Transportation and technology will be on the minds of many local officials heading to Ocean City for the opening of the Maryland Association of Counties annual convention.
And many of those officials will be looking to Gov. Larry Hogan and his top transportation advisers to answer questions about a new scoring regime that has caused a stir because it appears to have limited to seven the number of projects eligible for $917 million in state aid.
“Certainly that topic is on a lot of people’s minds,” said Michael Sanderson, executive director of the association that represents Maryland’s 23 counties and Baltimore City. “I think if the governor could deliver some clarity on this topic, it would be extremely welcome.”
Douglass Mayer, a Hogan spokesman, declined discuss the specific topics of Hogan’s speech.
“He’s going to touch upon the things that are important to local governments,” Mayer said.
In a June speech, Hogan touched on early themes of his first-term administration and called on leaders of the state’s nearly 160 incorporated towns and cities to help pressure the Democratically controlled legislature to back his transportation priorities.
Mayer said that while this speech will be different, it could touch on some themes from the June address to the Maryland Municipal League conference, which was also held in the Ocean City Convention center.
Sanderson said he would like to see the governor’s speech return to its traditional roots and become a vehicle for highlighting an important policy initiative for the coming year.
About 2,500 state and local officials from across Maryland and exhibitors are registered to attend the annual conference, about a 15 percent increase from last year, according to Sanderson. The event is traditionally an early preview of issues facing counties that are likely to come up in the following General Assembly session. In past years the conferences have looked at police body cameras, state revenues, medical marijuana and local zoning issues.
“We always tried to have a wide swath of policy issues that face county governments or are in the news in general,” Sanderson said.
In recent years, the association has added sessions at the last minute to address late rising issues such as medical marijuana and local zoning laws.
This year, it’s Pokemon Go.
While a seminar on the widely popular smartphone video game might conjure visions of county leaders trying to catch a virtual monster while on a junket to the beach, Sanderson says there are serious policy questions about this new type of game when it comes to use of public lands and buildings, privacy concerns and public safety.
“We’ve got lots of public buildings and unattended land,” Sanderson said. “What if there is a gym or a rare Pokemon in a school or courthouse? We have to be thinking about this sort of thing.”
On a more serious side, local officials will be briefed on the latest issues involving the use of drone technology, especially in emergency situations. They also will discuss how to balance free speech rights of employees who post controversial or offensive things on social media and when those posts become grounds to fire or discipline workers.
The issue has come up in a number of jurisdictions in Maryland including a Baltimore County 911 operator who came under fire for controversial comments on her personal Facebook page about police brutality that some interpreted as anti-police. The operator later resigned.
“This is not just a hypothetical issue,” Sanderson said. “A lot of officials attending that seminar will have their eyes opened.”
But Sanderson acknowledges that transportation funding will be a hot topic.
Many state department secretaries appointed by Hogan will attend the conference. Local officials will have a chance to meet with them both in formal meetings and at informal receptions.
Transportation Deputy Secretary James F. Ports Jr. said in an interview last week that he has already scheduled more than a dozen meetings with local officials — a number he said was not unusual as county transportation officials seek to make the case for projects in their areas.
Attendees will also likely be thinking about state aid for such projects that has been slashed since 2009.
In 2014, then-candidate Hogan promised to restore the state transportation aid to local governments that was slashed by as much as 96 percent under former Gov. Martin O’Malley to help offset budget shortfalls.
In his first year in office, Hogan put in a bill to restore the funding and require future governors to provide more aid for highways and roads. He also including money in what was to be the first year of a plan to phase in the promised restoration of state aide.
Sanderson said local governments continue to “tread water” despite those promises but said Hogan has kept his word to them despite the lack of progress. He praised Hogan for putting in the bill that would have mandated aid for roads.
“That’s pretty atypical for a governor to do that, especially this governor because he has generally opposed mandated spending,” Sanderson said. “We think he’s been with us on this issue. We have to carry that message to the legislature and make this everybody’s priority rather than just some of ours.”