Nagender Madavaram, editor of the BetterMoCo.com portal interviewed Gaithersburg City Councilmember Laurie–Anne Sayles. She is the candidate for Montgomery County Council At-Large. Nagender discussed about her agenda and issues facing the County. The portal plans to interview all the candidates running for County Council and County Executive over the coming months.
Nagender Madavaram: You have a good track record in the Gaithersburg City Council. What made you want to run for County Councilmember At-Large?
Laurie–Anne Sayles: Well, I feel like now, with six seats of our current council open, it’s really important that we have trusted and tested leadership at the table while we are recovering from the pandemic and trying to revitalize our economy. Through my position in one of the most diverse cities in the country, as part of the Gaithersburg City Council, I’ve been able to acquire those best practices and skills. I’ll be able to bring those best practices and experience to the County Council. We also won’t have a woman on the council since Nancy Navarro is term limited. Many women were impacted during the pandemic and over 54% of unemployment claims were made by woman. Women are over 52% of the population, yet that’s not reflected in our leadership, and that’s not reflected in the policies that shape our community. It’s going to be important to have a woman who’s experienced coming into 2023 and beyond.
Nagender Madavaram: Gaithersburg City is doing well economically. What experience will you bring to the county to further energize the economic development process?
Laurie–Anne Sayles:I think it’s important to ensure that whatever businesses we have now that they are sustained. It’s also important that we keep our dollars local and so we tried to utilize our small businesses in any procurement decisions that we have first and foremost, ensuring that they are given priority consideration to any of our spending. Second, disadvantaged, disabled businesses, most importantly some of our businesses that are on the brink, also should have an opportunity to sustain and expand their activities here in the city of Gaithersburg. We’ve created the Toolbox Grant Program. We put additional revenue into this avenue so that any business which needed to make improvements in the pandemic can get access to money. I was very happy to be able to give small grants to some of those businesses that weren’t eligible for the Paycheck Protection program. I was able to help fill the gap until they were eligible to receive federal funding. We have really good amenities in our county and that’s one of the reasons why I moved here. I know businesses moved here because of our great school system. So, when we do well, our economy does even better.
Nagender Madavaram: In Gaithersburg City, Kentland and Washington Center are developed well. House values and apartment rents are unaffordable to middle-income and essential service workers. How do you balance development as well as affordability?
Laurie–Anne Sayles:When I moved to Montgomery County, I was a single mom and I lived in affordable housing in North Bethesda. Montgomery County has one of the, if not the best, affordable housing programs in the country. They have created a system of integrating affordable housing with market rate. That means depending on your income level, you can pay anywhere from 30% to 60% of the area median income. When I was working part-time, I was only able to afford 30% of rent and that was enough. When I graduated from college and I was no longer eligible for the program, I had to move into Gaithersburg. I was able to find an entire townhouse for rent for the same amount of money that I would pay for an apartment. I think we have to be conscious of not only our affordability, but also even geographic opportunities. I may no longer be able to live right across the street from the metro but I was able to get a townhouse, a bigger place. I think we have to be considerate of that. We’re going to have to start building opportunities where housing is affordable, and so I’m glad that I chose to move with my family. I was also able to become a homeowner. I continued my education and I think that’s the great thing about living in Montgomery County. The resources are there and we make those resources accessible to the residents. Not a lot of people know about the rental assistance programs or the first-time home buyers’ program. We have 15% of constructed area set aside in any new developments. That’s a split of seven and a half percent for very low-income residents and seven and a half percent dedicated to Workforce Development Housing to accommodate those frontline workers like the police officers, firefighters and healthcare workers. I think better attention needs to be given on how we are sharing all of those resources with our residents. Everyone should have access to broadband or the internet to access the county resources. We should also be doing that with social services. Whether it’s housing, food or healthcare, we should ensure that anyone who wants to move here can access that pathway of programming. Along that pathway they are able to access the resources they need and they’re able to understand where they’re at in the process. We have to be able to better communicate and we can do that with the technology that we’ve been seeing during the pandemic.
Nagender Madavaram: Racial justice and equal opportunities to all are challenging issues. What activities are you doing for racial justice?
Laurie–Anne Sayles:I think racial justice is more than just not defunding the police or the criminal justice system. Racial justice to me is leveling the playing field and that is ensuring that there is economic justice as well. Making sure that there is equal opportunity for home ownership or intergenerational wealth building because people of color, communities of color was shut out of economic and financial programs for so long. I think with what has happened, this racial reckoning since the George Floyd incident has really shed a light on some of the ways that we can be more equitable. I think the county has done a good job of starting the conversation with the Racial Equity resolution that was passed with Nancy Navarro at the helm. I worked with the National League of Cities, our partners in Takoma Park to pass their own Racial Equity resolution along with an action and funding to hire a Racial Equity Director. So, that any decisions that we make, any developments that we plan will now be looked at through a framework. Who is being disenfranchised? Who is being impacted? Who is benefiting from these decisions that we make? We’re also working on equity in our hiring decisions with human resources. Are we ensuring that our police force is reflective of our community? And if not, how are we incorporating racial equity in our hiring decisions in our recruitment efforts? As soon as we had the George Floyd incident, we adopted the eight recommendations that can’t wait. We had already had seven of the recommendations implemented and the last one had to do with training with the community. The additional training on bias in our police force was also completed in May. We were able to mandate that all of our officers, whether plainclothes or not will have body cameras when they are policing in our community. Previously, plainclothes officers did not have to wear body cameras. You look at the incident of George Floyd and countless other names to ensure that we are intentional in the decisions that we make when we are having our officers engaged with the public. We need to ensure that more of our officers actually can afford to live in the communities that their policing. They’re more familiar with the community. We also want to make sure that they not just live here but also, that they are more compassionate in their engagement. I think, this year is going to show us whether or not the decision to remove School Resource Officers from the schools was a good decision or not. I was supportive of removing officers from our schools. When I was in school, K through 12, we didn’t have police officers in our schools. We had administrators who kept us in mind and peer mediators. We actually had people in our classrooms who were sensitive to our social, emotional learning experience. I think more resources should be allocated towards mental health and enriching our students in academic instruction versus policing our students. I think with some of these best practices we will see more emphasis on community-oriented policing versus involving the federal justice system.
Nagender Madavaram: You mentioned that the police should live in the communities. The problem is police officers are living either in other counties or in new developments. The real problem is in different neighborhoods. Is it a right strategy to initiate special recruitment drive in problem-prone areas?
Laurie–Anne Sayles:Most definitely. In Gaithersburg City, we have our police cadet program where we work with high schools to recruit young people. This program is similar to what Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) do to recruit young people into the Armed Services. We can be recruiting our young people right into the police force. It’s a good paying job. It requires two-to-four-year degrees, depending on what you want to do in the police force, and so when we are able to recruit our young people right from the community, they get a good paying job. They’re familiar with the area. I’d be so supportive of ensuring that we have a pipeline of cadets ready to enter the police force upon graduation from Montgomery College and even going to get a four-year degree from Universities at Shady Grove. So, there’s a way that we can do that, and I’ve heard that officers are leaving the police force, so we’re going to have to be really strategic in how we recruit.
Nagender Madavaram: In 2018 around 129,000 residents voted in Democratic Party primary. In 2022, 150,000 voters may participate. In a multi-cultured county if the new immigrants participate in primary voting the whole dynamics will change. You may see new leadership in the county. How do you encourage and integrate new immigrants to take part in the government process?
Laurie–Anne Sayles:I think when more residents in our community participate, especially in the political process, that’s when we thrive. We may be the most diverse Council in the county because of the diversity of voices, ideas, perspectives, background experiences that we have from the daughters of immigrants. It only enriches the discussion, and so there are many points of engagement that residents have when they move to our county. It should be part of a welcome packet for anyone who changes their voter registration information. If they are going to get a driver’s license, there’s so many points where we as government should be capturing those residents, their information and letting them know that they have a place in our government. We shouldn’t only be getting calls when trash needs to be picked up or a road issue needs to be addressed. We should always be engaged when any sort of decision comes that effects our residents. Whether it’s looking for a job, a new business comes, when new housing developments are being built and when environmental projects are being created in the community. We should have our residents engaged and finding out those entry points of when they are coming in contact with the county. We should find ways to connect them with through text alerts, email alerts or mailers from our Board of Elections. We shouldn’t only hear from the Board of Elections when we have an election coming up, it should be an annual way to remind people. We shouldn’t just be talking to our residents once in every four years. We can do more, and I think when we have more people involved, we are a better and stronger community because of their engagement.
Nagender Madavaram: In MoCo, high schools have two systems. Honor programs are meant for honor students and general programs are designed for on-level students. School administration pays more interest to honor program students and not as much on on-level students. Most Hispanic and Black students end up in the general programs. There should be a bridge program to bring on-level students into the honor program classrooms. How can you use your office for improving the standards of on-level students?
Laurie–Anne Sayles:MCPS manages our schools but as a County Council member we definitely have the use of the bully pulpit to advocate for the appropriate programs to not only prepare on-level students for learning, but also to encourage as you said, a bridge for students who are below level to get on-level and hopefully get into advanced or honors level before graduation. When I first moved to the county, my first board that I sat on was the Community Action Board and we advocated for early childhood education, which provides comprehensive education to our low-income learners. Having a robust and fully funded early childhood education program ensures that our students not only have a full day pre-K educational program, but by the time they are tested at the 3rd grade level, they are prepared for those tests. They are prepared to learn when they enter into the school system. I think it’s almost a detriment for us to wait until students get to middle school. We have to reach them early and we have to ensure that any student that enters into kindergarten is prepared for learning by using fully funded early childhood education for three and four-year-old children. We can no longer depend on students getting up to speed by five years old and kindergarten, and we have to put our money where our mouth is if we really want to ensure great outcomes for all of our students. We spend billions of dollars on our education. We put millions of dollars to our nonprofit partners all throughout the year, every single year, but the opportunity gap is only widening. So why not invest on the front end so that we will have even better results to report. On the back end, we are graduating and preparing our students for the 21st Century challenges that are going to demand even more out of our students than ever before with greater technological advances.
Nagender Madavaram: De-funding the police is popular slogan in progressives. What is your stand on it?
Laurie–Anne Sayles:The emotions were very high when defunding the police was raised. George Floyd was murdered before our eyes in that gruesome eight-minute incident. When we look at other countries, the police don’t have powerful military equipment. Countries are focused on ensuring that their police force is educated and well paid. They’re ensuring that they have the best training possible on the de-escalation techniques and they focus more on community policing. Instead of defunding the police, the slogan should say a reallocation of funding to the areas that are most needed. I don’t want to hear about another incident with a traffic stop and traffic violations that can be addressed in the court system. Take the violator’s tags and give them ticket. Let them go to court. I don’t want to hear about another developmentally disabled person or someone who’s having a mental health attack being killed while in police custody. These are things that we can prevent and avoid when we have better trained officers surveilling our communities. It can be done with more resources allocated to the areas where they’re needed. We should be using data to direct where training is needed. We just did a deep dive into some of our data. We realized that if we have too many complaints about excessive use of force then we need to do more training on de-escalation. Let’s look at the data and the complaints. Let’s look at the incidents and if our police officers are spending too much time on traffic stops. If there are too many incidents of excessive use of force during a traffic stop, we know that we need to better allocate the time and the funding of where officers are spending time. We need to see how many open investigations we have and see where resources need to be applied. I’d rather see more closed cases. I’d rather see a shorter time of cases being opened for investigation rather than more resources being spent to arm officers in surveilling the community. I think a better saying should be let’s reallocate the funding where it is needed in public safety.
Nagender Madavaram: Transportation is severe problem in UpCounty. Apart from Montgomery County and Frederick County, residents of Pennsylvania and West Virginia are using I-270. It is an interstate issue, but county residents are facing traffic problems. The perception of upper county is different from down county. How do you address the traffic problem in view of different perceptions in the county?
Laurie–Anne Sayles:It is a very challenging problem. The county has so many master plans in the books, transportation master plans that have been approved that have yet to be funded. I know that climate change is a huge concern for our residents. We should think about how best to address traffic concerns and issues while also being mindful of the issues related to more cars. We should look at the road congestion and how that impacts our air quality and the cost burden of putting more toll roads. The decision was made to approve more toll roads and expand the Beltway, which can increase the charge up to $50 during peak hour traffic. During rush hour, most of our families are dropping kids off and trying to get to their jobs, and so why would we want to burden our workers? Some would say it is unaffordable and an additional cost when we haven’t even addressed the transportation master plans like bus rapid transit on 355, which is the artery of the county and can offer so many viable economic options for good paying jobs. I would want us to look at getting cars off the road and ensuring that we are thinking about the environmental impacts of these transportation plans. If we’re really committed to addressing climate change collectively then we have to make some tough decisions and so prioritizing the master plans that are already approved is important. Making sure those are funded, ensuring that we are prioritizing our environment in any transportation decisions. There are opportunities for bicycle lanes and other modes of transportation that we need to consider when we’re thinking about transportation and how we’re going to improve commuter times for our guests.
Nagender Madavaram: There is general feeling in UpCounty residents that the county administration does not allocate sufficient resources to them. As a Gaithersburg City Council member, what is your experience about it?
Sales: We currently don’t have any At-Large representation from the UpCounty and I’m trying to change that narrative that the UpCounty doesn’t vote. Hopefully we will disprove this narrative in the upcoming election because of the engagement from areas like Poolesville, Clarksburg and Germantown. We have residents who care about their communities. We want the same things as people who live in down county who want big schools. We need to ensure that we’re not just talking to each other about these issues, but we are showing up at the polls on Election Day and showing how important it is to have geographical representation that not only reflects the growing diversity of our community, but also reflects the geographical needs of our community. There seems to be parts of our county that don’t have a seat at the table and so we have to ensure that our overlooked communities have a strong advocate representing them on the County Council that is very sensitive to the unique needs.
Nagender Madavaram: Currently, Nancy Navarro is the only female member on the council. Women and minorities encounter many challenges to run for public office. You are elected to the Gaithersburg City Council and you have experience in managing a successful campaign. What suggestions can you give women and minorities who are running for public office?
Sales: In 2017, we broke the glass ceiling as the first African American was elected to the Gaithersburg City Council. It’s important that we have people in elected office that reflect the diversity in the city. When you educate a woman, you educate an entire community. There are more women in the workforce now who are balancing families and careers. In such a progressive county, to see the lack of representation of women when we make up over 54% of the population, it is shameful and we should be embarrassed by this and encourage women to have a seat at the table. We should be supportive of women who step up and who are courageous enough to participate in such a challenging process. There are a lot of sacrifices that have to be made when considering a run for office and the reward is also great. We have to pay attention as a nation about what’s happening in Texas with women’s rights on the line. We need more women at the table to ensure that woman can speak to their needs. The economic challenges that women encounter is enormous. Women have to be at the table while recovering from this pandemic when over 54% of our population was impacted. We have to make sure that women are part of rebuilding and revitalizing the economy and that we are engaged in those decisions, not just at the local level but also at the state and national level. I’m excited to be involved at this time and I’m excited about the example and the responsibility I have as a woman leader to the next generation of young women who are coming up behind me and to ensure that the pathway of that door remains open. We continue to grow and nurture the next generation of women leaders because they have really unique and important skills to contribute to our democracy.