Bruce Adams: Do No Harm. Vote Against Montgomery Ballot Questions B and D

Ballot Questions
Former Montgomery County executive Isiah Leggett speaks out against a ballot initiative on property taxes earlier this month. The author, former county councilman Bruce Adams, is in the background, wearing a mask. Photo by Glynis Kazanjian.

I enjoyed Josh Kurtz’ whimsical trip back to the 1990s [ “Can’t Tell the Players (or the Year) Without a Scorecard,” Maryland Matters, Sept. 18].

Indeed, Ike Leggett and Connie Morella reentering the political fray is an extraordinary event well worthy of Josh’s 76-minute roundtrip bike ride.

Surely, Leggett and Morella — the two most admirable political leaders I have known during my half century participating in the public life of Montgomery County — have deserved the right to be at home with a good book on a weekday at 10 a.m. But there they were, masks on and arguments at the ready, at the Dennis Avenue Health Center in Silver Spring on Monday morning, Sept. 14.

Why?

They were there because they care. They were there because they see the real harm that ballot questions B and D would do to the wonderful welcoming community they worked so hard for so long to create.

I know well that charter amendments really matter.

In 1990, the county faced a very formidable property tax revolt. Recognizing that the property tax is a regressive tax, Ike Leggett, Neal Potter and I negotiated with the leaders of the revolt who were threatening to put a question on the ballot.

Our compromise was a property tax cap that could be exceeded only by the vote of a super majority of seven councilmembers. This worked reasonably well.

In 1992, as council president, I put together a 5-4 majority to increase the more progressive income tax to the maximum allowed by the General Assembly in order to be able to fund critical programs in a very difficult budget year while avoiding excessive reliance on the property tax. And I worked hard that fall to bring together a committee to defeat another in the long line of harmful charter amendments proposed by Robin Ficker.

I am still haunted by Ficker’s 5,000-vote victory in 2008 that changed the vote required to exceed the property tax cap from the super majority seven to a unanimous vote of all current councilmembers. Even with a hotly contested presidential contest on the ballot in 2008, we should have done more to defeat Ficker’s amendment.

With nothing less than the fate of our democratic experiment on the national ballot this fall, it would be easy to ignore local ballot measures once again. Ike Leggett and Connie Morella have stepped up to make sure we don’t repeat that mistake because they know that passage of questions B and D would be hair on fire harmful to the future of our county.

Leggett and Morella have teamed with top business and philanthropic leaders David Blair and Carmen Ortiz Larsen to create the Committee to Vote No on B and D.

Questions B and D will undermine the ability of our leaders to work for the long-term interest of the county as a whole.

Ficker’s Question B would create an inflexible tax cap that would not allow county leaders to respond to real crises like COVID-19 and dramatically changing circumstances. The existing charter allows the county council to exceed the property tax cap only with a unanimous vote. Ficker’s amendment would not let even a unanimous council act to preserve our quality schools and services.

As chair of the county’s Charter Review Committee in 1980, I took a position in support of electing some members of the county council by district. At the time, this was not popular with some of my fellow Democrats. But it was the right thing to do, and the mixed system of electing four councilmembers at large and five from individual districts adopted in 1986 has served our county well. Exclusive use of single-member districts as proposed by Question D would allow narrow interests to paralyze the council’s ability to act for the good of the county as a whole.

The Leggett-Morella committee has focused its attention on getting voters to understand the dangers of B and D because those questions threaten to do real harm to the future of our county. The committee has not and will not be taking a position on Questions A or C.

The ethical principle of doing no harm is at the core of good citizenship.

Ike Leggett and Connie Morella have chosen to interrupt their well-deserved retirements only because they see clearly that passage of Questions B and D would demonstrably do harm to the future of the welcoming and just Montgomery County they have worked so hard to create.

— BRUCE ADAMS

The writer served as chairman of the Montgomery County Charter Review Commission from 1979 to 1982. He served as an at-large member of the Montgomery County Council from 1986 to 1994, including a term as council president in 1992. He was the county’s director of community partnerships from 2007 to 2018.