This week, Montgomery County Councilmember Roger Berliner succeeded Valerie Ervin as the new council president for the coming year. Ervin's term was marked by unprecedented financial challenges brought on by the lingering effects of the Great Recession. Perhaps the most enduring impression she left was the extraordinary unity with which she led the council through this extremely difficult time, and for which she was unfairly singled out for showing some political courage along the way.
Berliner will be hard pressed to measure up on that score, but he just might pull it off if he and his colleagues follow through on the direction he set in his first few statements as council president.
Right after his election to lead a council not exactly known for its pro-business entrepreneurial bent, he set the right tone on two fronts. First, Berliner correctly noted that the council needs to become "change agents rather than servants of the status quo." He's exactly right.
What needs to change most? Again, Berliner's remarks hit the nail on the head: "We need to introduce new words into our county's business model, words like nimble, bold, entrepreneurial." Bravo! We need to honestly confront the fact that these are not exactly words that jump into potential investors' minds when they hear "Montgomery County." This needs to be the Council’s main focus. Otherwise, we will remain stuck on our current economic trajectory of negative private-sector job growth, declining tax base and inadequate tax revenues to support schools and other services at the levels we’ve come to expect.
At the Committee for Montgomery breakfast on Friday he went into further detail, outlining some key priorities: Economic development, investing in transportation, and continuing our focus on education, among other things. Again, he is right on the money. A recent report by regional economist Stephen Fuller also cited work force housing, along with transportation, as top priorities if we want to build on our competitive strengths and support future job growth.
These clearly are the right priorities, but now we will see if this council can stay focused on them or revert to its old ways, lurching off on new tangents each month that move us in precisely the opposite direction. It's hard to say with a straight face that you want to encourage business investment, for example, while pushing some of the most anti-business legislation in the country, as in the proposed "community-impacts" bill targeting big-box retailers, or breaking a solemn vow not to extend the "temporary" energy tax surcharge. Neither has anything to do with boosting our economy and both will only send more businesses running for the exits.
If we want a county that is more "nimble, bold and entrepreneurial," that is not something we can accomplish through higher taxes and more cumbersome regulations. Berliner has the right message, but the true test of his leadership will be if his deeds measure up to his fine words.