Lately, the council has been referring to the 2 million dollars budgeted this fiscal year for the renovation of the Public Works Department as a “placeholder” amount. They speak of it as if everybody knew that would not be the real figure, it would likely be much higher, of course.

Your Gilbert, for one, did not know. We thought since that was the figure written down in the city budget, and since the council struggled long and hard to trim the budget and the tax rate down, and since some questioned whether the city should take on a $2 million renovation in a severe recession, that the figures labeled “budget” in a document labeled “budget,” were actually a budget.

Your silly old Gilbert wasn’t paying proper attention, apparently. It was easy to lose proper attention in those torturous budget sessions, and the more traumatic memories have been repressed – or drowned with gin.

But fear not, the mayor, council (most of it), and the city manager said at the July 27th city council meeting that there is “flexibility” in the budget that would not affect the city negatively. They take the pragmatic view that there are favorable conditions now to apply for a loan bond and to hire contractors. Costs, they say, will only rise in the future.

This is not to say they are throwing caution to the wind and ordering up a mega-million-dollar renovation. City Manager Barbara Matthews cautioned the council not to exceed $3 million. She says the city can put in a million in cash (as was planned in the city budget), but does not want to get a loan for over $2 million (a million more than the $1 mil. “placeholder”). The city is currently paying off a $4.9 million debt, which she says her staff advises her is a reasonable amount. Adding $2 million to that debt would be within reason, but $4 million more would be considered a “bad debt burden,” she said.

Stripping Down

The architects presented a nearly $4 million plan a few weeks ago. The council asked them to come back with a $2 million plan and a list of renovations-with-associated-costs the council could play mix-n’-match with. At the July 27 meeting the architects returned with a stripped down plan for just over $2 million that included a few environment-friendly features that met requirements for a low-level LEEDS certification.

The plan hit the right dollar mark, but nobody was happy with it. Two million dollars just doesn’t buy much these days.

Public Works director Daryl Braithwaite objected that while she wanted it to be as “green” as possible, the stripped-down plan omitted renovations to some of her staff’s old circa-1959 offices. She said if she had to choose between those renovations and “green” building, she’d prefer the renovations.

The city manager, sticking up for the Public Works staff, called it a “social justice’ issue that all the other city departments had comparatively spiffy offices in the new community center. The council were sympathetic.

The stripped down version did not include geothermal heating/cooling, which concerned several on the council, particularly Councilmember Josh Wright. He tried to get a dollar-savings figure out of the architects, who insisted that geothermal would be cost-effective in the long range. They were curiously unprepared to back the claim up with solid figures, though. They did say that the county schools are well enough convinced of the long-term cost savings that all of their new buildings include geothermal heating/cooling.

Councilmember Terry Seamens was most unhappy with the stripped-down, $2 million plan because it did not include moving the department’s main entrance. The Public Works facility is located in his ward, so his priority is moving the current entrance from a narrow residential street to a larger, less residential one (Ritchie Avenue near the intersection of Maple Avenue). He promised a “big push back” from his constituents if that were not included in the plan.
Seamens reminded the council he had voted against the project in the first place because of the faltering economy. He thought it was a bad time to take it on, and he continues to be uneasy about it, he said.

New councilmember Donna Victoria (who wasn’t on the council at the time the budget was passed) was skeptical about considering the budgeted amount a flexible placeholder. She said the “placeholder” should be realistically what the city has right now.

Mayor Bruce Williams summed up the long discussion, saying he heard a lot of interest in including geothermal heating/cooling in the plan, including a new entrance, and in deferring to the Public Works director’s priorities for her staff. The mayor said he got the sense the council wants to see what can be done within a budget of $2 – $3 million.

He and others, particularly Councilmember Dan Robinson, warned the architect that the council, wary of repeating the city’s nightmare experience with cost escalation when it built the new community center, would likely go postal if something similar occurred with this project.

Ready . . . ACTION!

Frustrated that the previous week’s long discussion on the proposed Task Force on Environmental Sustainability did not result in any changes to the resolution that would create it, Councilmember Josh Wright asked for a new discussion. So, the council obliged, moving the resolution from the evening’s Consent Agenda (a consent agenda combines sure-to-pass resolutions in a bunch to save time).

The council twiddled with the wording of the resolution, “beating a dead horse” as Mayor Williams twice characterized it. They barely managed to avoid excessive and overly detailed fine tuning, but they did change the name of the Task Force. It will be known as the “Task Force on Environmental Action.” Dan Robinson, who suggested the change, said it should have a name that was more, well, active.

Your Gilbert is thrilled that they have jettisoned even ONE instance of that increasingly overused word “Sustainability” from the city’s nomenclature! We are so thrilled we are bouncing up and down in our chair! A good trick, since our chair is an old orange crate. We believe in recycling here at granolapark! We are also poor and know how to live within our budget. But, we digress, as usual.

Josh Wright, supported by Terry Seamens, proposed an amendment to have the mayor appoint the task force officers. The original language said the task force will elect it’s own. Wright was concerned that the task force might founder with a popularly-elected leader. The council, he thought, would appoint someone with a record of accomplishment.

Dan Robinson, citing his experience on a city task force, said he thought the members could quickly discern who was capable of getting getting the task accomplished. Considering this and the fear that too much council control might lead to disgruntlement on the task force, the council overruled the amendment. The task force will elect its own officers.

Donna Victoria got a mention of social justice issues inserted in the resolution, and Ruben Snipper got a phrase about urging the task force of make proposals that give “the largest gain for the smallest investment.” In other words, “more bang for the buck”

There is no mention in the resolution of whether the city’s Committee on the Environment will be suspended or not during the life of the task force. This was suggested when the task force was first proposed, since the task force essentially takes over some of the committee’s work.

Azalea Bound

The council kicked themselves out of their own chambers for a few months. They passed a resolution to begin renovations of the city auditorium – the room where the council meets every week. Supposedly that will take 5-6 months. In the meantime the council will meet in the Azalea Room of the Community Center. They ‘”enjoyed” having the last power-point presentation in the auditorium during which they had to leave their seats on the dais and sit in the audience to view the screen. There, they could not make audible (to the microphones) comments or ask questions. In future the auditorium will have individual screens for them at their seats.

Call That Number!

Watch out for burglars, Dear Readers! Chief Ronald A. Ricucci, no longer able to celebrate the decrease in crime the city enjoyed the first half of the year, says there has been a stiff increase in crime lately, especially in daylight home burglaries. The police have put more plainclothes and bike officers on the street. The Chief urged citizens to keep a lookout, and to call the police if there is even a hint of suspicion In an oblique reference [Your Gilbert can only guess a politically-correct resident did not call when strangers were seen cutting through a yard], the Chief said to put “profiling” concerns aside, “When in doubt, call.”

Dust Off That Armchair!
That was the council’s last summer meeting. It comes back in September, only a few weeks from the nominating caucus, September 29, the meeting in which candidates are nominated for the November 3 election.

Traditionally, the city’s election season starts with the nominating caucus. This is not like the presidential primary season, which starts a few minutes after the previous one. Often hardly anyone knows until the nominating caucus who will step forward to run.

So far, nobody on the council has indicated he or she will not run, so with one exception all are incumbents. The exception is Donna Victoria, currently representing Ward 6. By terms of the agreement when she was appointed to serve the remainder of Doug Barry’s term she will not run. So, that seat will be open.

That leaves the armchair pundits to speculate on who might run for what office, and what the issues will be. What do you think, Dear Reader?

Your Gilbert doesn’t really know. Sometimes the issues that seem important to council watchers are not the ones that emerge in campaigns. So money issues: the budget, taxation, the Public Works and auditorium renovations, hot-button issues: the leaf-blower ban, speed cameras, rent control, school boundaries, disincorporation, and development issues: Metro, N.H. Corridor, Crossroads, Old Town, Takoma Junction may not loom large in the voters’ minds.

– Gilbert

And who is Ms Victoria a place holder for? Its an open secret. The council wanted someone who couldn’t qualify at appointment time.  It seems an oddly crafted idea that someone who is so qualified (Ms. Victoria) would be disqualified from seeking office. It is not like there is surplus of people seeking office in this burg, with so many single candidate elections.

We used to run elections like this in the Teamsters Union.

Let Ms. Victoria run. I don’t think that baring her is enforcable. Or do we only have term limits for some? Who aren’t special.

Watch the renovations top 6 million with no one getting punished. Can we name the new repair facility after Rick Finn?


We agree she is clearly qualified, but Ms Victoria said at the onset that she did not WANT the job longer than a year. Her job is cyclical (she’s a campaign consultant), and she will not have the time to devote to the council once the campaign cycle starts up again, she said.

The “open secret” of who she is placeholding for is not open to Your Gilbert. We will make like an owl and say “Who? Who?”

– 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.