GRANOLAPARK: Hubcaps of Power

GRANOLAPARK • BY GILBERT

Dear Readers,

Takoma Park’s city manager hasn’t left her desk yet,  but the city council has it up on blocks, prying the wheels and hubcaps off.

Yes, city manager Barbara Matthews is leaving!  OMG! She departs Sept. 7 to become Rockville, MD’s city manager. This is the second high level city staff-person to leave this year. Takoma Park police chief Ronald Ricucci retires July 30.  Both Ricucci and Matthews have made significant improvements during their terms. They will be hard acts to follow. Stay tuned for city-wide anxiety and drama, Dear Readers!

No sooner had Matthews made the announcement than the council’s burglary tools came out. Councilmember Tim Male outlined the caper during Council Comments session a couple of weeks ago as the rest of the councilmembers grinned and rubbed their hands together. Nothing against the outgoing city manager, they said, but while we have the opportunity, why don’t we “relieve” her position of some of that grand power it wields, especially over hiring of department heads? As the job description stands now, we have no say at all! We can’t even give advice. That’s all we ask, just a few little nubbins of power to gnaw the city manager’s leg with. We’ll have the power to vote up or down on the city manager’s choices for department heads! What would be the harm in that?

And, Male proposed, how about making a requirement that the city manager be a resident of the city or at least the county? That way she, or he, would likely be more a part of the community.

Apparently these ideas have been discussed by the whole council prior to Male’s statements.. In July there were no less than three closed city council sessions about Matthew’s resignation and the city manager election process, and Male’s ideas have been aired on his blog and newsletter.

Dynamic Duo

“Hold yer hosses, sonny!” – or words to that effect – said two former Takoma Park mayors. Both Kathy Porter, mayor from 1997 to 2007, and Ed Sharp, mayor from 1991 to 1997, sprung to the microphone at citizen comment period to urge the council to neither involve the council in hiring, nor make residency a city manager position requirement.

The former mayors warned that making residency a requirement would eliminate a lot of talented people who would not even bother to apply. Porter said residency could be a factor in later discussions. Sharp said that even if it were discussed later it would be handing the candidate a negotiation point – a reason to demand a bigger salary so he or she could afford to live here. “Why put yourself in the position of having to spend more?” he said.

Porter urged the council not to give themselves a vote in the hiring of department heads. “Having a vote would politicize it,” she said. It could turn divisive if the city council forced a department head onto a city manager that wasn’t his or her first choice.

Sharp said that during his term the council got rid of this very thing the current council wants to do. The old council removed itself from having a vote on hiring and firing decisions, leaving it up to the city manager. “it was a problem,” said Sharp, citing the example of a police chief who felt he had a “separate pipeline” to the council around the city manager. It was hard, he said, to make the city manager responsible for what was going on in the city “because WE had selected all the department heads.”

Porter stressed that picking a new city administrator was probably the most important thing this council will do. No pressure.

The council seemed open to the former mayors’ input,. It is likely at least one of them will pay the price for stepping forward – they’ll be asked to join a city manager selection committee!

Meanwhile, Matthews, who lives in Reston, VA, and has made some important hires during her time as city manager, didn’t appear to take  offense at what could be construed as back-handed criticism. She smiled pleasantly. Perhaps she was mentally composing a  note to her successor “. . . and when you need a shoulder to cry on,  and you WILL, call me any time!”

History

The city manager type of government, which is what Takoma Park has, was a national “progressive” reform invented almost a hundred years ago. The progressives of their day reasoned that if a professional city manager took up the mayor’s job – the part of it that was running a city – it would eliminate waste and corruption. It took politics and cronyism out of the budgetary process and other city business such as hiring and firing, ahem. It put a trained professional in charge of the budget and the city staff.

Mr. Smith goes to council

Newly-elected Jarrett Smith is now the only freshman on the council. The former freshmen: Tim Male, Seth Grimes, and Kay Daniels-Cohen welcomed Smith to his first meeting as Ward 5 councilmember. As soon as he was sworn in the traditional hazing began. The rumor is that they sent him to the medical offices in the  sub-basement so he could get his required council-pox shot.

Resolved

The city council had a resolute July. They passed a dozen resolutions and ordinances. The one you might have noticed, Dear Readers, was a resolution approving a pilot program for food trucks Friday evenings 5 pm to 8 pm at Takoma Junction. Residents have been going nuts – in a good way – about it. Every week since the resolution passed July 9, the council has reveled in reports: one of the vendors sold more at Takoma Junction than they have any other location, that it is so popular the food runs out, that more trucks have been added, and that residents are thrilled. If you try it out, Dear Readers, get there early.

Other resolutions were less flashy. The council also adopted new pay scales for police officers and employees, extended the contract for speed cameras, awarded tree maintenance contracts, and approved purchase of police and city vehicles. These votes, mercifully, went quickly.

Ethics were another story. The state requires the city to amend its ethics ordinance – rules about conflicts of interest for elected officials. These effect the councilmembers personally, so they are pushing them through a fine-meshed strainer, using a lot of “for-instances”. So, say my distant cousin works for the pencil factory that supplies writing materials to a city contractor – do I have to disclose that when I run for office?

Mayor Bruce Williams again made the point that he would be required under the new ethics rules to disclose his domestic partner’s finances as if he were a spouse, yet his domestic partner does not get the same state benefits as a spouse.

– Gilbert

About the Author

Gilbert
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.

5 Comments on "GRANOLAPARK: Hubcaps of Power"

  1. It should be noted that Matthews received a healthy amount to live OUTSIDE of Takoma Park (My searching of the city web site was fruitless in finding the exact figure. My memory–not always reliable–says it was $30,000. Perhaps you can make some inquiries, Gilbert. I’m sure Bruce Williams could come up with the #).

    Adding the housing and/or commuting allowance to her $138,382 salary, her compensation easily exceeded $150,000. (By the way, if I’m wrong on that, please either remove my comment completely or let me correct it.) I would think someone could live here on that kind of salary, but maybe housing prices have gone up so much that it’s not possible.

    Personally, I think the manager should either live within the city limits or pretty darn close. Just being in Montgomery County would be an improvement, because it would make them more familiar with the way things work in the jurisdiction we’re located in, and with which we have to deal regularly. I have never, ever seen Barbara Matthews just walking around. I know she appeared at some events and walking tours, but I did not bump into her once. Most people I’ve talked to in the city have no idea who she is. If you think that’s a good thing, by all means let the next city manager live in Reston.

  2. Bruce Williams | August 2, 2012 at 6:11 pm |

    When Barb Matthews accepted the job in 2004, she was moving here from Missouri, and there were, and still are, significant differences in housing costs between here and there. She received $1,000 per month, or $12,000 per year, in a housing allowance. The Council wanted to keep it as a separate allowance so that it didn’t roll in with the rest of the salary and therefore increase other costs like pension contributions.

    Her husband is also in the same profession, so when she accepted the job, he had to look for work in this area as well. While he looked, they rented an apartment in Silver Spring. When he got his job as manager for the Reston Association, that job came with a residency requirement. It paid, and pays, significantly more than we do–he accepted the job, and they moved to Reston. She has had a very long and punishing commute since then. Now, with her acceptance of the Rockville job and the residency requirement, they will move to Rockville and he will have the long commute–he will be getting a waiver on his residency requirement (I don’t think they had a waiver process when he took the job, but they do now).

    Barb has dedicated herself to the job, and has spent many long hours in the City. She has always been available after she leaves work, and has responded immediately, whether in the middle of the night or on weekends. Many was the day that she was in the building until 9 at night. She was regularly there well past 7. She was always involved with whatever was going on, and in constant touch with the Council and with staff. Whenever I sent an email, she was always right on it–sometimes I put in a subject line including instructions to ignore until the workweek just so she wouldn’t respond right away. She always expressed the desire for the elected officials to be the face of the City and the voice in expressing the important communications within the City.

    Bruce Williams

  3. Thanks for that Bruce. Makes me feel a lot better about the job she did. And she did hire Ron Ricucci, who I think did a great job. I did not know anything about her husband’s job in Reston and the residency reqt there, so thanks for explaining that. I wouldn’t want to commute from Reston. I wish her well.

  4. Barb Matthews has done an exceptional job for the City, is available whenever needed and is phenomenally responsive to Councilmembers’ queries and requests day or night, weekend or weekday.

    The proposals to create a residency requirement and to have a limited roll for Council in approving the Manager’s top choice for department heads (not reviewing applications but approving the Manager’s top choice) are possible precisely because Barb has done such an exceptional job. The excellent quality of her service to Takoma Park gives us the breathing room to think about whether there are things we’d like to do a little differently in this rare transition in City management, when we are hiring a new manager.

  5. We’re not following this logic. You seem to be saying that having an exceptional city manager gives the council time to think up ways to give itself less time, and perhaps not such an exceptional city manager.

Comments are closed.