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The Case Against Public Safety Radio Traffic Encryption

The Case Against Public Safety Radio Traffic Encryption

This is a guest post by Leonzo G. Williams, Major (Ret.), Fairfax County VA Police Department

Many local law enforcement agencies across the United States have encrypted all of their radio traffic including routine dispatch, special tactical channels, and training channels. They claim that it “enhances” the safety of first responders and citizens. Although changes in technology allow for encryption at little or no cost, agencies that are implementing it are relying on the unproven assumption that encryption is better for citizens and public safety personnel.

American law enforcement agencies trace their roots to Sir Robert Peel, a 19th century British statesman. He established the first modern law enforcement agency in London. Peel had nine principles on which he based the establishment of an ethical police force. Among them were the following[1]:

  • “The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police actions.
  • Police must secure the willing cooperation of the public in voluntary observance of the law to be able to secure and maintain the respect of the public.
  • Police at all times should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full time and attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.”

So, what does all of that have to do with encryption? Everything! Robert Peel’s point is that police agencies are a part of the public that serves the public; it is their tax dollars that enable law enforcement agencies to purchase, operate, and maintain equipment including radios and other communication devices. American democracy values freedom and encourages transparency in government operations. Citizens value local independence and control, as evidenced by the absence of a national police force in favor of the establishment of thousands of locally run police forces throughout the country.

We allow citizens to gather information from law enforcement agencies through Freedom of Information Acts and agencies disseminate information via press briefings, websites, social media, and the release of statistical information. Law enforcement agencies establish neighborhood watch groups, citizen academies, auxiliary programs and other community outreach activities to further promote positive interactions with the citizens that they serve.

In this context, full encryption of all police radio systems in the United States runs counter to everything that U.S. law enforcement has historically stood for since its founding under Peel’s principles.

Given the number of local, regional, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, along with fire and rescue departments engaged in public safety activities, full encryption is already proving to be a major hindrance to radio interoperability (i.e., the ability of devices to exchange information). During times of crisis, there may be non-governmental agencies, working closely with first responders, that may also need to monitor public safety frequencies. When full encryption is implemented, interoperability ceases. It returns us to the days when radio dispatch centers called other dispatch centers on the telephone to relay critical, time-sensitive information; agencies are becoming again unable to directly communicate with one another due to incompatible encrypted radio channels.

On January 13, 1982, Air Florida flight 90 crashed on takeoff from National Airport into the Potomac River, which separates Washington, D.C. from the State of Virginia. Multiple public safety agencies responded to the crash, including the (D.C.) Metropolitan Police Department., U.S. Park P.D., Arlington County P.D., and the Metropolitan Airports Authority P.D. Also responding were the Washington, D.C. fire department, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority F.D., the Arlington County F.D., Alexandria City F.D., and Fairfax County F.D.

One of the major impediments to the rescue operation was a lack of radio interoperability. From that disaster, first responders came together to develop shared radio systems and digital mobile radio talkgroups (A DMR talkgroup is a way of organizing many radio IDs into a single digital contact). That way, a majority of Washington, D.C. area public safety agencies were able to share radio frequencies, allowing different jurisdictional agencies to communicate in real time as a situation dictated. That ability proved invaluable on September 11, 2001, when multiple agencies were needed to respond to the disaster at the Pentagon and, the absence of encryption, enabled all agencies to communicate directly and in real time.

Now, those same agencies are seriously considering dismantling this capability with a headlong rush into encryption. While it can be argued that if everyone becomes encrypted, all relevant agencies could share encryption keys, allowing them the ability to communicate with each other, the reality is in a crisis situations both government and  nongovernmental entities would be left out of the encrypted communication loop and unable to assist public safety agencies. The cost of encryption is not so much financial as it is societal; encryption limits citizen engagement and cooperation.

Also lost is situational awareness among agencies. Before encryption, many stakeholders routinely monitored each other’s public safety channels. Fire departments monitored law enforcement channels to identify and evaluate events that might involve them.

It was a passive, often informal monitoring, but it offered a great benefit. Off-duty personnel and civilian support personnel monitored their agencies or adjoining agencies. On-duty personnel, such as county police officers, could monitor the state troopers that worked in their county or vice versa. This type of monitoring allowed stakeholders to have greater situational awareness and supported a more robust response when needed.

As more and more public safety agencies encrypt routine dispatch radio traffic, this awareness is diminishing. Fire department personnel are not aware of what their law enforcement colleagues are doing until the moment a call is made to fire dispatch. Even then, they only hear what their fire dispatcher tells them, which is only what the police dispatcher has relayed to the fire dispatcher via a phone call. Encryption hamstrings public safety personnel for whom additional background information would enhance performance.

Much has been made regarding the media and encryption. Media outlets have sometimes rebroadcast public safety radio traffic without verifying it. On occasion, reporters have compromised law enforcement tactics in emergency situations. These incidents are unfortunate but not the norm. However, in response, some agency leaders have used them as additional reasons to fully encrypt their radio communications. They feel that preventing media outlets from monitoring public safety radio transmissions is good public policy.

The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States prohibits government actions that infringe on the freedom of the press. In reality, how does the implementation of total public safety radio encryption square with the ability of members of the press to do their job? In practice, full encryption infringes upon their ability to perform their role as observers and reporters of government actions.

Some agencies state that the safety of their personnel must outweigh the public’s desire to listen in real time to their department’s radio operations. Nevertheless, if you ask these same agency heads if guns should be banned to insure the safety of their personnel, many will cite the Second Amendment, which allows citizens to own guns. If they understand the rights granted by the Second Amendment, how can they not recognize the freedoms guaranteed by the First?

Encryption does serve a valuable purpose in some circumstances. Radio traffic involving national security, presidential protection details, detective and narcotics operations, SWAT incidents and other tactical activities are exactly the types of communication that should be encrypted. Encrypting sensitive radio traffic helps maintain the safety of first responders and the public by limiting opportunities for that type of information to fall into the wrong hands.

However, encryption does not serve a purpose in the day-to-day routine dispatch that makes up so much of public safety radio traffic. For an example a lot of law enforcement agencies establish, or support neighborhood watch groups.

When an agency uses fulltime encryption, how can those groups or any taxpaying citizen become aware in real time of the situations occurring in their neighborhoods? It is meaningless for agencies to state they support neighborhood watch groups when encryption undermines citizens’ ability to be the extra set of eyes and ears for their neighborhoods.

In jurisdictions using full encryption, news outlets without access to real time police radio communications can no longer report traffic jams or incidents in a timely manner; citizens who formerly used their scanners or internet streams of radio traffic to monitor routine police activity can no longer call in useful tips to law enforcement. The slogan, “if you see something, say something®” loses some of its value when interested citizens are left out of the communications loop.

Full encryption breaks the bond between the community and the police as described by Peel[2]. Citizens may question why police in a democracy feel the need to hide all of their radio traffic from the public. It is a fair question. Just as events in Ferguson, Missouri gave rise to concerns about the militarization of U.S. police officers, full encryption generates concerns about a governmental lack of transparency. The existence of the technology does not obligate its use if it negates the government’s responsibility to share information with its citizens.

In the District of Columbia area, the Washington Metropolitan Police Department has encrypted all but one radio channel. However, they have not shown a correlation between encryption and a decrease in crime or an increase in arrests; they cannot demonstrate an impact on the safety of its officers. Yet, all of those criteria were cited as reasons for moving to full encryption. The only measurable difference has been the inability of citizens and other stakeholders to hear routine radio dispatch traffic!

In addition, while much has been made of encryption as a tool to thwart acts of terrorism, there has been no clear nexus there either. The Washington, D.C. police department is encrypted; they were the major first responders to the Navy Yard shooting in 2013. Encryption did not deter the shooter. However, it did hamper radio communications in real time with other agencies called in to assist.

Agency heads and policymakers should think long and hard before allowing our founding principles and beliefs to be trampled by limiting citizens’ abilities to hear any police radio traffic in an exaggerated desire to “keep officers and citizens safe.” Agencies and the public should be looking for data to back up those claims. Has encryption enhanced public or officer safety? Has encryption provided quantifiable gains in a department’s number of criminal/incident reports or in the effectiveness of its other public safety activities?

While there is clearly a role for encryption in public safety, it should be restricted to channels and talkgroups that deal with particularly sensitive situations and tactical matters. It should not be used for routine, regular dispatch. Policymakers should consider this: government agencies cannot operate in secrecy and expect to have public support. There must be transparency and accountability by government agencies that will allow and encourage the public to support them.

Recommendations:

  • Public safety administrators should carefully weigh the value of encryption against the significant negative impact to legitimate listeners of public safety radio traffic as well as to its impact on news gathering and traffic reporting organizations.
  • Public safety administrators should consider how encryption will affect their agency’s ability to communicate with neighboring jurisdictions.
  • Public safety administrators should make their decisions with the understanding that encryption is a tool that protects sensitive information from unwanted disclosure. However, its overuse can compromise the underlying elements of citizens’ trust and confidence in public safety.
  • For agencies that have already encrypted all of their radio communications: it is suggested that you end encryption on the main dispatch channel so that citizens and the media can listen in real time to what their local public safety agencies are doing in their communities.

About the Author

Leonzo “Lee” Williams began his 40-year law enforcement career in 1973 in New Jersey. He first “retired” in 2005 as a major from the Fairfax County Virginia Police Department. He returned to full-time law enforcement in 2008, retiring a second time in 2016 as a lieutenant from the Loudoun County Virginia Sheriff Office.

[1] https://improvingpolice.wordpress.com/2015/04/19/the-principles-of-policing-1829/  Peels’ Principles of Policing

[2] One of Peel’s principles is that “police are the public and the public are the police.”  The difference is the full-time nature of the police.

I Oppose Montgomery County MD Police Communications Encryption

I Oppose Montgomery County MD Police Communications Encryption

It’s my understanding that the Montgomery County MD Police Department plans to start encrypting routine police radio communications. I oppose this change from long-standing policy, as described in the letter I’m posting, below, that I sent to the county executive and police chief.

Thanks to Alan Henney, who alerted me and others to this planned policy change. Alan noted that the same issue was discussed in the Columbia Journalism Review in regard to Colorado policies. The CJR article notes,

“A national study published in 2017 found that police PIOs zealously try to control the narratives about their departments. That’s especially concerning in Colorado, where law enforcement officials have downplayed transparency implications by saying they will release information about breaking news on social media, in press releases, and in daily reports—as if those are reasonable substitutes for independent reporting.”

The CJR article quotes several authorities including Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida —

“The scanner functions as a check-and-balance to keep law enforcement agencies honest.”

— and David Cuillier, a media law professor at the University of Arizona and a member of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Freedom of Information Committee,

“I would think police would want scanner traffic public. It builds citizen trust and shows they are busy earning their tax-paid salaries. Otherwise, shrouded in secrecy, police are viewed more suspiciously and lose the trust of the public.” 

Please consider contacting county leaders yourself, to oppose this disfavorable police policy change. I wrote the County Executive Marc Elrich and Police Chief Marcus Jones also the members of the Montgomery County Council’s Public Safety Committee and at-large Councilmembers, and you might too. I’ll list the county-council addresses after the letter text. Here it is:

To: Marc Elrich <ocemail@montgomerycountymd.gov>, Marc Elrich <marc.elrich@montgomerycountymd.gov>, Marcus G. Jones <CHIEFMCPD@montgomerycountymd.gov>
Cc: Caroline Sturgis <Caroline.Sturgis@montgomerycountymd.gov>
I am very concerned about Montgomery County Police Department plans to encrypt routine radio communications including dispatch communications. I believe that these communications should remain unencrypted and therefore freely accessible to the public, the media, and any individual concerned with their content for any reason. Transparency is important, both so the public can stay informed about matters that concern them and to ensure police accountability, and also so the police can avoid accusations that they are keeping information from the public in order to hide improprieties.
I believe in government openness as a matter of principle, particularly in routine operations where there is no compelling reason for secrecy.
Please preserve our county’s long-standing policy of maintaining open, accessible, transparent routine police communications.
Thank you for your consideration.

Public Safety chair and members, Councilmembers: Sidney Katz <councilmember.katz@montgomerycountymd.gov>,
Gabe Albornoz <councilmember.albornoz@montgomerycountymd.gov>, Tom Hucker <councilmember.hucker@montgomerycountymd.gov>
At-large Councilmembers:  Evan Glass <Councilmember.Glass@montgomerycountymd.gov>, Hans Riemer <Councilmember.Riemer@montgomerycountymd.gov, and Will Jawando <Councilmember.Jawando@montgomerycountymd.gov>
An update on development at and near the Takoma Metro station

An update on development at and near the Takoma Metro station

This is the story of two development projects, at and near the Takoma Metro station, one promising and the other stalled. It’s addressed to my Washington DC and Takoma Park neighbors and very much to WMATA and to would-be Takoma Metro site developer EYA.

Promising: 218 Cedar St NW

Developer Neighborhood Development Company (NDC) is planning a new, four-story + penthouse mixed-use building for the 7-Eleven site at 218 Cedar St NW in Washington DC. The concept plan is viewable online; the image below is a concept-design elevation and the site is shown in yellow in the header image above.

I’d quote Washington DC Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner (4B01) Evan Yeats’s project summary:

The current plan for the site is 30-35 [actually 37] 1&2 bedroom condos (standard 10% [Inclusionary Zoning] affordable) built above 10-15,000 square feet of ground floor retail with an underground parking garage with ~15 or more parking spots.

  • The building height will be roughly the same as the Takoma Central/Busboys development adjacent and built in a similar “transitional” brick style.
  • The current three curb cuts/sidewalk crossings will be reduced to a single entry/exit for the garage (on Cedar), and the surface parking will be eliminated.
  • They are planning to build it “of right” with no zoning variance requests, but it will require historic preservation review.
  • Tenants are not set yet, but NDC told us they are in talks with 7-Eleven corporate to see if they are willing to stay. NDC also said that they are open to community input on the retail tenants and floated the idea of a small format grocer (think Mom’s or Yes or Streets) if 7-Eleven doesn’t want to stay (they just built a new store at Ethan Allen & New Hampshire).
  • Resident pedestrian entry/exit will be on Carroll St and the retail entrances/exits will depend on whether it remains one retail space or becomes two.
  • They expect to begin construction in 2020, but there isn’t a timeline for the closure of the 7-Eleven, etc.

There will be adjustments and plenty of discussion regarding the retail tenants — and I wish that the plans included more than 10% affordable units — but generally I like what I see!

Stalled: Takoma Metro Construction

The project at the 7-Eleven site is not connected to the proposed Takoma Metro development, at the station parking lot, to the left and up a bit in the header image from the yellow-colored 218 Cedar St NW parcel.

EYA is the would-be Takoma Metro site developer; WMATA owns the property. Different developers; different owners… projects also differ in that 218 Carroll developer NDC is pursuing by-right development, that is, within zoning limits and uses, while EYA’s proposed building far exceeds zoning limits so that EYA will be forced to enter Washington DC’s Planned Unit Development (PUD) process.

Washington DC activists have filed a number of lawsuits in recent years, challenging PUD approvals that, they believe, displace long-time, lower-income residents. Click here for an example.

EYA received WMATA board approvals for the project in 2014 and 2015 — the WMATA real estate committee, in its March 12, 2015 meeting, foresaw “Spring/Summer 2015 – Developer begins District of Columbia entitlement processes (Planning Unit Development application, Historic Preservation Review)” — but EYA has not filed a plan. It has been four years. Why not?

I spoke to WMATA project manager Rosalyn Doggett in early January. She said that EYA is holding off until the release of the under-amendment Washington DC Comprehensive Plan. Plan revisions would clarify rules around affordable housing and displacement. The draft plan is currently being evaluated by Washington DC City Council. Click here for a helpful article.

Now quite a bit of time went by, after EYA received approvals and before the lawsuits started and also, the Takoma Metro development would replace a parking lot, with no displacement of current residents. My conclusion is that this project is simply low priority for EYA. Unfortunately, WMATA put nothing in the Joint Development Agreement to incentivize timely EYA filings or penalize for the sort of long delay we’ve experienced. EYA’s proposed Takoma Metro design has serious design flaws — it has four times the number of residential parking spaces that DC zoning requires, which will reduce residents’ transit use, increase local congestion, inflate construction costs (which will be passed on to tenants), and lead to the zoning challenges EYA fears — but those flaws are addressable and the project should proceed.

Delay Vs. Progress

EYA’s delay is a shame. Washington DC and close-in Montgomery County need new housing and the commercial opportunities that make life better for long-time and new residents alike, and WMATA could use the revenue from sales of this underutilized parcel.

Before concluding, I’ll mention that another project is in the works. Developer SGA Companies’ plan for 300-308 Carroll St NW, directly across the street from the 218 Cedar St NW site, including 88 studio and one-bedroom apartments — small apartments tend to be more affordable of course — and five retail spaces, with zero residential parking! Like 218 Cedar St but unlike EYA’s Takoma Metro plans, the 300-308 Carroll St NW design is within zoning height limits, which will ease the path to project approval.

I’m glad that NDC, SGA Company, and other progressive developers aren’t fazed by the complications that attend in-fill development. I hope they’ll invest on the Maryland side of the line as Takoma Park advances other pending and potential redevelopment opportunities!

Montgomery County Can ‘Densify’ Without Disruption

Montgomery County Can ‘Densify’ Without Disruption

Affordable housing is in short supply in the Washington DC area. You’d think we could simply build more housing, but no aspect of development and land-use planning around here is easy. That’s particularly true where I live, in Montgomery County.

Current zoning and land-use policies block simple steps such as construction of smaller, multi-unit buildings, townhouses, and other forms of “missing middle” housing. They severely restrict homeowners’ ability to add accessory dwelling units (ADUs) on their properties and they limit apartment-building construction along major transit corridors. These higher-density land uses — more units in a given land area = higher density — would lower the land cost per unit, lowering the price tag and boosting affordability.

We should “densify” because people should be able to live close to work and amenities, and fewer and shorter trips mean fewer cars on the road, less fossil-fuel consumption and lower greenhouse gas emissions. Equity, environmentalism, traffic congestion, and affordability for all income levels dictate action. They dictate reforms that facilitate creating additional housing. Montgomery County has studied the matter, but a study isn’t a plan, and one like the county’s that prejudges acceptable steps won’t lead to needed change. Zoning is not sacrosanct.

We could radically change policy by eliminating zoning as in Houston, “America’s worst designed city,” where city codes do not address land use. Raise your hand if you like the possibility of “a taqueria next to a high rise that is next to an erotic boutique that is next to a strip mall with a banh mi shop,” and next to single-family homes. I didn’t think so. I wouldn’t, although I like the “diversity, the blending of cultures, and a general attitude where everybody gets along with his or her neighbors.” So let’s try semi-radical…

Minneapolis is likely to pass uniform upzoning in 2019, including reforms to allow up to three dwelling units on an individual lot in all residential neighborhoods and by allowing multifamily housing on select public transit routes, with higher densities along high-frequency routes and near transit stations. I see these reforms as a natural progression that we can and should consider.

What’s key is form, the types and sizes of allowed structures. I’ll quote a recent article that studies the experience in Grand Rapids, Michigan:

“Putting form rather than use at the center of the zoning process can help mitigate the most exclusive aspects of traditional single-family zoning, says Marta Goldsmith, director of the Form-Based Codes Institute at Smart Growth America. ‘I think that form-based codes can create opportunities to build additional units while maintaining the character of the neighborhood,’ Goldsmith says. ‘They can do it by slightly increasing heights or densities while maintaining the form of single-family neighborhoods.'”

So how about if we systematically rezone to allow duplexes, triplexes, and quads within neighborhoods currently zoned for Residential Detached construction (a.k.a. single-family homes)? Montgomery County already has that on the edges of my neighborhood, in Takoma Park. Let’s take a look.

The image below is a screen shot from Montgomery County’s MC Atlas information system. My home is to the right of the one where the red dot is located. Most of my neighborhood — the entirety of the area in yellow — is zoned R-60. You’re allowed a single-family home in a lot that’s 6,000 sq. ft. or larger. But you’ll note two small R-20 carve-outs — the R-20 areas, where lots may be as smalls 2,000 sq. ft., are brown — below the red dot. The carve-outs house a 13-unit condo apartment building and houses that are divided into apartments, which are both also allowed in R-20 zones. There’s a larger R-20 area to the right in the image, a long block of Takoma Park’s Carroll Avenue with many houses divided into apartments.

Typical Montgomery County residential zoning that allows very limited housing diversity.

This sort of development hasn’t harmed my neighborhood and it wouldn’t harm yours. There are several ways the County Council could allow it. Two involve zoning map amendments, which change which zoning rules apply in particular areas.

One approach is to change the zoning of selected Residential Detached areas to R-20 or R-30, which allow a mix of duplexes and small apartment buildings. Wider use of the R-20 and R-30 designations would also facilitate creation of smaller homes on less land via property subdivision, making these neighborhoods much more affordable. Nothing would force a current property owner to subdivide a property. Keep your large lot if you want.

An alternative is to apply an overlay zone with rules that supersede those of base zone designations such as R-200, R-90, R-60, and R-40. We already have a number of overlays, covering specific areas and also “floating” zones that are applied to multiple, non-contiguous areas. For example, commercial areas in my part of the county are part of the Takoma Park/East Silver Spring Commercial Revitalization (TPESS) overlay zone. Others include Chevy Chase Neighborhood Retail (CCNR) and Germantown Transit Mixed Use (GTMU). I’d welcome county creation of a Takoma Park Commercial/Residential overlay that would allow the city to take progressive steps that might not fly at this time in other parts of the county.

Unfortunately the existing floating zones that would allow densification are limited and overly restrictive. Montgomery County has Townhouse Floating (TF) and Apartment Floating (AF) designations, but to be applied, “the property must front on a nonresidential street or must confront or abut a property that is in a Residential Townhouse, Residential Multi-Unit, Commercial/Residential, Employment, or Industrial zone.”

How about creation of a Missing Middle Floating (MMF) zone, applicable anywhere, that would allow townhouses, multi-unit houses, and small apartment buildings?

We could also create new residential-neighborhood housing by changing the rules in established Residential Detached zones including Residential Estate areas. A modest and easy step would be to get rid of unnecessary restrictions on accessory dwelling units (ADUs).

“An ADU is a smaller, independent residential dwelling unit located on the same lot as a stand-alone (i.e., detached) single-family home,” according to the American Planning Association. “ADUs go by many different names throughout the U.S., including accessory apartments, secondary suites, and granny flats.” My lot is 7,500 sq. ft. and could easily fit a second, smaller home in the back yard. My backyard neighbor’s property — the red-dot lot in the image above — is 19,058 sq. ft. and could actually be legally subdivided into three properties within our R-60 zone! But even smaller lots have room for an additional, smaller structure.

(Not coincidentally: Montgomery County Councilmember Hans Riemer is hosting a policy forum on Accessory Dwelling Units on Saturday, January 19, 10 am to noon. The event will be at the County Council office building, 100 Maryland Ave, Rockville, in the main hearing room, and will cover legislation and coalition building.)

Finally, we could add density within existing zoning by streamlining subdivision of larger parcels. Current rules are onerous!

Subdivision allows construction within existing zoning rules.

By way of illustration, I’ll zoom in on the MC Atlas image I used above, focusing on a couple of properties a few blocks from my home. Look just to the right of the house symbol: two properties carved out of a larger, rectangular property. I’m told that subdivision happened in the late ’80s or early ’90s. Each property of the two is over 6,000 sq. ft. and therefore conforms with the R-60 zoning, and note that the area’s historic-district designation was not an impediment.

Numerous county properties are large enough to be subdivided, within existing zoning designations.

I’ve sketched out several ways we could densify. We could allow multi-unit housing and expanded apartment-building construction via (reworked) overlay zones and via selective upzoning. We could liberalize existing zones to allow ADUs and to diversify the housing types allowed. We could take these steps without major disruption.

Anticipating an objection: True, Montgomery County enacted a completely rewritten zoning ordinance just a few years ago, in 2014. But zoning code — and the guidelines captured in Master Plans and Sector Plans — aren’t sacrosanct. The County Council has considered 80 zoning text amendments (ZTAs) in the five years since the current code’s adoption, adopting 61 of them.

We could start with smaller areas or we could go wide. For example, it’s likely the City of Takoma Park will seek a local map amendment soon, covering the R-60 property that Washington Adventist Hospital will vacate later this year when it relocates to White Oak. Densification should be a goal. Overlay zones provide an excellent way to go wide, to densify communities and types of area that are ready for it, and I see no good reason not to make incremental county-wide changes, for instance to allow free-standing ADUs in all Residential Detached zones.

The one rule that’s sacred is that Montgomery County shouldn’t let convention stifle innovation, given our pressing need to create new affordable housing.

How to count votes in multi-representative races, and a bit on Ranked Choice Voting

How to count votes in multi-representative races, and a bit on Ranked Choice Voting

Reporting vote percentages in multi-representative races can be tricky. If you compute a candidate’s vote percentage relative to the number of votes cast, you get a really misleading figure. A small point: but there’s a better way.

It’s important to understand vote percentages as we evaluate Ranked Choice Voting, a system that allows voters to rank as multiple candidates in order of preference. RCV, currently before Montgomery County’s Maryland state legislative delegation as bill MC 29-19, ensures that an elected candidate was chosen by a majority of voters and not just a plurality.

Let’s look at the 2018 Maryland Democratic primary. Thirty-three candidates ran for four at-large Montgomery County Council seats. (I was one of them.) Each voter could choose up to four candidates.

At the December 17 delegation hearing on MC 29-19, an individual offered the primary winners’ vote percentages in his supporting testimony. The numbers he offered are deceptive because each voter could vote for up to four candidates, and in fact 437,616 votes were cast, by 130,957 Democratic voters, an average of 3.34 votes per ballot. So while the top vote-getter, Hans Riemer, won 12.21% of the vote – seemingly far, far from a majority – he also won 41% of the voters, that is, not so far off. The picture with conventional voting isn’t quite so skewed as this testimony suggested!

It’s tempting to decry that the #4 vote-getter / #4 nominee, Gabe Albornoz, won only 7.38% of the vote, but that would be highly misleading. Gabe won 25% of the voters, that is, he was chosen on 25% of the ballots.

And the gap between Gabe and the #5 vote-getter, Marilyn Balcombe, who won 6.26% of the vote, was not a mere 1.12 percentage points. Based on the number of ballots, it was a 3x wider 3.76 percentage points. Marilyn was chosen on 20.9% of the ballots cast. Not bad!

It’s hard to say how RCV would have affected the 2018 at-large primary outcome. With RCV, as lower vote-getters are eliminated, lower-ranked choices on ballots that listed them are counted. Maybe the additional votes would have boosted Marilyn or another candidate into the top four. It’s hard to say.

Much more likely RCV would have changed the outcome in the other 2018 Democratic primary contests, in Montgomery County races and many state legislative races, for instance in District 16, where only 12 votes separated the #3 (winning) and #4 (runner-up) candidates for the district’s three seats in the Maryland House of Delegates. MC 29-19 only covers Montgomery County races, however, and not Maryland state races. I support it and hope it will pass – if you agree, please tell your state legislators – and that the State of Maryland will embrace Ranked Choice Voting in time for the 2022 primaries.

RCV democratizes elections by empowering minority candidates, including in multi-representative races. RCV establishes a new way to count votes, so numbers are critical in any objective evaluation. Just remember to measure percentages relative to the number of ballots cast. A small point, but significant in understanding multi-rep race outcomes.

A pediatrician’s concerns about cell phone exposure

A pediatrician’s concerns about cell phone exposure

A guest post by Troy A. Jacobs, MD, @DrTroyJacobs

A proposed Montgomery County zoning bill, regulating residential-neighborhood placement of 5G “small cell” towers, became mired in controversy over the county’s response to claimed health and environmental impacts and has been withdrawn. However controversy continues on several other fronts. We have Montgomery County suing the Federal government over outdated small-cell antenna emission standards and over preemption of local action on cell antennas. And activists’ attention, motivated by health-impact concerns, has shifted to the City of Takoma Park, which is considering an ordinance on small-cell tower rules. Activists will no doubt focus again on the county, should a new bill come before the next council.

Dr. Troy Jacobs

I am a pediatrician. And yes, I have many concerns about cell phones and families but not with cell-phone towers.

It is prudent for many reasons to minimize exposure to cell phones, which can negatively impact children and families in terms of learning, interaction, and physical activity. But there is no current evidence to worry about the non-ionizing radiation that would come from cell towers. By some accounts, having more and smaller towers could potentially DECREASE exposure to this type of radiation. Sure, this radiation is a environmental pollutant that deserves further ongoing research just like light pollution or other toxins in environment. There is always some uncertainty in science but we do have compelling evidence to go forward.

I would direct truly concerned people to credible, vetted evidence-based sources where there is ongoing review of the science, for example, to the National Cancer Institute or American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which explains that “several studies have been done to find out if cell phone use can lead to cancer. These types of studies in people have not shown clear evidence of an increased cancer risk with cell phone use.”

Groups like the AAP have developed understandable and authoritative resources for lay audiences. I’m sharing a link to AAP’s web portal, which has educational and more technical resources available in English and Spanish for anyone on a number of hot topics: https://www.healthychildren.org/English/safety-prevention/all-around/Pages/Cell-Phone-Radiation-Childrens-Health.aspx/.

While the AAP advises, “parents should not panic over the latest research, but it can be used as a good reminder to limit both children’s screen time and exposure from cell phones and other devices emitting radiation from electromagnetic fields (EMF),” the group also supports more research into how cell-phone exposure affects human health long term, particularly children’s health. The page linked to above provides sensible safety tips for families.

There are lots of things I could worry about killing someone or causing cancer, plausible threats, but cell-phone towers wouldn’t be high on that list.

Troy A. Jacobs, MD, MPH, FAAP

Troy is a guest blogger who is a pediatrician with both clinical and public health experience. He focuses on health issues impacting Montgomery County and DC area. He lives in Takoma Park.

Nancy Floreen split the Republican vote, not the Democratic!, and three other 2018 lessons learned

Nancy Floreen split the Republican vote, not the Democratic!, and three other 2018 lessons learned

The 2018 election was good for the Democrats nationally although Maryland results were pretty much status quo. My own focus is local however, on Montgomery County, so let’s look at the numbers here in Maryland’s largest county. I draw four conclusions…

Conclusion #1: County executive candidate Nancy Floreen split the Republican vote, not the Democratic!

This year, Democrat Marc Elrich won 64.3% of the vote (preliminary result) to Independent Nancy Floreen’s 19.2% and Republican Robin Ficker’s 16.4%.

Contrast with 2014, when incumbent Democrat Ike Leggett won a third term as county executive with 65.3% of the vote to Republican Jim Shalleck’s 34.2%.

This year, the non-Democrats’ votes, Floreen’s and Ficker’s, total 35.6%. Compare to Republican Shalleck’s 34.2% in 2014. The difference is a mere 1.2 points. Trump-era Democrats’ stayed true to their party, and Nancy Floreen split the Republican vote, not the Democratic!

Conclusion #2: Public finance works, and woe betide a candidate who raises narrowly.

Marc Elrich maxed out on public-finance matching funds, receiving $750,000 in public money for the primary and $750,000 for the general election, given support from over 3,600 donors who contributed $150 or less. Nancy Floreen’s campaign had 685 donors, less than one-fifth Elrich’s count.

It’s said that “yard signs don’t vote,” but donors do, and given their campaign equity, they tell their friends about their candidate. A public-finance candidate must build a substantial donor-voter base in order to receive matching funds. To max out, the candidate must go wide by raising from diverse geographic, cultural, and age demographics and interests.

Yet Floreen stayed narrow. Montgomery Neighbors PAC found that “87.5% of the total funds raised in support of Nancy Floreen’s campaign,” direct to her campaign and to the County Above Party Super PAC, “comes from one industry – land developers, financiers, builders, apartment managers, service providers, and commercial and residential real estate agents.”

Public finance worked by providing Elrich both the funds he needed to win and an incentive to go wide. Floreen stayed narrow and lost.

Conclusion #3: Montgomery County voted county, party, and PRESENCE, to the detriment of Ben Jealous.

Both Marc Elrich and Nancy Floreen are long-time local electeds with oversize personalities. They have equal presence. It’s party and positioning that explain Elrich’s victory over Floreen. The perception that Elrich cares about everyday people contrasts with Floreen’s perceived pro-developer bias.

Why didn’t Democrats similarly back Ben Jealous? He and Elrich are cut from the same progressive cloth, yet in Democrat-dominated Montgomery County, Jealous scored only 54.5%, lagging Elrich by 10.8 points.

Jealous’s Maryland association was simply too weak. He lacked local presence, coming across as a movement guy more than as someone you’d look to craft a workable state budget. His scant state voting record didn’t help, and his involvement in the Maryland marriage-equality fight was peripheral. So most Marylanders were introduced to Jealous as a Bernie guy, which gets you only so far. Bernie Sanders did show up for his 2016 state campaign chair, saying “I am proud to be here because Ben is one of those leaders who is not going to be nibbling around the edges, but understands we have got to transform the economic and political life of this country.”

I suspect that most Marylanders — the state overall voted 56% for Hogan and 43% for Jealous — wanted a first-term governor, if Jealous, who they could be confident would focus on the state first. Fine for incumbent Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh to spend time going after Donald Trump. Frosh is a Montgomery County native who has served the state well, and he earned 77.8% of the county’s vote this year. Going back to 2014, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Anthony Brown was well known as then-Lieutenant Governor and won in Montgomery County over Hogan 61.7% to 36.9%. Both Frosh and Brown in 2014 possessed the presence that Jealous lacked, the voter’s sense that the candidate is in it for the long haul for us.

Conclusion #4: The 2022 election just became a bit less interesting.

Progressive Marc Elrich earned only one percentage point fewer votes than centrist incumbent Ike Leggett did in 2014. This fact should give pause to anyone thinking of challenging Elrich from the center in the 2022 Democratic primary, whether that person is a business figure (David Blair’s positioning in this year’s primary) or a known political quantity, say a term-limited councilmember. Then again, one of those latter figures could make a compelling 2022 candidate for statewide office. Let the positioning begin!

My 2018 electoral recommendations

My 2018 electoral recommendations

Friends and neighbors, allow me to share selected 2018 electoral recommendations, for competitive races. They are:

Montgomery County

County executive: Marc Elrich. Marc is the progressive candidate in the race, independent of corporate and moneyed-interest influence and highly capable, and the only candidate truly capable of listening, learning, and growing in office. 

Board of Education, at large: Karla SilvestreKarla has extensive education and community engagement, deep Montgomery County roots, and the skills and knowledge to work with parents, MCPS staff and leadership, and BOE colleagues to make progress on the pressing needs facing our school communities.

Board of Education, District 3: Lynn Amano. Lynn will bring a much-needed fresh perspective to the school board, one less accommodating of the school bureaucracy. 

Board of Education, District 1: no recommendation

State Constitutional Ballot Questions

Yes: Question 1– Requiring Commercial Gaming Revenues That Are For Public Education To Supplement Spending For Education In Public Schools. This is the “lockbox” we were promised when Maryland first legalized casino gambling. Unfortunately, revenues displaced and did not supplement, as intended, funding from other sources.

Yes: Question 2– Same-Day Registration And Voting At The Precinct Polling Place On Election Day. This reform would extend same-day registration and voting from early voting to Election Day, expanding the electorate to late-activated potential voters.

Montgomery County Charter Questions

Yes: Question A– Redistricting Procedure – Composition Of Redistricting Commission. I would remove the explicitly-partisan party committees from the redistricting process.

Yes: Question B– Changes the requirement needed to raise County property taxes above the inflation rate from 9 votes to a unanimous vote of the Council. This is a technical adjustment to existing law, to allow for a situation when a council seat is vacant.

Yes: Question C– Would allow Councilmembers to hire aides outside the Merit System. A councilmember should be free to hire non-status aides, whom the councilmember knows and whose politics matches the councilmember’s, without going through the charade of competitive hiring. 

Federal

Congress, District 6: David Trone. We need a Democratic congressional majority. 

Maryland state

Governor/Lt. Governor: Ben Jealous and Susan Turnbull. Jealous and Turnbull are strong progressives who would advance education, equity, justice reform, and environmentalism in Maryland.

Attorney General: Brian Frosh. Frosh is an excellent AG who fights for Marylanders’ interests and deserves another term.

Vote for the Environment

Vote for the Environment

The Montgomery County Council declared a Climate Emergency in December…

… but in May declined to budget a modest $70,000 toward meeting our climate commitment. That won't do. Climate change is a global challenge, and we need to get serious locally, fast. Please vote for the environment when you vote in this month's primary.

In December, the Council committed to "transform the climate by reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2027 and reaching 100% elimination by 2035." It's an ambitious goal – and could generate very significant economic benefit – but we need to get moving. The nonfunded $70,000 would have paid for a Director of Climate Emergency Mobilization as a first step toward establishment of a Climate Emergency Office and steps beyond.

The Council's December resolution was prompted by local activism, by the Montgomery County chapter of The Climate Mobilization (MOCOTCM). (I'm grateful for MOCOTCM's endorsement of my campaign for Montgomery County Council, at large, recognizing my pro-environment positions and accomplishments as a Takoma Park Councilmember.)

Local advocacy matters, especially with the EPA in Scott Pruitt's thieving hands and Governor Hogan running state government. As my friend and neighbor Betsy Taylor, chair of 350 Action, puts it, "Montgomery County has a rich history of environmental activism, from those protecting our farmland and tree canopy to others promoting clean energy. Citizen engagement on these issues has been and always will be essential."

It's citizen engagement that protected the Ten Mile Creek watershed and won Montgomery County's lawncare pesticide ban and polystyrene food serviceware ban, and that will lead to our closing the Dickerson incinerator and the County's coal-fired generating station.

Which candidates do you trust to accelerate pro-environment policy-making and County investment? To enact clean-energy and zero-waste policies that respond to the climate emergency and live up to our commitment?

Burning trash is dirty. Adoption of zero-waste policies is a necessary step toward closing the Dickerson incinerator, which send 200,000 tons of ash to landfill each year. We need to reduce waste via food recovery, high recycling rates, and elimination of single-use plastic food-service materials among other steps. No need for delay: organizations such as the Food Council have been pushing forward education and action campaigns. Locally, Takoma Park pioneered curbside food-waste collection for composting. We should move quickly to a county-scale program with phase-in of a requirement that all food serviceware disposables be compostable.

Energy conservation and 100% clean energy are parts of the equation: solar and wind power, net-zero building standards and energy-efficiency retrofitting, a move to electric vehicles, and transit expansion. Smart roadways will add capacity to our existing road network and will speed trips and reduce emissions.

And let’s reintroduce pension-fund divestment from fossil fuels and work with state legislators to pass new renewable energy portfolio standards.

You can count on me to respond. I'll link you to my environment position and close by quoting climate champion Mike Tidwell: "Seth understands environmental challenges, and he knows how to make local government work. This is why I’m backing Seth for Montgomery County Council at large." Will you join Mike in supporting me?

Please vote for the environment in this month's primary.

Follow-up: Youth Homelessness in Montgomery County

Follow-up: Youth Homelessness in Montgomery County

Good news: The County Council included $246,500 funding for a drop-in center for youth experiencing homelessness in the County’s FY19 budget.

At the May 9 event, Youth Homelessness in Montgomery County: Challenges and Solutions
Community advocacy made a difference, including at the May 9 program on Youth Homelessness in Montgomery County. Messages to the Council made a difference, including via the letter-writing campaign we set up. And this work certainly helped broaden awareness.

The youth who spoke out at the May 9 program were amazing. We have posted a small set of photos from the event and LocalDVM posted an event video.

Thanks also to the other program participants including Councilmember George Leventhal, who turned community advocacy into a specific funding proposal.

The Department of Health and Human Services will be responsible for next steps, for opening the center and designing its programming. We hope and expect that HHS will take its lead from affected community members.

There is work to be done beyond creating an initial drop-in center. Montgomery County has addressed veteran homelessness and is very near reaching the goal of ending chronic homelessness. The County’s Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness envisions comprehensively tackling youth homelessness next.

The County will need active public and expert involvement. Let me know if you’d like me to keep you apprised of opportunities to help.