ability, nor do I think it’s necessary, to be entertaining tax increases at this moment.”

Elrich said later he simply was trying to reassure people he wasn’t planning on raising taxes this year.

“I’m not planning on next year, either,” he said. “For four whole years, that would be hard — but I’m not assuming you have to.”

Riemer, the outgoing council president who is expected to chair the council’s influential Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee, gave his own remarks after the council was sworn in, emphasizing the need to create more housing and increase economic development.

“I’m going to continue on the path that I’ve been on and we’re not going to shrink back from economic development or housing or transportation or infrastructure,” Riemer said.

Elrich, a former schoolteacher and Takoma Park City Council member, is embarking on his first executive role. In his own words, he’s “never had to run anything and make decisions.”

Unlike most elected Democrats in the deep-blue Washington suburbs, he faced a vigorous challenge from a former Democrat in the general election, which left him little time to plan for a future beyond Election Day. That caused him to have a moment of panic the day after he was elected.

“When I woke up . . . my first thought was: ‘Jesus Christ, I’ve got to find an entire government by December 3,’ ” he said in an interview last week.

Leggett’s ‘soft approach’ boosted Montgomery — for the most part

He has picked people for several key positions. State Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery), who ran for governor this year, will be Elrich’s budget director. Robin Riley will head the recreation department, where she serves as a division chief. Elrich announced he is keeping eight department heads from the Leggett administration — police, fire and corrections, as well as the heads of transportation, finance, liquor control, consumer protection and intergovernmental relations — and intends to keep all regional service center directors.

Who will fill other posts has yet to be decided, and Elrich said he plans to conduct national searches for “a bunch of positions.”

“I think we’ll find good candidates,” he said. “I think it’s a great county — a lot of people would like to work here.”

Elrich, who was heavily endorsed by unions, said he made his appointments without consulting anyone — including Gino Renne, the head of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1994 Municipal County Government Employees Organization, which represents county service employees.

The union, which backed Elrich in both the primary and general elections, had asked candidates whether they would allow union leaders to provide input on potential hires. Elrich said he is open to that feedback for other appointments.

“I think it’s good to give people who are affected by appointees [a chance] to at least give me their reflections, tell me if I’m missing anything,” Elrich said. “No one’s sitting on my shoulder.”

Marc Elrich has a huge mandate. But there are still rifts to repair.

For chief administrative officer, Elrich chose Andrew Kleine, a Silver Spring resident who brought “outcome budgeting” to Baltimore as that city’s budget director — a method that focuses on spending money to achieve policy goals, rather than incrementally increasing department funding.

He described Kleine as “more fiscally conservative than I might be,” and said that he wants people around him who will challenge his beliefs.

“I’m not sure that I’m not fiscally conservative,” Elrich said. “But I haven’t had to operate at this level.”

He’s already launched some of Kleine’s ideas; Elrich’s transition team, composed of more than 190 people from throughout the county, was tasked with assessing different “priority outcomes” — a growing economy, easier commutes, safer neighborhoods.

Marilyn Balcombe, president of the Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber of Commerce, sat on the “growing economy” team. Balcombe, who came close to winning one of the Democratic nominations for an at-large council seat in June, said she hasn’t always agreed with Elrich — but was happy to be on the team, along with a few other business executives.

“The thing about Marc is he’s a smart guy, and he does his homework,” Balcombe said. “He doesn’t make decisions without doing the work.”

Elrich, a self-described activist and community organizer, has held multiple listening sessions throughout the county — much like Leggett’s town halls during his own transition in 2006.

At Elrich’s first one, on a Saturday afternoon at Kingsview Middle School in Germantown, a packed audience queried him on everything from sweeping matters — when will society stop burning coal for electricity? — to smaller concerns: Could he see about re-striping the Germantown library’s parking lot?

Citing concerns about climate change, he told the audience that as county executive, he wouldn’t “be driving around in whatever that is right now” (on official business, Leggett used a Chevrolet Suburban). Instead, he wants to use an electric car, like his personal vehicle, a Nissan Leaf.

He’s also toying with the idea of asking a musician friend to provide weekly lunchtime guitar lessons in the county executive’s office.

During a listening session in East County — an area that has long felt bypassed by opportunities and resources — tenants raised concerns about black mold and the feeling they were ignored by the county. Elrich called hearing those complaints “embarrassing and humiliating.”

He has accepted the resignation of Housing Director Clarence Snuggs and plans to sit down with housing department officials Tuesday to emphasize his expectation for an “aggressive regime of inspections.”

Montgomery still waiting for list of ‘problem’ apartments

Elrich said he also plans to work on closing the Dickerson incinerator, but that leaves the problem of where to dispose of Montgomery County’s trash. He objects to sending it to landfills: “I don’t want to bury it in some poor person’s neighborhood in Virginia,” he said.

He’s awaiting the outcome of a benchmarking exercise that he has asked Katz to do, comparing Montgomery to other jurisdictions, such as Frederick and Northern Virginia, to determine whether the county’s reputation for being business-unfriendly is deserved.

In his speech, Elrich noted that he’s heard from people that “we have the worst business climate in the world, maybe the planet, possibly the universe.”

He said he hoped to be on the way to fixing that problem by the end of his first year in office.

“I’d be happy if somebody said you’re not the worst place — you’re just like everybody else,” he said.

Read more:

The ‘soft approach’ of Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett

Leaving together: Baker, Leggett celebrate long friendship as they leave office

Kathleen Matthews ousted as state party chair for Maryland Democrats