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Wrestling with the issues: Forum mulls matters generic and Jewish-centric
Washington Jewish Week / July 28, 2010

By Larry Luxner

Twelve candidates for Montgomery County Council squared off last week during a forum that touched on the county's fiscal woes as well as issues of particular importance to Jewish voters, such as whether elected representatives should participate in Israel-centric enterprises and other parochial concerns.

About 100 people attended the two-hour event, which was held Wednesday of last week at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville and sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.

The candidates are vying for four at-large seats on the nine-member council that will be up for grabs Sept. 14. Four of the dozen are incumbents: Marc Elrich, Nancy Floreen, George Leventhal and Duchy Trachtenberg. The eight challengers are Jane DeWinter, Robert Dyer, Fred Evans, George Gluck, Raj Narayanan, Hans Riemer, Brandon Rippeon and Becky Wagner.

WJW editor Debra Rubin, who was moderator, asked the panelists whether county funds should be used to protect synagogues and other Jewish institutions from terrorist attacks.

"This is a very serious matter," responded Wagner, a community activist and executive director of the nonprofit group Interfaith Works. "When I am elected to county council, I invite you to tell me where the need is. Only when your community is safe are we all safe."

But most of the other candidates were lukewarm on the idea.

"It certainly is an important issue and for many of us here tonight, it is not an unusual scene that when we go to events in the Jewish community that we'll see a police car outside, a constant reminder of the threat the Jewish community is under and frankly the threat the state of Israel is under," Trachtenberg said. "However despite that, I don't think it would be really fair for me to stand here tonight and say we're going to be in a position in the short term to spend county dollars on this. But I do believe that there are opportunities for better coordination, not only with the local police, but state and federal authorities. It is certainly something we need to be vigilant about and we need to take it seriously."

Added Rippeon, managing partner at Ourisman Automotive, "Terrorism is something that affects all of us. We all need to do our own part, but I also think we need to spend within our own boundaries. Terrorism, much like immigration, is a federal issue, and the federal government should take the lead on this issue."

Another question -- whether council members should travel to Israel or other countries to lure investment to Montgomery County -- proved more divisive.

"Yes, we should go to Israel," said Floreen, the council's current president. "Just imagine the opportunities for jobs in Montgomery County if we could strengthen our relationship with Israel and the world. We need all hands on deck if we want to attract businesses and jobs here to support our tax base."

Yet Gluck said, "I find it difficult in these times where we have so little money to justify this. I'd have to be convinced before saying yes to something like this."

Leventhal, who's been to Israel three times, told the audience he believes travel "substantially broadens the world view" of policymakers.

"Last year, I was invited to be an election observer in El Salvador, and I paid for the trip myself," said Leventhal, adding that he's also traveled to Brazil and China. "But we have to be very carefully guided by our ethics law, which precludes us from accepting trips from registered lobbyists. We do not need nine directors of economic development."

The question sparked accusations of waste from Dyer, who warned that next year, Montgomery County will face a budget shortfall of $900 million, not including $175 million in teachers' pensions.

"Two council members recently went to New York to deliver a presentation on our new fiscal policy, but I wonder if they've ever heard of a fax machine or a telephone," said Dyer. "Was it really necessary to go there in person? We don't get free vacations, and I don't think the county council should either."

Elrich elicited applause when he shot back that the money was well-spent because the New York trip saved Montgomery County's triple-A bond rating -- to which Rippeon retorted: "With proper fiscal management, the county's fiscal bond rating would never have been called into question."

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