The Montgomery County Council lit into County Executive Marc Elrich and Chief Administrative Officer Rich Madaleno in a draft letter demanding more transparency and better communication.

The council is upset about the administration’s handling of hazard pay for employees who worked during the COVID-19 pandemic — particularly millions of dollars the county still owes workers.

“This issue raises serious doubts and concerns with Executive Branch processes and protocols. Most concerningly, it continues an egregious pattern of errors, mistakes, poor judgement, violations of law, and/or mismanagement of resources by this administration,” the council draft letter, obtained by Bethesda Beat, says.

Elrich, in an interview Monday night, called the council draft letter “a bunch of garbage.”

He said he had been working with County Council President Tom Hucker and Council Vice President Gabe Albornoz roughly a year ago to deal with some of the issues involving the union employees and hazard pay.

He said the County Council could have intervened multiple times before a settlement had to be negotiated for 83 public safety managers in the county’s police department, Fire & Rescue Service, and Sheriff’s Office.

Madaleno, in an interview on Monday, also criticized the council draft letter, calling it “misinformation.”

He said council members repeatedly approved multiple appropriations last year and that Elrich was being “aggressive to try and maximize federal dollars on the behalf of the residents of Montgomery County,” trying to recoup money spent on hazard pay through Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursements. 

A draft of the council letter calls on the administration to be more transparent about how it requested reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for COVID-19 hazard payments. It is critical of how the administration came to a legal settlement with the 83 public safety managers in the county’s police department, Fire & Rescue Service, and Sheriff’s Office.

The council pressed Elrich to come to its meetings instead of sending a representative.

As of Wednesday morning, the council draft letter had not been finalized.

Last week, the County Council heard from the council staff, Madaleno and County Attorney Marc Hansen about a proposed supplemental budget appropriation of roughly $1.5 million to settle grievances of the 83 public safety employees concerning COVID-19 hazard payments. 

The employees said they were left out of an earlier agreement with other employees concerning hazard, or differential pay. That pay is awarded because of the extra risk some employees faced while working during the pandemic, particularly if they worked directly with the public.

Of the roughly $1.5 million, about $626,000 would go to county police employees, $602,000 would go to county Fire & Rescue Service employees and $224,000 would go to county Sheriff’s Office employees.

Part of last week’s discussions, and the council draft letter, cited another letter Elrich sent to FEMA on July 2, 2020, about reimbursements for hazard pay.

On Monday, Madaleno said the FEMA letter did not affect the issue of settlement money with the 83 employees, as county officials had already entered memorandums of understanding with the unions. 

Last week, County Council members were also critical that Hansen’s office had not approved the FEMA letter.

In response, Madaleno said Monday that county officials were dealing with an unprecedented situation in 2020. 

“I have looked through every manual on the second floor [of the executive office building] and there’s not one page that says what the process is on how to review a letter when we are in the middle of a global pandemic,” Madaleno said. 

Elrich said he was trying to save taxpayers money by seeking reimbursements from FEMA. All the information in it had already been settled between county officials and union leaders, he added.

“I don’t know why the council wouldn’t want me to write that letter, I don’t know why Montgomery County residents wouldn’t want me to write that letter,” Elrich said. “It would be foolish not to.”

The council draft letter also stated that Elrich’s office violated county law by failing to send legislation concerning associated collective bargaining agreements and failing to publish them online.

It made several demands of Elrich’s administration by Dec. 10, including explaining what the county’s approval process is for letters like the one sent to FEMA last year, and notifying the council “whenever any litigation, grievance, or unfair labor practice is filed against the County that may have a potential significant fiscal or policy impact.”

Madaleno said Monday that the latter request would create legal problems, especially as county officials deal with confidential information with its employees.

“They need to sit back and recognize that the legislative branch is not the executive branch. … They’re asking for things we are not allowed to comply with under state law,” he said.

County Council Member Andrew Friedson, who has been critical of the Elrich’s administration on FEMA reimbursement issues, deferred comment to County Council President Tom Hucker on the council’s draft letter. 

Hucker, in text messages and in a phone call, said he did not want to comment until the council draft letter was finalized and sent to Elrich’s office. 

A public hearing on the roughly $1.5 million in proposed settlements is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Tuesday during the County Council’s meeting. A final vote is tentatively set for the council’s meeting Dec. 14.

***

Here is the full text of the draft council letter obtained by Bethesda Beat. The letter has not been finalized and sent to County Executive Marc Elrich’s office.

TO: Marc Elrich, County Executive Richard Madaleno, Chief Administrative Officer

FROM: Montgomery County Council

DATE: December 3, 2021

SUBJECT: Revised Supplemental Appropriation to the Montgomery County FY22 Operating Budget Merit System Protection Board Grievances

We are extremely disappointed to have been informed on September 21, 2021 of a letter sent by the County Executive on July 2, 2020 to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), in which several statements directly contradicted the position of the Executive Branch, the County Council, and the County Attorney related to the COVID-19 pandemic and the “emergency pay” provision in the County’s collective bargaining agreements. Not only did this letter put the County in a legally indefensible position related to employee grievances, but we were shocked to learn that a letter carrying such significant legal and fiscal consequences was not reviewed for approval by the Office of the County Attorney (OCA) prior to its distribution (and that OCA only recently learned of the letter when researching the grievances that were filed).

This issue raises serious doubts and concerns with Executive Branch processes and protocols. Most concerningly, it continues an egregious pattern of errors, mistakes, poor judgement, violations of law, and/or mismanagement of resources by this administration. These include:

  1. Negotiating agreements for COVID differential pay that had no set end date and were never sent to the Council for approval, resulting in over $89,000,000 in unplanned and unbudgeted expenditures.
  2. Erroneously assuming, and stubbornly insisting during public sessions, despite guidance to the contrary, that FEMA would reimburse the County for most if not all the $89,000,000 COVID pay differential, creating a catastrophic fiscal hole that needed to be covered with funds that otherwise would have gone to direct assistance to residents in the greatest need.
  3. Failing to submit a COVID stipend agreement reached with MCVFRA to the Council for approval, and subsequently spending $789,677 without a Council appropriation in violation of the County Charter.
  4. Failure to send the Council associated legislation with the collective bargaining agreements when required by law.
  5. Failure to publish collective bargaining agreements online as required by law and failure to address issues regarding newly negotiated side agreements.

We must take action to identify the problems, mitigate the damage done, and ensure that this disturbing pattern comes to a definitive end. As a result, the Council is requesting the following information and actions:

  1. We require that in the future both the County Executive and the Chief Administrative Officer appear before the Montgomery County Council for review of these issues.
  2. Provide all emails, memoranda, and/or other documents related to or discussing the July 2, 2020 letter that the County Executive sent to FEMA.
  3. Provide every document sent to the State or Federal Government related to the COVID-19 pandemic that was signed by the County Executive or the Chief Administrative Officer and indicate whether each document was reviewed by the County Attorney prior to being sent.
  4. Provide a written description of the required review process for letters or memos sent by the County Executive or Chief Administrative Officer, including who reviews them and in which order before a signature is approved. If this review process differs from what was required under prior administrations, please note any changes and why they were made.
  5. Effective immediately, provide the Council with prompt notice whenever any litigation, grievance, or unfair labor practice is filed against the County that may have a potential significant fiscal or policy impact.
  6. Please provide all requested materials by December 10th, 2021 so that the Council will have this for review before December 14th planned action on the supplemental.

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com 

Steve Bohnel

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com