Dear Readers,

Accusing the city council of trying to “pull a stealth move,” Ward One Council Member Joy Austin-Lane objected to reducing by $10,000 the $25,000 pledged to the Safe Roadways Committee a few weeks ago.

At that Jan. 17th meeting some earnest young committee representatives presented three proposals that they felt would encourage mass transportation and bicycling:

1) Painting bike “sharrows” – chevron shapes showing safest place to ride – on street pavement to show lane is shared by bikes,
2) Installing bike-rack parking around town in 41 locations,
3) Provide ride-on schedules in more bus shelters.

Then, the city council said that $25,000 could be taken from the city’s reserve fund for these projects, but at the February 13th meeting, Council Member Bruce Williams suggesting reducing the amount to $15,000, saying he was loath to deplete the reserve fund by so much. He said “shame on me” for going along with the proposal in the first place, blaming the oversight on fatigue at the time, joking he “was brain-dead” that evening. Your Gilbert suspects that it was more of a case of buyers’ remorse than fatigue, as he distinctly recalls an apparently alert discussion Williams held with committee members that evening regarding the unfamiliar term “sharrow” just prior to the settlement of the $25,000. Of course, he may have been talking in his sleep!

Council Member Doug Barry agreed with Williams. He stressed that he didn’t mean to diminish the work of the committee, but he admitted to doubts about the projects, particularly the one providing Ride-On schedules in bus shelters, which he said was more appropriately the responsibility of Ride-On.

Williams suggested that the smaller amount could fund an initial pilot project and if it worked, and if Ride-On kicked in an amount, they could reconsider additional funding.

Mayor Porter agreed this would be prudent and it seemed as though council had reached consensus when Austin-Lane spoke up and somewhat self-righteously objected, saying it was a “bad move” to wait until the citizens committee was no longer before the council to “make a stealth move.”

The rest of the council did not see it that way, she was the lone vote against it. The Mayor assured Austin-Lane and the public that there would be a second reading of the amendment and there would be opportunity for public comment before the final vote.

Austin-Lane was the lone voice of dissent on that one, but when she later raised objections, this time about seeking funding for the community center gym, she had allies.

The subject before the council was a presentation by staff of state legislation impacting the city. One of these was the opportunity to get state bond funding for the gymnasium.

The Mayor and her supporters on the council, particularly Marc Elrich and Bruce Williams, have been insistent that a gym will be built. They have acted as though the Mayor’s reelection indicated a mandate to proceed. Others on the council are more mindful of the controversial morass they got into over the planning and construction of the community center. There have been charges of incompetence and arrogance, and they don’t want similar charges leveled about the gym construction.

Whether or not the community wants a gym built was not only a difference of opinion, it was a clash of different versions of community center history. One side said that the council, bestowed with a grant, rushed into the community center project without planning it first, Then, with the support of the “usual” activists, but with no real data to show what the community wanted, came up with an elaborate design that far exceeded the budget.

The Mayor and others who had been through the process said this was historical revisionism, that the community had been rigorously surveyed and canvassed, that if anything, the community wanted too much and the plans had to be scaled back, and that there had been preliminary planning before the initial state grant came in.

Again it was Austin-Lane who first raised objections. She said she felt uncomfortable pursuing state bond funds before the community was consulted about whether they really wanted a gym. She felt the public was being eliminated in the process, urging a public meeting in March where the public could comment.

The Mayor said her recollection was that the last time the subject was discussed the public wanted information on what sort of plans were possible and what alternative plans would cost. Since there was no new information about this, she said, there would be no point in having a public meeting until certain preliminary information was gathered. Meanwhile it was prudent to line up funding, if needed. Otherwise the city would have to wait another year.

Colleen Clay, though she represents the Mayor’s ward, did not back her up on this issue. She said the feedback she’s gotten from the community is that funding drove the previous plan, not the other way around, and that not all of her consituents support having a gym.
Marc Elrich jumped in, asserting that this was a rewriting of history. The gym, he reminded the council, was what started the project in the first place. It was the most widely supported part of it, and was left for last because of how the funding and construction developed. Council member Williiams backed him up, saying the gym is indeed important to the community.

Council Member Seamens spoke next, aligning himself with Austin-Lane and Clay. He supported developing a plan before getting the money, and seeing what citizens want in a gym, “if we decide to build one.” He feels residents want a more organized, more inclusive approach to the gym. He said he finds no fault in how the council proceeded with the community center, but he said there is a public perception that it could have been done better. He saw no harm in forming a committee to determine community interest in a gym.

The Mayor, appearing to sidestep the controversy, said that though she agreed that it is critical to engage the public in the planning, that was not the question before the council. The question before them was the state bond bill and whether the city should put in a bid for the money. She added there already is a liaison committee in place which is getting community input on the gym. She suggested moving forward with the bond bill, then setting up a planning process, “moving forward at each stage.”

She asked if anyone on the council was against the bond bill. in response, Joy Austin-Lane repeated her request for a public forum in March and expressed concern that the council was about to again let the funding drive the project.

The Mayor took that for a no vote, and Austin-Lane took umbrage, saying icily “do not mischaracterize my position!” She clarified that while she is in favor of a gym and the bond funding, she is uncomfortable proceeding with the funding before the plan.
The Mayor, stiffly polite, said she disagreed with Austin-Lane’s funding-before-the-plan characterization of the previous community center process.

Clay said she had no objection to the bond bill, but added that she is aware of a lot of “buzz” on the issue. She has seen discussion on e-mail lists and has received personal e-mails and calls expressing the same doubts Austin-Lane had voiced She also said she was concerned that the council was putting the cart before the horse – or at least had the appearance of doing so.

The Mayor again explained her take on the matter, that citizens are awaiting data on the gym: the site, the configuration, the contents, the cost, and that gathering that information is her priority to fulfill the exceptions of the public. She did say, however, that she will put back on the agenda a discussion of what the next steps should be.

The city manager Barbara Matthews threw a little bit of cold water on the Mayor’s look-at-a-wide-range-of -options-and-chose-the-best-deal scenario, saying that the council has to have a pretty solid idea of what will be in gym before they hire an architect to come up with conceptual designs and feasibility studies. Too many options to consider would drive up the cost of the studies.

Mayor Porter corrected the record on the history of the community center. She said there were focus groups, a public survey that was published in the city newsletter, three committees: one to find a site, one to discuss content, and a third to find alternatives, and later a committee to plan the whole facility. There were three site proposals, and a series of hearings, and presentations. There wasn’t money committed prior to the decision to move forward, she asserted.

Barry also decried the “historical revisionism,” saying that if anything there was too much public input, so much so that the project was unbuildable and had to be winnowed down. He added however that he was not against full community involvement, cautioning that they didn’t do it during the first phase of the community center and they must do it this time.

So, that seemed to put him in the middle between Porter/Wiliams/Elrich and Austin-Lane/Clay/Seamens

They voted to pursue the bond bill, but there is obviously an almost even, and contentious split on the council about whether to forge ahead with a gym or not. Though Mayor Porter and allies are acting as though the defeat of her opponent settled the question of whether to proceed with the gym posthaste, the other three (and a half?) are telling them that the election did not settle the matter and a significant percentage of the community is still upset about how the community center was handled and is leery that the same thing is about to happen with the gym.
– Gilbert.

About the Author

Gilbert is the pseudonym of a hard-bitten, hard-drinking, long-time Takoma Park resident who maintains the granolapark blog. Gilbert and William L. Brown — Granola Park's mild-mannered chief of staff, researcher, and drink pourer — have never been seen in the same place at the same time.

1 Comment on "Split!"

  1. Gilbert,
    First of all, no one is voting as a bloc of allies and not allies.
    Second, going forward with the bond bill is not the same as going forward with the gym. The point of going forward is to avoid a repeat of the last public hearing where the question was raised about how much will it cost and how will you pay for it. Even at that hearing, there was a lot of support expressed for the gym – but not for plunging ahead without knowing what we need to know first. If we tried to have the discussion now, without knowing whether it’s feasible, what it will cost and who will pay for it, we could pretty much guarantee that no one would support going forward.
    Gettting the bond bill, whatever we get, will let us tell people how much money we have. It doesn’t obligate us to do anything, but it lets us at least tell people that we have “x” dollars for the project.
    We are also having the utilities surveyed and the condition of the soil explored so that we know what we’re building on, so we can get a real, accurate picture of what it will cost to build on that site, and what the problems are regarding soil and utilities. Without knowing those things we can’t do more than guess what a gym would cost and they have the ability to double the price of the project if both of them deliver bad news.
    When we know what the conditions are, what at least some of the revenues are, and then get feedback about what kind gym can go on the site and what it will cost, then we can go to the community and lay out what it’s going to take to get from here to there.
    As for the gym itself, I’ve always supported it. What I object to is the suggestion in some people’s discussion that the gym was never vetted to the community and never had support. If anything, this was the first piece brought to the community, it was the piece that had the most enthusiastic support, it was part of the original project, it would have been built as part of the original project had we had all the money and had the need to stage construction not been raised. The gym isn’t missing because it wasn’t discussed or agreed to, it’s missing for reasons of money and staging. So, yes, I have a problem with the revisionist approach that the gym wasn’t part of the original agreement, understanding and extensive community discussion.
    I don’t want a repeat of the what happened with the first phase of this project. You could just as easily count me among those who are unhappy about how it went. I had different ideas about how to proceed at the time, but I didn’t prevail. Such is life.
    And back to the “split”. Every single member of the council has said they support a gym and want to build it. That’s not much of a split.
    No one is proposing that we let the contracts on this thing. I don’t know what this will cost and, therefore, how it will be paid for. I think you’ll have very different discussions depending on the answer to those questions. It seems to me that if you’re going to have a meeting to ask people whether it’s “worth” it, we better be able to say what that means. That’s all we’re doing now.
    The point, by the way, in going forward with the bond now is (and remember this doesn’t cost us anything) is that it’s an election year and all the delegates are hard at work delivering money to their constituents. If we don’t get in now, we’d have to wait another year, and prospects next year would probably not be as good. So this is the best shot we have at getting a decent amount of funding. I don’t want to have meeting, have someone ask “how are you going to pay for it” and try to tell them “we’re going to get “x” dollars from the legislature next year. I’d vote against going ahead with the project if someone told they were going to try to get the money from Annapolis “next year.”

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