Wednesday, September 21, 2011

MoCo Curfew Review // Plus, Ike Leggett Won't Give Up County SUV, While Agencies Beg for Donations

UPDATE: Check out the website of the over 6,000 high school students organizing against the Montgomery County curfew:

WARNING - This is a very long post that discusses three of County Executive Ike Leggett's recent policy decisions: raising money for government programs from private businesses, driving a taxpayer-funded SUV (with free gas and repairs), and my favorite - Montgomery County's curfew.

MoCo Charity Case? A reader recently contacted Maryland Juice to discuss the fact that Montgomery County is now soliciting voluntary contributions from business leaders to fund government programs that have been recently cut. That sounds like the conservative dream come true (ie: smaller government replaced by voluntary charitable work) so we thought we'd dig around and find out a little more. Maryland Juice received the following email response from Bruce Adams, who leads Montgomery County's community outreach office:
We have set up a Fund for Montgomery at the Community Foundation with an independent advisory board to raise the money needed to fund our major community building events – MLK Day, Community Service Day, World of Montgomery Festival, and a number of smaller ethnic heritage events. The point is to be able to continue these important community building events in the face of budget cuts to priority services. We are moving to the private event sponsorships that many communities went to years ago in order to reduce the burden on taxpayers. The Community Foundation ensures an open and accountable process.
Former Delegate Cheryl Kagan also emailed us an invitation to yesterday's Montgomery Fund kickoff event (you can view it here). The efforts of our dedicated county operators to keep things going, even without money, is commendable. I'm glad to see that our officials are committed to ensuring the show goes on. But stories like this are becoming more frequent in politics (especially since we fear taxes so much). As a result, elected officials today won't dare take a pay raise and many voluntarily give up pay or take furlough days when public employees are similarly affected. Most are inclined to reject anything that seems like a perk in this economy. That's why one Examiner article this week stood out. 

MoCo Steals from DC Controversy Playbook: Have you heard about D.C. Council President Kwame Brown's scandal involving a taxpayer-bought SUV? The Examiner is now trying to launch Montgomery County's version of this story, with the following headline: "Leggett to keep take-home Jeep while MontCo slashes fleet." Granted, the Examiner has a mega-rightwing tone and loves to find excuses to poke at Democratic politicians -- but on this issue, I think they seized on a legitimate PR gaffe.

For months, Montgomery politicians have sought to rein in the personal use of vehicles that the County owns, maintains and refuels at the taxpayers' expense. The issue was flagged by Councilmember Hans Riemer while officials looked for ways to cover budget shortfalls (ie: selling unnecessary vehicles and clamping down on fuel costs). For many politicians these "appearance" issues are more pressing now than normal, as voters see them as signs of waste in a time of austerity. Disclosure: I worked on Mr. Riemer's '06 primary race.

The Gazette today reported on the County's plan to cut 33 of their 269 non-emergency vehicles. But Councilmembers don't think this goes far enough:
“I would like to see more,” said Councilman Hans Riemer (D-At large) of Silver Spring, who initiated the review of take-home vehicles earlier this year....

“We can’t have these cars be a perk,” said Council Vice President Roger Berliner (D-Dist. 1) of Potomac.
But the sexier story is within the Examiner's coverage:
Leggett said he will keep his personal take-home vehicle although data from the council lists the SUV among those eliminated....

"I'm not in the same category [as other Montgomery County officials]," he said. "There's nobody that has ... the same schedule, same demands that I have."
Maryland Juice does not actually care about Mr. Leggett's SUV. This will surely not produce much embarrassment for his administration and his car certainly won't bust (or save) the County from its budget woes. But we wanted to note the danger in this seeming political tone-deafness for Democrats around the nation. From a public relations perspective, surely there are more tactful ways than the statement above to address a politician's free use of a luxury vehicle? One would hope so, especially after advocates and public employees have spent months fighting off budget cuts, and we are now turning to private donors to fund government programs.

Mr. Leggett's point above is likely that his circumstances are technically the same or worse than other government employees who are being allowed to keep their cars. But the Examiner's hit-piece is likely trying to appeal to ordinary, non-technical readers who are wondering when their own free car payments, gas refills and repairs are coming. Also, why did Mr. Leggett's car appear on the Council's list of eliminated vehicles?

MoCo's Annapolis Reputation: I hate line-item gotcha stories as much as the next person, but they are a reality in modern warfare politics. The Gazette noted that Montgomery County spends nearly $5 million a year on unleaded fuel. Most of that is probably used for buses and other service fleets -- but still, Annapolis officials, whose comparatively flimsy pay hasn't been bumped in nearly a decade, might get the wrong impression about Montgomery as they weigh which counties deserve a slice of a shrinking pie. I've previously witnessed this sort of chatter first-hand from operatives outside of Montgomery.

We mentioned the Leggett SUV story to one administration official. He noted that the car wasn't a perk because it wasn't "free" for Mr. Leggett to use. In his view, Mr. Leggett would have to report the value of the vehicle's use as income (ie: the free gas, car repairs, value of car, etc.). But if use of the car is assigned a value that needs to be reported to the IRS, wouldn't that make the car a perk of employment?  (This is a Jeep Grand Cherokee luxury SUV after all, not a fuel-sipping economy car).

A Major PR Problem for Downtown Silver Spring: Okay, I'm done with the SUV story now, because my real article is about a different but related topic. The real theme of today's post is that -- in many ways, the most important job of a County Executive is simply to sell a County. This is done through both policy and public relations, as we noted through the example above. Your audience on any day varies but might include bond rating agencies, potential residents and employers, nervous parents, an angry workforce, or any number of possibilities.  Your mission on most days is simple: make good policy and manage the press.  

Lately, I've been seriously wondering what Mr. Leggett is trying to convey about our County -- and I'm not talking about the "taxpayer waste" that the Examiner loves to cover (ie: Mr. Leggett's new private bathroom, 4-person security detail, and free SUV). The big issues right now are probably the housing market, boosting downtown retail corridors (especially in Silver Spring), leveraging our federal presence, our schools, and our labor relations. In spite of that, Mr. Leggett seems to have launched a Giuliani-style clean-Montgomery campaign by prioritizing these types of aesthetic proposals: youth curfew, bans on panhandling, bans on bluecollar work trucks, deportation of undocumented residents, aggressive enforcement of aesthetic housing code violations, and more. Meanwhile, we have serious problems!

Silver Spring's Crime Reputation: In fact, downtown Silver Spring -- former Executive Doug Duncan's crown jewel -- has worried for years about a reputation for crime that kept retail foot traffic and investment away. That started turning around in recent years, and Silver Spring has been a mini-economic engine for the Eastern part of Montgomery County. Many communities up and down the Georgia Ave and Route 29 corridors have pinned their hopes on the fate of downtown Silver Spring, and the recession has generated new worries from residents and business owners alike. That's why outlier crimes, like a recent stabbing, generate such panic from the community -- and the desire from politicians to act quickly, and perhaps hastily. But amazingly, Mr. Leggett's curfew proposal eclipsed what should've been a wave of positive Silver Spring coverage surrounding the opening of the Fillmore.

Anonymous Councilmembers tell us that the curfew idea was first generated by Mr. Leggett himself -- not the police. This may explain why the curfew appeared out of thin air and surprised members of the County Council's public safety committee. In studying crime stats, they had seen no prior justification for the move. Committee Chair Phil Andrews is vehemently opposed to the curfew, noting that it reflects a lack of data-driven policy.

Our sources also note that the Silver Spring developers are very much in favor of the youth curfew now that it has been presented to them. After all, why should they care if Damascus or Bethesda residents are subjected to a curfew. But nobody was seriously talking about a curfew in MoCo until Mr. Leggett himself raised the issue. Even still, Maryland Juice wonders if the Silver Spring developers have considered some of the points below. Indeed, we believe this situation was seriously fumbled.

A good negotiator of the press will play his or her cards correctly:
When crime is on the rise, an Executive can do no more than appear tough on crime and signal to observers that something is being done -- even though we all know little can be done to move crime rates against the current of statistical trendlines. But that is because, as stated above, the Executive's role, first and foremost, is to sell the County. Just ask Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and DC Mayor Anthony Williams about the importance of combating crime fears for attracting residents, retail visitors and businesses.

But when crime is on the decline, when an isolated crime event occurs, an Executive's job is to calm fears and rally the community. Indeed, urban officials around the nation typically express frustration when crime rates go down and the public still thinks crime is going up. They see their job as to act swiftly but combat misinformation -- in order to keep selling their community to the public. The show must go on. 
A Self-Inflicted PR Problem: Many counties (including Montgomery) spend thousands of dollars on lobbyists, media relations staff, and more to manage their image. But just like America created a self-inflicted crisis with the debt limit, Montgomery County is -- through its own actions and with taxpayer dollars -- promoting a negative and inaccurate image of itself in the media. Lord have mercy.

Keeping Retail Foot Traffic Away: In fact, the images the County is using to sell the curfew seem designed to keep retail foot traffic away, until something is done about "those" unruly (black) teens. Essentially, we've created a solution in need of a problem. So for very little policy benefit, Mr. Leggett's flashy response to an isolated stabbing, has turned a two-day news story into months of negative press about roving youth gangs in Silver Spring and Montgomery County. Don't believe me? Just Google "Montgomery County curfew." Lord have mercy.

Here are the real policy outcomes, as I see them: On both sides of the curfew issue, I've heard about crime victims, students, and police relating all sort of possible curfew scenarios -- and honestly, most of them will never happen. So is this all worth it? The curfew will likely lead to racial profiling (more on that soon), but reported instances will be rare, and in due time most people will forget we even have a curfew. Not much will change in crime stats, because Montgomery police don't really need this as a tool. They already regularly engage in targeted and coercive stop and searches of teens (more on that soon). Even still, don't expect much to change in terms of crime, because curfews still need police to stand there and enforce them -- but the County has refused to pay for more Silver Spring foot patrols.

An anonymous source in the County's public defender's office also said that if the County does engage in aggressive curfew enforcement, it would lead to more youths flooding an already overtaxed juvenile justice system. Folks, these are your kids who will be searched, not just the children visiting from D.C. and Prince George's. Maybe they are not all saints, but do you really want them "in the system" because they had liquor or a joint in their pocket while violating curfew with their friends?

More PR Madness: Coopting the Dead: One argument that is commonly made to show a possible benefit of the curfew is a "thought experiment" argument. These usually involve claims from proponents or officials that with a curfew in place, they can imagine a scenario where they would've caught the perp. Woulda, coulda, shoulda.

These offensive thought experiments are usually about stopping the recent stabbing in downtown Silver Spring or, even worse, the murder of Tai Lam, an area high school student. Notably, Tai Lam's savage death at the hands of an undocumented resident in 2008, was used by some to justify Montgomery County's disappointing decision to participate in a federal deportation program that Democratic Governors in other states are now rejecting. Some are invoking Tai Lam's name again, but this time they are using him to justify the curfew. One of Tai Lam's former classmates is organizing against the curfew and communicated to Maryland Juice that they found this invocation of the dead child to be offensive. A plea to advocates -- please knock it off. The implication of such a tactic is that opponents of supposed "anti-crime" measures are somehow against the dead or crime victims. 

A Dark Ages Policy Apparatus

Ignoring Science: Amazingly, in PhD-rich Montgomery County, we also can't argue against the curfew using research, because the Leggett administration has decided to wave off science. There are numerous studies that show curfews are ineffective, but the Executive has stated he doesn't care and has resorted to the vague tactic of saying, "I can find a study that will say anything." Global warming skeptics, Fox News, and the tobacco industry cheer on this simplistic sort of argumentation, because it allows you to dismiss any type of research, and it conflates all research as being equal. Lord have mercy.

Repeating Unsubstantiated Claims Until They Are Seen as Fact: This is a common Fox News tactic. Leggett administration officials have repeatedly claimed that those involved in a recent Silver Spring stabbing told MoCo police in interviews that they came to the suburbs because of D.C.'s curfew. Does anyone really believe they said that (unprompted)?  An anonymous Councilmember told me that in speaking to elected officials in D.C. and Prince George's, both claimed they didn't actually enforce their curfews. More importantly, the use of fishy, gratuitous and unsubstantiated claims like the police's assertion here reminds me of the child who provides a suspicious amount of detail when lying to an adult. Lord have mercy. Prove me wrong on this one, Chief Manger!

Here is a gentlemen's bet I would like to make with County Executive Leggett: If you can show me proof of even a single criminal that (without coercion) told you he or she came to Montgomery County because of their curfew, I will save the County money by running free classified ads for County SUV's on My hunch is that kids who come to downtown Silver Spring from outside MoCo do so simply because it is the closest hang-out area for them. I would also surmise 99.9999999% of them are peaceful and adding to our local tax base (as long as you can deal with the sight of "them").

The Deterrence Argument: Lastly, curfew proponents argue that it will be a deterrent because potential criminals will stay home. I'm not really going to take this one seriously, but I will say this -- the argument honestly sounds like the delusional view of people who advocate for teen sexual abstinence (ie: let's not give kids condoms because we can convince them to voluntarily not have sex).

Curfew Conclusion: So really, we have two options: either we get a stupid curfew policy that is not enforced, or a draconian policy that will lead to racial profiling and more of our kids in the system. Oh, and don't forget downtown Silver Spring doesn't have alternative rec space for kids at night (ie: skate parks or other activity centers that residents also don't like). Did you know that even soccer fields are now controversial in suburban Montgomery, because they bring Latino leagues? Montgomery County politicians -- whose values are we channeling?

The curfew issue has also proven to be incredibly divisive, exposing racial, geographic, class, and philosophical tensions in the county that we rarely get to publicly explore. It may surprise Maryland Juice readers to discover that the curfew issue has generated some of the most intense feelings I've had about policy in Montgomery. Anonymously, sources within the Leggett administration and in the County Council keep telling me not to worry about the curfew, because it won't actually do anything. I know that. But that's precisely why I can't stop worrying about the curfew.

If the curfew isn't real policy (and it is not) -- what it really does is signal to me a decided shift in who Montgomery County wants to be and whose perspective it governs through. If you look deep down at your own feelings about the curfew, I think you may agree.

The same feeling appears to be true for Just Up the Pike blogger Dan Reed, who has issued numerous screeds against the curfew. My employer Demand Progress (which is run by Walt Whitman high school alums), has also been quietly fighting the curfew. Both Dan and I grew up in Montgomery County, both of us are people of color, and both of us still care deeply about how our County evolves. He grew up in Silver Spring, I grew up in Bethesda. 

But the storm of negative press over the summer should've sent a warning signal -- the ACLU and the Fraternal Order of Police oppose the bill. Folks, that rarely happens in policy. Instead, Mr. Leggett dug in his heels and lobbied through the summer. A vote won't happen until November they now report, so get ready for months of more controversy and bad press -- unless the County Council kills this ridiculous bill quickly. In the meantime, Maryland Juice will soon release a deeper analysis of racial profiling in Montgomery County. I guess this is is the type of attention Chief Manger wanted!

Many around the state would envy Montgomery's position: declining crime, one of the better housing and employment markets in the nation, and the continuing backstop of a large federal presence. Listen, we're in a recession, so our standards are currently lower, but I wouldn't want to live anywhere else in America right now -- would you? Apparently our County disagrees and wants everyone to know.


  1. As a Damascus resident, I think it's fair to say there is a de facto curfew here since there is only one cool place* to hang out and nowhere to buy/consume alcohol within 5 miles.

    *I totally encourage everyone to come up to Jimmie Cone before it closes for winter.

  2. Amit,

    When does Jimmie Cone close? It may be the first day of fall, but summer doesn't end until I've gone to Damascus for a swirl cone with jimmies.

    Also, awesome effing post, David. I hope people heed these words, because Leggett's dragged the reputation of Silver Spring through the mud at a time when we want to encourage people to come here.

  3. "We are moving to the private event sponsorships that many communities went to years ago in order to reduce the burden on taxpayers. The Community Foundation ensures an open and accountable process."

    So what kind of public disclosure and accountability exist for this "Community Foundation"?

    Where can we see who is donating and how much?

  4. Dan - Believe you meant a twist not a swirl :)

    I remember it usually being open until late-October. Only open until 10pm during the week now that school's back.