TALES OF TAKOMA: How do you run a city like Takoma?

TALES OF TAKOMA • BY DIANA KOHN

Since the incorporation of the Town of Takoma Park in 1890. successive generations have added their changes to the way Takoma is governed.

Ben Davis House

The Ben Davis house c. 1888. This house was in many ways the first city hall.  Davis served as treasurer, town clerk and mayor in the early years. He also served as private secretary to William Jennings Bryant, US Secretary of State under President Woodrow Wilson. There was no city hall in those days, so Davis kept the city records at his house.  (NOTE: This house is featured on the May 3rd House and Garden tour.)

In the early years, the Mayor and Council worked side by side with the Takoma Park Citizens Association to improve town life. The creation of the new retail district at Laurel and Carroll in the 1920s prompted the formation of a Chamber of Commerce, under Fire Chief J. Walter Dudley. With a focus on economic issues rather than political ones, the Chamber spearheaded the push for a new Carroll Avenue bridge over Sligo Creek (opened 1932), widening Piney Branch Avenue (1934), and a New Hampshire “super highway” between the District and University Ave, which resulted in eight new subdivisions along the eastern edge of Takoma.

Fire Dept -1931 Town Council image

The town council meeting inside the Fire Station which hosted the council meetings for the 1930s and 1940s.  There was no city hall, but once the fire station was built, most meetings were held here.

Following WWII, the Chamber was determined to modernize the town’s political administration. Led by John Coffman, editor of the Takoma Journal, and city councilman Robert Hefner, Takoma Park officially became the “City of Takoma Park” in 1948, and joined the Maryland Municipal League. The Volunteer Fire Department was reorganized under the city, a Recreation Department was created to oversee eight city parks, and Montgomery County handed over police duties to the city. After years of meeting in the Fire Station, the purchased the old Adventist school at 8 Columbia Ave. renovating it as our first Municipal Building.  Voting machines were introduced for city elections, and city administration was modernized. Although Mayor William Miller spearheaded the construction of the municipal building on Maple Avenue, he died just before it was officially opened in 1972.

8 Columbia city-crop

8 Columbia Ave. served as city hall from 1948-1972.

Part of those changes included a shift away from the Mayor-Council form a government to the Manager-Council model, though it took until 1961 to implement. The Council continued to make policy, but the City Administrator ran the city operations.

By the 1980s, residents, roused by the need to fight against the ten-lane freeway and threatened demolition of the oldest section of town, pushed for changes in Council representation. The replacing of at-large seats with a ward system greatly expanded the diversity of views on Council.

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TAKOMA PARK’S 125th ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION
Come to the Saturday, April 18 special anniversary kickoff event – an evening honoring past and present elected officials, as they reflect on their roles in the ongoing evolution of Takoma Park government. 7:30 pm at the Takoma Park Community Center, 7500 Maple Avenue, Takoma Park.

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Finally, the City Charter of 1988 formalized the government system we recognize today: City Manager in charge of staff and budget, Council elected by wards, Mayor allowed to vote (for the first time in Takoma Park history). This balance of professional management and elected government prevails in roughly half the municipalities across the U.S.

municipalhall1

The current seat of government and most city departments: the Sam Abbot Citizen Center/Community Center on Maple Avenue.

The most remarkable achievement was the decades-long effort to bring the Prince George’s County section of Takoma Park into Montgomery County. The Unification vote of 1997 made us truly One Takoma.

Of course, Takoma Park adds its own quirks on how to govern. The residents insist on their  share of participation on committees and in policy debates, and voting rights are extended to non-citizen residents and 16-year-olds.

About the Author

Diana Kohn
Diana Kohn is president of Historic Takoma, Inc., which is dedicated to preserving and celebrating the heritage of both Takoma Park MD and DC. Diana is co-author of Images of America: Takoma Park, a photo history of the town.