GRANOLAPARK: “I’m confused”

Seth Grimes


Dear Readers,

“I’m confused” was the most repeated phrase of the evening, uttered by almost every Takoma Park councilmember.

It was an excruciating two hours. That’s how long it took for residency-requirement to slip into a coma. Finally, we can get on with our lives.

The charter change was disposed of in seconds at the Nov. 13 meeting. But first there were 20 minutes of apologies from the city attorney and mayor for procedural confusions and changing legal advice over the last week that left the council and observers feeling like they were watching a tennis match.

For complex reasons that would take a few paragraphs to explain, only three councilmembers had the power to revive it, and none of them wanted to, so it died.

The short explanation: the charter change resolution failed last week on a tied vote. Because it was such a confusing vote,  the resolution was up for reconsideration this week. Roberts Rules say the only way to revive it is that one of the three who voted against it could make a motion to bring it back. The three declined to do so.

That wasn’t the end of it. There was still the city ordinance to deal with.

Follow this carefully. The city charter change and the ordinance were a package deal. The charter change made possible an ordinance imposing residency requirement on the city manager and department heads. The current charter does not allow that.

You’d think they would have just dropped this, since it was dependent on the charter change.

But NO!!

Councilmember Tim Male, the author of the charter change and ordinance proposals, started to re-word the ordinance on the fly to get around the charter. Instead of requiring the city manager to reside in the city, how about we require the COUNCIL to only choose candidates who agree to reside in the city? This sparked rampant face palming, another hour of confusion, and short-tempers.

Everyone was hyper-aware of Robert’s Rules following the previous week’s snafus, and the procedure was complex. Male made a motion to consider his re-write, but nobody was sure what the re-write was – including Male because he was still re-writing. Kay Daniels-Cohen made a friendly motion to table Male’s motion. Other motions followed until they realized they had to back up to the first motion, a process that was like untangling a snarl of yarn. Several people said “I’m confused,” at various times.

Councilmember Jarrett Smilth, who had been one of the so-called Gang of Four pushing the charter change, made it very clear that he was done with it, and would no longer be voting with the other three. Without his vote, the cause was lost. Regardless, Male, assisted by councilmember Kay Daniels-Cohen, and with councilmember Terry Seamen’s tacit support, forged ahead with the new proposal.

Heavy metal

The irony got so thick you could have made nails.

The faction that had been complaining because the charter change had been put on the fast track suddenly wanted to speed up the process. The side that had been driving the issue in the express lane suddenly wanted to slow down.

The council members who didn’t want to be bound by a law passed by a previous council wouldn’t accept a residency criteria or preference set by the candidate search committee. That would be too temporary. They wanted to pass a law that would bind “this council and next council, and council after that to have to seek candidates who are willing to be residents,” said coucilmember Tim Male.

The anti resident-requirement side admitted that when the last city manager was hired there was a residency preference spelled out in the job description but there had been no fears then about it limiting the pool of job candidates – the chief argument against it now.

Tim Male

Councilmember Tim Male fights to keep his resolution alive.

One of the Gang of Four pointed out that their position had evolved from wanting to make residency a requirement to making it a recommendation, but were still being opposed – even though the other side said all along they preferred a recommendation.

Irony of ironies in the background –  previous city manager Barbara Matthews was hired with the expectation that she would reside in the city. But, because of a change in her husband’s job, the requirement was waived. Here comes the best part – Matthew’s demeanor is the reason some people want to require future city managers to live in the city – with a possible waiver.

The Spirit of Barb

Oh, and more irony. After Male’s attempt failed and the council moved on to other issues, the council discussed JUST the sort of proposal that Barb Matthews would have soaked with a big wet blanket. Her response would have been the sort of thing that gave her the reputation in some circles for not understanding and being part of the community – which would have been solved, somehow, by making her live here.

The proposal is the pesticide ban, the “Safe Grow Zone Initiative,” which the council has largely embraced. It would prohibit the use of “cosmetic” pesticides and herbicides in the city, first on public land, then after a time on private land.

Safe Grow

Safe Grow Zone Initiative activists Catherine Cummings and Julie Taddeo, authors of the resolution before the city council.

The citizen-activist authors have written up this proposed law to say certain things shall be regulated, enforced, monitored, and updated by the city and the city manager, but not giving much thought about whether the city manager or anyone else will have the time, or how it will be paid for.

We can just hear Barb Matthews methodically adding up the costs and burdens proposed. Among them are: enforcing the prohibitions, processing applications for exceptions, designing and printing notices, forms, and educational materials, identifying and notifying retailers, lawn, garden, and tree-care providers, churches, schools, other institutions in the city every two years or more frequently, publishing public notice of the ordinance, lists of panned pesticides, alternative products, practices and methods, and issuing licenses to people who want to use pesticides to control an invasive species. That’s a lot of work and expense, and unless you believe in Progressive Fairies, somebody’s got to do it and somebody’s got to pay for it.

If this is the council’s priority, says the Spirit of Barb, then I could fire some librarians and a crossing guard or two. Then we could hire staff dedicated to these tasks. Or we could keep the librarians and guards and create new positions, but then you’d have to raise taxes. Of course, that would anger your constituents, the ones who are already pissed off because the new regulations have turned their lawns brown and weedy, and because you fined them for spraying poison ivy without a permit. But, if that’s what you want me to do . . . .

Acting city manager Suzanne Ludlow took some small, diplomatic steps in this direction, but she wasn’t about to stand in front of the steam-roller as it was gaining speed. She said, “The difficult part that the council will have to deal with . . . is the staff time this requires.” She cited the tree ordinance as an example. “The tree ordinance takes an enormous amount of staff time, and it’s costly,” she warned. “What’s implied is some tax money for this or some fees for permits. That’s probably the more difficult discussion for you rather than the idea of doing this.”


Speaking of cost, the council discussed conducting another Resident Survey. There have been two of these and the staff finds them helpful. The data gives them indications of what services are most useful to citizens, said the acting city manager. However it is costly – up to $40,000. Councilmember Terry Seamens was skeptical of the results of such surveys, saying “we hear what we want to hear.” It has not been worth the expense, he said. The survey passed the first vote 6 -1, Seamens voting “nay.” There will be a second vote at a future city council meeting.


The city council salary/compensation raise and the New Hampshire Garden’s permit parking ordinances passed on the second, final, votes. There was little discussion.

– Gilbert



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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.

6 Comments on "GRANOLAPARK: “I’m confused”"

  1. Hello Gilbert. When an ordinance like Safe Grow comes before the council, there is supposed to be a fiscal impact statement, that is, an estimate of cost. Let’s see what the city administration estimates, factoring in, as I think they should, volunteer labor provided by the newly reconstituted, soon-to-be-appointed Environment Committee.

    Barb Matthews was reluctant to let certain city committees get involved in city operations — I’m thinking of the Recreation Committee in particular — I’m guessing she saw their offered help as impugning city staff’s capacity and capabilities — and that’s an attitude that I believe has already changed. The Environment Committee could help with research and education, in particular.

    Yes, processing permits and waivers does take time, but if the law and regulations are written well (our aim of course), the number of applications will be minimized and the decisions will be easier to make, and as noticed, costs may be recoverable via fees. (It would be interesting to have a relatively high application fee that would be mostly refunded for successful applications.)

  2. We should make clear that we support the aims of the Safe Grow initiative.

    However, the activists, council, and residents need to understand that it comes with a pricetag – and the buyers are the taxpayers.

    The mayor told the activists, quoting from the council handout, “If the Council decides to proceed with enacting such an ordinance, many details would need to be worked out regarding implementation, monitoring, and enforcement.”

    It didn’t appear that the activists had put much thought into this, they were more focused on potential opposition from chemical and business interests. When the acting city manager said cost is “probably the more difficult discussion for you,” their response was to suggest a not very well thought out proposal that the city have a “roving gardener” who would roam the city, buttonholing citizens to educate them about the ban and alternatives to harmful pesticides. With no mention of how this person would be paid.

  3. Catherine Cummings | November 15, 2012 at 8:27 pm |

    The costs are small compared to the money saved, potentially, in health care costs. According to the CDC, asthma costs $56 billion dollars a year in the U.S. More medical care is needed for less fortunate people living with asthma. The EPA recommends avoiding exposure to pesticides, a chemical irritant, if you or your child suffers from asthma. Safe Grow Zone Initiative is a grassroots group, and we try to research every aspect of this proposed ordinance–who it would impact, what would be needed to keep it going, etc. We have much more to say, and many ways to say it. Mostly, we proposed taking something away, removing the use of a product….and its byproducts. Over the relatively short long-term, going organic saves money, especially in lawn and garden care.

    Thanks for reporting, Gilbert.
    Catherine Cummings
    Safe Grow Zone Initiative

    • Ms Cummings,

      You may be right. Certainly all humans, animals, and the planet would be better off without dangerous chemicals sprinkled all over the place.

      But, potential nation-wide long-term healthcare savings don’t pay our real-estate taxes now. And they don’t add to city revenues now. So, we’ll probably need to fund at least one staff position for this. The city already has one of the highest municipal tax rates in the state. So we suggest you (and staff and council) find a way to make this as inexpensive as possible if you want to sell it to the taxpayers.

      And going organic isn’t going to save any money for those of us who went organic decades ago.

      While we have your attention, can you tell us how enforcement is going to work? When the city enforces the tree ordinance or the city code, they can easily see an infraction from the street. They don’t have to catch anyone in the act, they don’t have to confirm that certain chemicals are present, and they don’t have to step onto private property to gather evidence.

      Are you only going after lawn services? In that case the evidence is abundant. They have big trucks and they leave little flags on the lawn.

      If you’re also going after individual use of banned chemicals, you’re going to have to catch them in the act. An authority would have to observe them openly using a clearly marked container of pesticide.

      In any other circumstance it gets tricky – with dollar signs. If a neighbor or volunteer observes or suspects pesticide use and reports it to whatever authority can issue a citation – that’s hearsay. You can’t levy a fine on hearsay. You’d have to have proof, and that means a soil sample, and that means walking onto private property and taking evidence. Wouldn’t that require a warrant? Wouldn’t it also require lab work?

      Warrants and lab work ante up the legal complications, staff time, and costs.

      We’re not trying to be hostile, here. These are questions that will be raised sooner or later and you should be prepared with substantive answers. Think of this as your practice public hearing with Gilbert playing the role of the outraged taxpayer, and over-worked, budget-squeezed city staff.

  4. Thanks for your “fair and balanced” reporting on what went on at the City Council Tuesday night. I mean that sincerely, not sarcastically. As one of those who confessed to being confused, I doubt I could adequately describe the play-by-play of our discussion, but I’m confident we achieved a reasonable conclusion to allow us to move ahead with hiring the city manager.

    With regard to the Safe Grow initiative, what I like about this issue is that I believe the vast majority of residents will want to comply and/or support whatever ordinance we can design and adopt. Much like recycling, the City cannot make people recycle. We don’t have recycling police to inspect people’s trash bins. The task ahead to make Safe Grow succeed, as Catherine Cummings and Julie Taddeo described it, is to educate people of the true dangers and the effective alternative products already available. Who would not want to use the safe products if they know there is an actual law requiring their use? Lawn service entrepreneurs will quickly figure out that they will have to alter their product inventories if they want to do business in TP. No one’s job in the lawn and gardening trades is going to be lost. There won’t be a need for police enforcement. If an ordinance would require notification by signage of an intent to apply proscribed chemicals, how long will it take for neighbors to gently inform their neighbor that this is either unwelcome, unnecessary or possibly illegal to do?

    I think an ordinance passed by TP will find other municipalities wanting to imitiate what we or Greenbelt are attempting to do.

    Fred Schultz
    Councilmember, Ward 6

  5. Steve Davies | November 16, 2012 at 1:42 pm |

    If we’re concerned about kids and adults with asthma, we should — in addition to enacting Safe Grow — push for a ban on gas-powered leaf blowers and a strict anti-idling initiative, both of which would reduce emissions that react with sunlight to form ground-level ozone (loosely translated: smog). In addition, indoor air pollution (caused in part by the use of chemicals indoors but also by mold, pet dander, tobacco smoke and cockroaches) is a big problem.

    Here’s CDC: “Triggers for asthma can include mold, tobacco smoke, outdoor air pollution, and infections linked to influenza, colds, and other viruses.”

    Here’s NIH: “Many things can cause asthma, including

    Allergens – mold, pollen, animals
    Irritants – cigarette smoke, air pollution
    Weather – cold air, changes in weather
    Infections – flu, common cold”

    Here’s the American Lung Association: (

    “Asthma is characterized by excessive sensitivity of the lungs to various stimuli. Triggers range from viral infections to allergies, to irritating gases and particles in the air. Each child reacts differently to the factors that may trigger asthma, including:

    respiratory infections and colds
    cigarette smoke
    allergic reactions to such allergens as pollen, mold, animal dander, feather, dust, food, and cockroaches
    indoor and outdoor air pollutants, including ozone and particle pollution
    exposure to cold air or sudden temperature change

    What could we do here in Takoma Park? We could work to reduce tree pollen and eliminate sources of nitrogen oxides and VOC’s (from gas-powered lawn eqpt), and we could stop burning wood in our fireplaces. We could tell people they shouldn’t use charcoal lighter fluid.

    Most of the arguments made by Fred Schultz in favor of Safe Grow could be used to defend a ban on leaf blowers. For whatever reason, Fred opposed enactment of the ordinance prohibiting city employees from using gas-powered blowers, which stir up dust, pollen and small particles linked to asthma attacks. They also emit the very pollutants that cause unhealthy levels of ozone. Since I have no doubt Fred cares deeply about the health of his constituents and all of us in Takoma Park, I look forward to his continued efforts to reduce all forms of pollution.

    Lawn care equipment is responsible for 52.2 TONS per day of Volatile Organic Compound emissions in the metro area, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (see below for link to the table). That’s fourth of the top 10 sources. Pesticides, at 9.7 tons per day, are 10th.

    Lawn care eqpt produces 10.6 tons/day of NOx, 5th of 10 sources, acc. to MWCOG. (Pesticides aren’t on the list.)

    I’ve stated my support for Safe Grow, but it doesn’t go far enough. If the council is concerned about the health of Takoma residents, it should also seek to address the myriad sources of pollution that trigger asthma attacks. Here is yet another quote, this time from NRDC: “[M]ost asthma attacks are brought on by substances in the air. Dust or pollen can cause asthma attacks. So can hair from animals like dogs or cats. Roaches are a big problem because their waste and saliva are two of the most common triggers. Mold is also responsible for many asthma attacks. Smoke — from burning wood, coal, gas or cigarettes — is another common trigger. So are smog and diesel exhaust. Fumes from pesticides, cleaning products and paint can cause attacks, too.”

    BTW, as I understand it (my sources are City Clerk Jessie Carpenter and Councilmember Kay Daniels-Cohen), the citizen survey has been approved–it was a “single reading ordinance” because the proposal was in the 2013 budget. And I agree with Terry Seamens–these surveys aren’t terribly helpful, plus we already spent $80,000 conducting surveys in 2007 and 2009. I doubt people’s concerns have changed that much.

    Thank you for the opportunity to comment.

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