Montgomery Co. executive reconsiders opt-out clause in air-conditioning bill

Things got heated at a council meeting Tuesday in Montgomery County, Maryland, over a bill about air conditioning.

The Montgomery County Council was scheduled to hold its final vote on Bill 24-19, which would require landlords to provide and maintain air-conditioning service, from June 1 to Sept. 30, for rental housing located in the county.

After several sessions working on the legislation — including specific recommendations from the county’s executive branch — the council crafted an addition to the bill, offering a clause that would allow tenants, who preferred not to have air conditioning for affordability, to opt out by signing a waiver.

But just before a meeting for the final approval vote, the council received a letter from the executive branch, reversing support for the opt-out clause.

“After seven months of consideration of the legislation, about an hour ago we got a letter from (the) executive branch, reversing its position and now opposing the opt-out allowance that we carefully crafted based on their recommendations,” said Council member Hans Riemer.

Council member Will Jawando — who opposed the opt-out clause — said he was a bit miffed by the last-minute shift.

“I do not think it’s a good idea getting a letter the day of, even though it’s in agreement with my position,” Jawando said. “I just hope, going forward, we can consider these things more carefully and get better positions from the executive branch.”

Council member Andrew Friedson was the most vocal in his disappointment.

“Getting a memo that contradicts seven months of a deliberative process, moments before a committee meeting and having that completely upend the legislative process, isn’t accountable and transparent,” Friedson said.

Friedson also said that he did not think they were doing the public a service by the way the legislative process was handled.

“To have the county executive contradict his own executive branch, less than an hour before we go into council session for final approval of a bill, is not the way to do public policy,” Friedson said.

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich said that he changed his position after talking to Council member Tom Hucker, the bill’s sponsor, a few days ago.

Elrich said that Hucker raised the issue and had very valid points.

“I’m not going to not change a position because it’s late. The council is certainly free to ignore my position. It’s not like those two (Friedson and Riemer) haven’t done it before. I don’t know why they suddenly got shy about it. But I thought Tom was right, and I thought the people who supported Tom were right.”

Elrich said that he thought the exemption, if you can get the tenants to sign the waiver, was “just wrong.”

“Basically, you’re asking tenants who can be easily pressured to sign a waiver that could put them in an unsafe situation. We talk about in the summer, if people are in units that are un-air conditioned, we have cooling stations out there if they can’t get cool. And here we’re saying it’s OK for a person to waive the air conditioning?” he said.

Elrich also worries tenants may waive the air conditioning under duress, and not because they do not want it.

“What concerns me most in this county is we don’t have a law that prevents unjust-cause evictions. They’re called just-cause eviction laws, which require you to have a reason. The tenant could be pressured by a landlord not to insist on the air conditioning, and if the tenant were to insist on the air conditioning the tenant could wind up getting evicted at the end of their lease. There are too many ways to go wrong,” Elrich said.

Elrich said that he is sorry about the timing of the letter. “Tom came to me at the end of the week and said, ‘Can you help me on this?’ And I thought about it, and I said yeah, this is the right thing to do.”

And complaining about the letter’s timing is irrelevant, as the real issue is whether including the opt-out clause is the “right thing to do or not the right thing to do,” Elrich said.

Elrich also said he suggested amendments to Hucker that would allow landlords to appeal if the air-conditioning project is too expensive and they can’t get it done on time.

The county executive also suggested a partnership with his department to see about creating a system that would offer low-interest loans to landlords who have to make upgrades if it will put them in a hardship position.

The council will revisit the legislation at a future meeting.

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