Are you ready for another year of heart-pumping city council action and drama? So are we! But, before tonight’s first 2010 council meeting – which may feature the resolution of last year’s cliffhanger – let’s review the Takoma Park city council highlights of 2009.
it was an election year. As Takoma Park elections go, it was a Middlefest – right between Snoozefest and Slugfest. There were only three contested seats out of seven, but one of them was the mayor’s. The contests were uncommonly civil, particularly due to the mayoral challenger refusing to criticize the incumbent, other than to say “we can do better.” He and the mayor got more critical at the end of the campaign, but not enough to create hard feelings.
The most exciting part of the campaign was the first week. Two surprise candidates and a surprise nomination popped up at the October nomination caucus. Roger Schlegel was nominated for mayor, a move no politically-attuned resident, particularly the mayor, saw coming. Eric Mendoza created more excitement by first nominating Ward 4 councilmember Terry Seamans for mayor, then getting himself nominated for the Ward 4 seat.
Seamens kept the city in a state of anticipation for a few days until he announced he was declining the mayoral nomination and running against Mendoza. The hopes of the people who in recent years got the city to adopt runoff voting were dashed. Runoff voting would have kicked in had there been more than 2 candidates. Bruce Williams, the incumbent mayor, was relieved to face only one challenger.
After that eye-opening start, the campaign was fairly low-key until election day, despite potentially volatile budget and tax issues. The challenger garnered a respectable 40% of the vote, surprising many. In Ward 6, where two newcomers vied for an empty seat, Fred Schultz won over Navid Nasr. Incumbent Seamens defeated Mendoza in Ward 4.
Old Vs. New
Challenger Schlegel tapped into a new constituency, youngish homeowners who have moved in to the city over the last decade. Typically they are dealing with young children, careers, steep mortgages, and high property taxes. They would like to see their city tax rates lowered, and the city budget reduced. The expenditure for an upcoming Public Works Department renovation was of concern to them.
Bruce Williams counted on older, longtime residents whose children are grown, are at their peak earning years, have lower (or paid) mortgages, and tend to think taxes are the price one pays for civilization. The mayor posed the question “what service would you cut?” to those who wanted to trim the budget. When faced with eliminating the police department or library, people were less eager to make cuts.
The Year’s Big Drama
The Budget was more dramatic than in recent years.
Normally, council ends up passing the city manager’s budget with a few tweaks. This time the council was being showered by citizen complaints about the city’s high tax rate and the property tax burden many of them are feeling. Even at the council sessions citizens pleaded with them to ease up on taxpayers.
This had a effect. The council questioned budget expenses more than in recent years and they proposed changes that would bring the total down. The 2 million dollar expense for the Public Works Department renovations was a concern. In the end, it went as usual, though they were able to push the tax rate down a bit. On a council that usually votes unanimously, the final 4-2 vote on the budget was noteworthy. The two dissenters in favor of deeper cuts were councilmembers Josh Wright and Terry Seamens.
Even more extraordinary was what followed – in the wake of state and county budget cuts at the end of summer the city manager had to revise the budget because the city was suddenly short $577,000. Abruptly, the city manager, who normally protects the city workers jobs like a mountain lion protecting her cubs, was facing staff and program cuts. She found a way to close most of the budget gap, however. The biggest savings came from switching employee health insurance carriers. She also found ways to redirect revenues from the city’s speed cameras. Those funds had been slated for use for public safety projects, but she found that many budget items, especially one police officer’s salary, could be made to fall under that category.
Smile, You’re on Candid Camera!
Suddenly speed cameras were vital to the city, rather than a revenue embellishment. They were installed in the spring of 2009, and began operating on St. Patrick’s Day. The expected revenue was not forthcoming, not for lack of speeders, but because a significant number of them did not pay their fines.
But, the fates are toying with the city manager and the council. At the end of the year the State HIghway Administration informed the city that it was beginning a traffic-slowing repair project that would last until spring 2010 on the speed camera section of New Hampshire Avenue .
Perhaps the SHA is vying for Most Hated Agency in Takoma Park. WSSC easily earned that title in 2009 by blocking lanes on major roadways with water pipe and sewer repair, then leaving the streets full of holes, dips and lumps for months, turning a drive across town into a time-consuming, shock-destroying nightmare.
Public Works Renovations
Some, including a couple of council members, began wondering why, in the face of those state budget cuts, the city was going ahead with the Public Works Department renovations. The $2 million amount budgeted (some from reserve funds, some from a loan bond) turned out to be a “placeholder” amount. The actual cost would be $3 million. Or more.
The mayor and several other council members say that, while the budget is suffering from the bad economy, the bad economy is creating favorable terms for loan interest rates and construction contractors. Councilmember Colleen Clay in particular spoke strongly in favor of forging ahead with the renovations. However, the council say they are interested (to varying degrees) in looking at how some Public Works services might be handed back to county. Also, they want to look at the Task Force on Environmental Action recommendations due this year. The task force may recommend changes in how the PWD operates to create a smaller carbon footprint.
The council will need to take a quick look – and a look into a crystal ball, however. The deadline for the bond loan application is later this month, pushing the council to get the $3 million loan before the task force recommendations are submitted, giving them very little time to make a momentous decision. That was last year’s cliffhanger. The second and final reading of the loan application resolution will be tonight, at the first meeting of the year.
City Committee Meltdowns
One committee was disbanded, another was suspended, both actions taken amid much self-incrimination that the council was generally neglecting citizen committees, failing to give them direction and purpose. This, they said, leaves them to their own devices, which may be unhelpful to or even at odds with the council.
Council neglect may have contributed to the implosion of the Public Safety Citizen’s Advisory Committee (PSCAC), but that committee was also plagued by infighting and resignations. They disagreed over what the committee’s mission was: to assist the police or watchdog them.
Most of the PSCAC current and former members agreed with ditching it, but there was some concern that the police chief’s proposed advisory committee, which he would hand pick, was a good replacement.
The stalled Committee on the Environment was pushed to the side in favor of the new Task Force on Environmental Action (TFEA). The TFEA’s mission is to make recommendations to the city on ways to reduce it’s carbon footprint.
Crooks ‘n Cops
Chief Ronald Ricucci was proud of the decline in crime in the first half of the year, laying it to his fully manned force and plainclothes patrols. He said the word was out that the police are vigilant and effective here, so criminals were going to softer targets.
But, in August a rash of home burglaries, and plague of petty-thefts from parked cars broke out that continued through the rest of the year. The chief said that the city’s crime rate was lower than surrounding jurisdictions which were also seeing an increase in crime. The chief said that the police were seeing some success due to shift changes he had made that put more officers on night duty.
The police department ordered a license plate scanner without checking with the city council first. Privacy and civil rights concerns from the public, particularly resident Thomas Nephew, sparked the city council to question the purchase. At the time the press revealed details about state police spying on political activists in Takoma Park, underscoring the civil rights issue. The scanner was finally approved, but only with a strict set of checks and guidelines restricting use and storage of data.
The Victorian Era
Ward 6 councimember Doug Barry resigned his seat in the spring. The council appointed Donna Victoria to fill out the remaining few months of his term. A savvy and knowledgeable addition to the council, she hit the ground running (sometimes faster than some of the other councilmembers). Not wanting to in effect handpick his successor Barry placed a condition on the appointee that she not run for the seat in the fall election. The seat was filled in November by Fred Schultz, a member of the ill-fated PSCAC.