County leaders are calling on Gov. Larry Hogan to be more inclusive in his decision-making as he eases restrictions put in place to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Maryland.
Hogan and his aides have over the last two weeks rebuffed criticisms that they are excluding local officials and point out that in many cases their concerns already have been taken into account as restrictions are lifted. The criticism of Hogan, a Republican, from Democrats echoes the gripes of Democrats in the General Assembly who have long complained that the second-term governor keeps information close to the chest and keeps them in the dark on decisions made.
Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman, a Democrat, said Hogan has not participated on a call with local leaders since May 13 — a claim disputed by the governor’s staff — and that they have been excluded from tasks forces when it comes to looking at the needs of local government.
“We would like notice in advance so that when new orders are announced we have at the local level time to prepare for it and time to consult with our health officers about how to implement it.,” said Pittman.
At issue for Pittman and other local leaders of larger jurisdictions is what they say is a lack of communication about what will be announced in advance. Better advance notice and shared planning, they say, would give them time to prepare to implement changes to accommodate easing of rules on outdoor dining, as an example.
Baltimore County Executive John Olszewski Jr., on Thursday, announced his county would conditionally approve all requests for outdoor dining permit applications made on its website starting Friday morning. He thanked county employees for being flexible in adapting to changes “we typically learn about as the public learns about them.”
Pittman said Friday that the governor has delegated authority to local leaders without providing a lot of guidance. That, he said, has created confusion and made local leaders targets of opponents of the extended shutdown that has claimed more than 2,000 lives and over 600,000 jobs in nearly three months.
Pittman said he and other central Maryland leaders were surprised by Hogan’s May 13 announcement to begin entering into phase one.
That announcement left it to county officials to decide if they were ready to enter the first stage partially, fully or not at all.
Pittman said the impact of that announcement “was like lighting a match in a room with a gas leak. People now had local targets for their frustration — their own local governments.”
Many of the larger, more urban counties slowed the pace of entering into phase one. The delays made county leaders such as Olszewski the subject of protests. In Montgomery County, angry protesters shouted down County Executive Marc Elrich Thursday as he announced his county — with the second-largest number of confirmed cases — would move into stage one of the recovery and also allow outdoor seating for restaurants.
Those protesters ran Elrich off with profanity, sometimes calling him a “dictator” or “fascist” and demanding he be subject to a recall election.
“I would say it’s not buyer’s remorse because we didn’t ask for it,” Pittman said when asked if he and other executives regretted asking for more flexibility in how each county opened.
Pittman said counties wanted more of a tiered approach similar to what is used in Virginia that might allow smaller, more rural counties to move at a faster pace. He said Hogan’s plan to reopen, announced earlier in May, lacks specifics and often doesn’t keep to his own plan.
“What he’s done is he’s taken pieces from different phases,” said Pittman. “Houses of worship was actually in phase two, he used it in phase one. He did a partial phase one before he did the whole thing.”
Hogan and his staff say the governor has included local leaders.
Hogan, speaking on Wednesday, said the flexibility was exactly what local leaders had asked for.
“The leaders begged for and requested that flexibility in decision-making ability for their individual counties, which we gave them, and some of them seemed to say we shouldn’t have given them what they asked for,” said Hogan.
In response to questions about the complaints, Michael Ricci, a Hogan spokesman, provided a list of dates of meetings and calls with local leaders.
“The governor’s office had another call last week with county leaders to hear their input and feedback.” Ricci said in an email, “We then provided similar notification and time for implementation with this week’s actions. In fact, as you know, some of these were things that the folks you cited expressly called on the governor to do — for instance, Johnny O called on the governor to open drive-in theaters. Also, one of their previous complaints was we did not provide enough local data/metrics–so, we provided positivity rate data for not just the state but all 24 jurisdictions, which some county leaders cited in their reopening decisions.”