County Council leadership and County Executive Marc Elrich’s administration said that the response to the coronavirus pandemic will be top of mind in the new year, but there also will be other legislative priorities and issues.

Council President Gabe Albornoz said in an interview Tuesday there will be important capital budget discussions among county officials in the coming months.

He expects more debate on how to address retention and recruitment challenges across county government, including among first responders, and more housing and economic development-related bills in the upcoming year. 

County Council President Evan Glass agreed that effects of the pandemic will remain a top priority in the coming year.

He noted that 2022 will be the final year before at least six new people join the council, as the council expands in 2023 from nine to 11 members.

Three current members are term-limited, two new district seats will be added and Tom Hucker, last year’s council president, is running for county executive. Five current council members are running for re-election.

Here’s a look at some county issues that council members and Elrich will take on in 2022:

Indoor mask mandate

Currently, the county’s indoor mask mandate is scheduled to be lifted when 85% of the county’s total population is fully vaccinated. But County Council members are scheduled to meet as the Board of Health on Tuesday to review that provision and consider whether to keep the mandate in place longer.

As of Thursday, about 83.2% of the county’s population was fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 data tracker

Elrich has said that, given the spread of the omicron variant, he would not support lifting the mask mandate yet. He does not sit on the county Board of Health, though. 

Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Earl Stoddard said in a recent media briefing that he would recommend keeping the mask mandate in place due to rising case counts and the current level of hospitalizations. 

On Wednesday, health officials said they would recommend that the Board of Health keep the mandate in place, with the ability to revisit it in late January.

Vaccine passport for certain businesses

The Board of Health is also scheduled to discuss a proposed vaccine passport for certain businesses, including indoor dining, entertainment venues and other activities. 

Elrich and other officials introduced the idea for it earlier this month, after Washington D.C. officials announced a similar proposal.

D.C. will require patrons 12 and older to show proof, starting Jan. 15 at 6 a.m., that they have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Proof of full vaccination will be required starting Feb. 15.

According to the Board of Health agenda, the passport proposal will not be voted on next Tuesday. Albornoz had previously said that was unlikely because more conversations will probably be needed between county government officials, businesses and other partners. He wrote in a text Thursday that discussion would occur Jan. 11, but was unsure if a vote would happen then.

Scott Peterson, a spokesman for Elrich, wrote in an email on Wednesday that the proposal is still being finalized.

Vaccine mandate for county employees

For months, County Council Members Will Jawando, Andrew Friedson and Hans Riemer have been pushing for a vaccine mandate for county employees. Currently, county employees have the option to either agree to weekly testing or get vaccinated against the coronavirus. 

Supporters, including Riemer, have said that the mandate is needed to ensure a safe workplace and that many employees are currently isolating and unable to work due to coronavirus infections.

Elrich, Stoddard and others, however, have said that the mandate could lead to some first responders leaving Montgomery County for other jurisdictions, leaving to a dangerous situation regarding response time for emergencies. 

Albornoz said earlier this month that there would be at least two committee work sessions on the legislation before it reaches the whole council for a vote. The Health and Human Services Committee and Government Operations and Fiscal Policy Committee held a joint work session in late November. 

Thrive Montgomery 2050 

The County Council will likely vote on Thrive Montgomery 2050, the county’s proposed general master plan and first update to such a plan since 1993. 

Thrive Montgomery 2050 focuses on the environment, parks, transportation and other high-level planning categories, but much of the public debate between supporters and opponents has been about the future of housing in the county.

Multiple public hearings and council work sessions have been held on the plan. Albornoz said in an interview this week that a final vote is likely still weeks away, after more council work sessions.

“We do want to be methodical about the process. … This is a significant and important document that provides the blueprint for the next 30 years in Montgomery County, so we don’t want to rush through it,” Albornoz said. 

Regarding housing issues, Peterson wrote in an email that the executive branch is working on legislation “to require an increased range of affordability in housing units provided in new developments.” It will address the need for that type of housing and how many affordable units could be lost in the coming decade, Peterson wrote.

Environmental bills

The County Council is in the middle of considering two bills on climate-related issues.

One addresses building performance energy standards, which aims to make numerous types of buildings more energy efficient and environmentally friendly countywide. The council’s Transportation and Environment committee has reviewed the bill twice.

The council is also deliberating on a bill that would allocate millions of dollars toward the county’s Green Bank, to be used on clean energy projects countywide. That legislation is also undergoing review by the council’s Transportation and Environment committee.

Elrich’s administration is awaiting a report from outside consultants that will determine how the county can increase its recycling streams through legislation, and is planning to attempt to close an incinerator in Dickerson

Policing/public safety initiatives

Elrich’s administration is working on several measures on policing and public safety for the upcoming year.

According to Elrich and his colleagues, those include:

  • Reviewing the final report for Effective Law Enforcement for All. Earlier this year, the county received a preliminary report from that organization, which did an audit of the Montgomery Police Department. The final report should determine if the county needs to invest more money, specifically in data collection and management and other accountability measures 
  • Negotiating a new contract to make pay for county police officers more competitive, especially for those near or at the beginning of the pay scale
  • Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Jake Weissmann wrote in an email that county officials are working with state partners to see if there are “regulatory tools” county and state officials can use, to make sure businesses are not contributing to crime countywide. “We’re not at a point yet where we can share details (still in the exploring phase), but we’re committed to looking at every angle of this problem,” Weissmann wrote. 

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

Steve Bohnel

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