County Council Member Gets Testy Before Approving Fossil Fuel Divestment Resolution

George Leventhal criticizes Roger Berliner’s council leadership


George Leventhal, left, and Roger Berliner, right

Provided photos

The Montgomery County Council on Tuesday approved a resolution encouraging managers of county retirement funds to divest from fossil fuel companies for environmental reasons, but not before council member George Leventhal took a shot at President Roger Berliner.

Berliner, who sponsored the legislation, had attempted to gain the support of his colleagues to pass a bill rather than a resolution to urge divestment from fossil fuel stocks in the investment portfolio, but said he received significant pushback over concerns that doing so could reduce the fund’s returns. Instead he decided to move forward with a resolution, as had been done in Washington, D.C. in 2014.

“I consider this to be a serious statement about what our council believes is appropriate public policy without costing our retirees anything,” Berliner said.

As part of the resolution, Berliner had proposed investment fund managers consult The Carbon Underground 200, which ranks top oil and gas companies based on potential carbon emissions, when evaluating firms to invest in. Berliner said other jurisdictions, such as D.C., have used the list, produced by research and consulting firm Fossil Free Indexes, to help them divest from fossil fuel companies.

Leventhal described Berliner’s inclusion of the list as “last-minute” and said it was in keeping with his style about how he informed the council about the divestment resolution in the past. During the meeting, several council members noted they were searching for more information about The Carbon Underground 200.

“I know the council president is in a big hurry on this matter,” Leventhal said, adding he thought it was disrespectful to not give council members more time or information to help them understand what the list is before voting on the resolution. Later, Leventhal accused Berliner of failing to regularly inform the council on issues.

“The role of the presiding officer is to reflect the wishes of the body and to consult with members of the body and I do hope that in the future presiding officers will resume that role,” Leventhal said. “It’s not happening this year.”

Berliner responded by saying he didn’t believe including the list was a “radical step here.”

“Other jurisdictions use the Carbon 200 to identify those companies that hold the most reserves of fossil fuels,” Berliner said. “It’s used by many, many municipalities.”

After the exchange, council member Nancy Navarro alluded to the possibility that the two men would likely run against each other in 2018 for Montgomery County executive—Leventhal has already announced he is running while Berliner is expected to make an announcement next month.

“So, we’re in the middle of May,” Navarro said. “The primary is in June of next year. It’s going to be fun. No seriously, I hope that my colleagues will remember that civility is always important as we try to work through what we’re working through because it’s going to get unbearable.”

Ultimately, the council decided against using the list and instead approved an amendment that would require the investment board to report back on its fossil fuel investments after six months and then annually after that point.

The resolution would not require the board to divest from fossil fuel stocks or other related-investments as it is required by state and federal law to maximize the financial return of the $4 billion fund serving county employees. The fund includes about $70 million in fossil fuel company holdings.

Supporters of fossil fuel divestment in Montgomery County lobbied council members to try to require the retirement fund to remove fossil fuel stocks from the county’s portfolio. Jeffrey Weisner, president of the 350 MoCo advocacy group, wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece last year that the fossil fuel industry is willing to risk “catastrophic climate change for its own profits.”

In a press release Tuesday, the group applauded the passage of the resolution. However, the group said passing a bill would have been a superior approach to “establish clear parameters for county pension investment policy while making a clear statement that Montgomery County wants its investments aligned with its values as a community that cares about the threat of climate change.”

The group noted that the D.C. Retirement Board was able to divest its fossil fuel investments from its fund about two years after the city enacted a similar resolution.

Both County Executive Ike Leggett and Gino Renne, chair of the county Board of Investment Trustees and the president of the local employee union MCGEO Local 1994, previously indicated their support of the resolution, as long as the board would be able to make investment decisions in the best interest of those who have money in the fund.

Council member Nancy Floreen dismissed the resolution as a “political document.” She said its objectives could be achieved by encouraging the board to consider the environment when making investment decisions.

She was only council member to vote against the proposal, which passed 8 to 1.

“I don’t think this is a political document,” council member Marc Elrich said. “It’s a statement of understanding about where we’re trying to get to. It reflects a broader sentiment that the world is changing and it’s important to address these issues.”

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