Frederick County Councilwoman Jessica Fitzwater defended the county’s progress during eight years of charter government, while state Sen. Michael Hough advocated for a course correction, as the two county executive candidates sparred during a forum on Wednesday.
During the event, they each had two minutes to answer questions about topics that included executive leadership experience and the growth of the county government in the last decade.
The candidates also responded to questions about the county’s plan to preserve Sugarloaf Mountain and its surrounding area, and the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office 287(g) agreement with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency.
Fitzwater reiterated during the forum that County Executive Jan Gardner, D, was “exactly the best person” for the county to elect as its first executive. Hough said that as an executive, he would try to emulate Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a fellow Republican.
A Goucher College Poll released Monday showed that 64% of Democrats and 58% of Republicans approve of the governor. His approval rating has been steady during his eight years in office, according to the poll.
One of the first questions posed to candidates compared the role of county executive to running a $750 million corporation and asked the candidates to detail their leadership experience.
For most of the eight years that Fitzwater has been on the County Council, the county has maintained a AAA bond rating, placing it among the most financially efficient counties in the country.
Fitzwater said the county’s strong financial position saved money on long-term investments like school construction projects, and higher-than-expected surplus revenues have advanced the building of new parks and libraries.
Fitzwater also said that, in her 16 years teaching elementary school music in the county, she has had experience managing the concerns of students, their parents and school system administrators.
Hough, meanwhile, said the charter form of government "is not working like it's supposed to."
In 2014, Frederick County transitioned to a charter form of government, with a seven-member County Council and a county executive. Previously, the Board of County Commissioners fulfilled both legislative and executive functions.
The county, Hough said, needs a course correction. He said he would slow the government’s rate of spending and freeze property taxes by lowering the property tax rate to the constant yield rate.
The constant yield represents the real property tax rate necessary to generate the same revenue from year to year. If tax revenue is expected to rise because of higher property assessments, then the tax rate would drop to reach the constant yield.
The county’s proposed real property tax rate for the fiscal year that began in July — $1.06 per $100 of assessed value — has remained the same since 2014.
Rather than advancing long-term projects, the county should use its surplus revenue to lower local property and income taxes, Hough said.
The two-term state senator — who served one term in the House of Delegates before switching chambers — said he has experience managing a staff of more than 20 people and overseeing a $1.7 million budget as a chief of staff on Capitol Hill.
Since 2017, Hough has worked as chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Alex Mooney, a Republican in West Virginia, who formerly represented Frederick County as a state senator.
Hough said the County Council has been a “rubber stamp” for Gardner during the first eight years of charter government.
Two Republican councilmen, Steve McKay and Phil Dacey, have proposed trimming parts of Gardner’s proposed budgets each of the last four years. But, each time, the council voted down their proposals and approved Gardner’s proposed budget.
Fitzwater, though, pushed back and said she has disagreed with Gardner's proposals and her staff during council meetings.
“I haven't seen Sen. Hough at any of our council meetings, so I'm not sure if he's really seen some of the push and pull that has happened,” Fitzwater said.
Fitzwater defended the rate of growth in the county government, which she said has been reasonable considering the county’s population growth since the transition to charter government.
The county’s budget for the fiscal year that began in July is 10% larger than last year’s. The budget grew 8% in 2021 and 4% in 2020.
Frederick County’s population increased by 16% between 2010 and 2020, according to the 2020 U.S. Census. The statewide population increased by 7%.
The growth also occurred during a time of extreme inflation, Fitzwater said.
The candidates shared differing views of the county’s Sugarloaf Treasured Landscape Management Plan, which the county’s planners drafted to preserve Sugarloaf Mountain and its surrounding area.
The County Council is expected to vote in late October whether to approve the plan, which would rezone portions of 163 properties and impose development restrictions in the area.
Hough said the county is forcing the preservation plan on landowners in the Sugarloaf area and on the owner of Sugarloaf Mountain, Stronghold. The nonprofit’s Board of Trustees members have said they will close public access to the mountain if the county passes a version of the plan that they disagree with.
“That is a broken process. That's why we need different leadership,” Hough said. “We can't have any of this zero-sum game process where it's the government versus the people.”
Council members have proposed amendments to the Sugarloaf plan in recent weeks. Fitzwater has for the most part refrained from making her stance known.
"I'm doing what I do every time we have a land-use decision before the council. ... I'm listening,” she said.
But she added that the council “cannot move forward if we don't have Stronghold on board” with the plan.
Hough said the council is rushing to get the Sugarloaf plan passed before the November general election. But Fitzwater said the council is following normal procedures, as the 90-day timeline allowed under state law to consider legislation still applies.
The two candidates had contrasting views of the Sheriff’s Office’s 287(g) agreement, which allows ICE to train law enforcement officers to ask the immigration status of those booked at jails. In Frederick County, only correctional officers are trained to ask about the immigration status of inmates at the Adult Detention Center.
Hough said that he supports the 287(g) agreement and that people who oppose the program do not understand its intent.
“There has been terrible demagoguery of this program,” Hough said. “It is partnering with our federal law enforcement and partnering to remove people who are not supposed to be in the country.”
Fitzwater said the 287(g) agreement affects businesses' ability to attract employees and makes many people feel unsafe calling the police if they need help. But Fitzwater said she wouldn’t have the ability as county executive to change the agreement.
“It's not something that I have the ability or intent on shutting down,” Fitzwater said.
Hough mentioned that, during a County Council meeting in 2020 about an audit of the 287(g) program, Fitzwater called herself a racist. He has mentioned Fitzwater's comments in his campaign advertisements, too.
"This is a person at a County Council meeting proclaiming herself to be racist. This is a fringe politician," Hough said during Wednesday's forum.
Fitzwater was rebutting claims that the meeting between council members and the sheriff had been uncivil because of the use of words like “racist” and “white privilege.”
"I am not a racist, and I did not say those comments in the most artful way. But I do not back down about talking about the fact that we all have implicit bias," Fitzwater said.