BY LEJLA SARCEVIC
This is the first of two articles covering the Oct. 23 Takoma Park Election Forum, “The City of the Future,” hosted and moderated by the Takoma Park/Silver Spring Voice. Part 1 reports on the Ward 4 campaign and current city issues. Part 2 will report on the discussion about long-term issues facing the city.
The Voice Election Forum, Part 1
Very little about this election has been ordinary. With only the Ward 4 seat contested there is a conspicuous lack of electioneering.
Councilmembers and citizens came together this Oct. 23 to engage in a conversation about Takoma Park’s, present and future in an unusual election forum hosted and moderated by The Voice. The mayor and four other councilmembers attended the forum, held in the city’s community center auditorium/council chambers.
After Ward 4 candidate statements the format became less formal. Councilmembers answered questions from Takoma Park residents submitted by email or in writing from the audience attending that night. They also engaged in a discussion with the moderators about the city’s future.
Ward 4 priorities: jobs and racial profiling
The forum opened with a statement from Ward 4 councilmember Terry Seamens about his achievements and future plans for his ward and Takoma Park.
“When I joined the council in 1999, the key issues for me at that time were management issues”, said Seamens. “I think we have during my time on the council successfully turned that around where we have a very well managed city government now.”
Seamens made his case by discussing his achievements on the city council.
“I think we still have work to do with our strategic plan, we need to refine that plan,” said Seamens.
He said the biggest issue facing Ward 4 is jobs. He proposed a three part plan: supporting economic development in Old Takoma and New Hampshire Avenue, stronger assistance for small business owners and vocational training for young adults in the community.
Mendoza was unable to attend the forum but in a written statement read by moderator Bill Brown, Voice editor. Mendoza said that his campaign was grateful to be the voice of a new generation of Takoma Park citizens. “This Election has been a great motivation for my campaign an the people In Ward 4, all the hard work we have been putting in over the years is finally paying off and we can see some changes now,” Mendoza wrote.
Ward 4 challenger, Eric Mendoza.
For Mendoza, the most important issues facing Ward 4 are: racial profiling, traffic and the speeding on Maple Avenue, the renovations to apartments and rent increases, car thefts and public safety and outreach programs.
Seamens fielded a question about the disassociation between home owners and apartment renters, suggesting that some apartment dwellers are even disassociated from their Ward 4 representative.
He acknowledged that he sees a divide between single-family home owners and apartment dwellers, but said he has worked hard with all residents to work together on various projects and community activities and invited anyone to contact him on his number or email address.
Ward 6 councilmember, Fred Schultz, said that communication is a two way street and all the councilmembers present praised Seamens’ work and urged residents to go out of their way and contact him.
“The council also passed a resolution that we can go in and talk to the apartment manager and get permission to go and knock on doors,” said Ward 3 councilmember, Kay Daniels-Cohen, saying it was a major step forward in allowing councilmembers access to apartment dwellers.
Several residents expressed concern over a spate of recent robberies and questioned whether the city’s police force is effective and accountable.
One person said via email that she was burglarized three times in the past five years and asked whether the Takoma Park police maintains an adequate relationship with D.C. Police.
She claimed Takoma Park police told her they did not have probable cause to get D.C. police to follow up and take action, even though a tracing application tracked her valuable items to a DC address.
Daniels-Cohen said that in the last two weeks there had been a meeting with the residents of Sycamore, Woodland and Elm, and the chief of police and that the burglaries had slowed down because a perpetrator was caught.
Many of the council members suggested that residents could help by being more vigilant, maintaining their shrubbery, adequate lighting around their homes and ensuring doors and windows are locked.
Councilmembers called on Takoma Park’s community spirit, saying that residents can help to educate one another about personal safety.
An emailed question asking whether Takoma Park might be better off handing over policing of the city to the county was answered with a resounding “no” from all councilmembers.
Takoma Park Mayor Bruce Williams.
We know, from having talked with the county about this very question, that if they were to take over policing in the city, they would devote about 40 percent of the resources that we currently deploy for the police department,” Mayor Williams said.
If the county took over policing Takoma Park, the number of officers in the force would shrink from 42 to about 16, Mayor Williams said.
He added that as the biggest budget item on the city’s books, roughly 40 percent of the city’s resources go to the police department.
Making emails public
Transparency in government has been on the minds of many Americans and has not gone past the residents of Takoma Park either.
One resident alleged in a question submitted by email that after a Public Information Act request was filed for city council emails, councilmembers switched to using their personal emails.
The resident questioned whether the council would be open to a change in the city ethics regulations to require councilmembers and staff to use their city email for city business.
Councilmembers were quick to say that they use their personal and public emails interchangeably and that personal emails are open under the Freedom of Information Act.
“I know a lot of the times I’ll use my personal email, but I’ll always send to everybody else’s government email so that, even though it’s coming from my personal email, it’s kind of caught in the city servers and FOIA-able that way,” said Mayor Williams, referring to the Freedom of Information Act.
Under Maryland’s Public Information Act. anyone can request the disclosure of private emails that pertain to public business.
Councilmembers also said that they are respectful of the open meetings law which states that any meeting between more than three councilmembers must be open to the public.
Councilmember for Ward 3 Kay Daniels-Cohen
“Everyone is very cognizant of what is Public Information Act, PIA, and if it even starts swinging a weency from that — stop!” said Daniels-Cohen.
After the forum George Zokel, a candidate for the District 20 house delegate seat freed up by Heather Mizeur’s gubernatorial run, said that this discussion showed the difficulties that the council faces when trying to operate within the rules.
“I think they just really attested to the difficulties of having to adhere to the Public Information Act,” Zokel said.
Tax duplication continues to be an issue for Takoma Park residents.
Residents get taxed by both the county and the city for services that only the city provides.
The city gets some of that money back, but not all.
This is not a new issue, for over 25 years the city has been complaining and negotiating with the county about it. Bond asked whether residents can expect to still be talking about it 25 years from now.
“There’s two basic ways that this can be addressed, one is a tax offset, where people’s tax rate — their county tax rate — is lowered by the amount that the county doesn’t provide the services,” said Mayor Williams.
In this scenario, the county tax would go down, but the city tax would go up.
“Hopefully by not as much,” said Williams.
Ward 6 councilmember Fred Schultz.
“Tax duplication payments, which happen now, which everybody has the same tax rate to the county, and for the services that we provide, money comes back,” said Williams.
The city council has no control over this, the county decides how much it wants to give back and could choose not to give anything at all.
The county is currently proposing that the city would only get back 40 percent of the money, and the rest would be made available through grants which the city would have to apply for annually.
If the county’s new proposal goes through, the mayor says that the city’s coffers would take a serious hit.
Grading the council
When asked by moderator Eric Bond, Voice editor, to grade their performance and the state of the city, most of the councilmembers gave the council a B minus.
They acknowledged the activist work that the council has been doing and the progress that has been made, but that there are sill great strides to be made in inefficiencies and process.
Jarrett Smith, Ward 5 councilmember, said “there’s a lot of work to do” before he would grade the council, citing several issues yet to be settled.
Members of the public that attended the meeting said that they got a lot out of it.
Ward 4 resident Gladys Harvey thought that the council was thorough in addressing the question.
“I was very glad that I came tonight to hear about the issues that they are going to do, and about the issues that are coming up,” Harvey said.
Election forum moderators, Bill Brown, Managing Editor, and Eric Bond, Editor in Chief/Publisher