PHOTO: Council councilmember Marc Elrich addresses the Takoma Park city council, Sept. 8, 2015. Photo by Bill Brown.
GRANOLAPARK • BY GILBERT
Takoma Park’s mayor was home recovering from emergency surgery, a city council member proposed sponsoring Syrian refugees, a county councilmember showed up unannounced and made a surprising request and, against strong objections from the mayor (via phone), a council majority proposed changing the city’s voting day and year.
It was the first city council meeting since their summer recess, a whole month without Citizen Comment lamentations, Council Comment droning and Your Gilbert’s drinking to drown it all out.
Via phone connection Mayor Bruce Williams told the council that eight days prior he’d undergone emergency surgery, spent a couple of days in the hospital but was now “doing pretty well.” He expects to return to the council dais next week. Councilmember Terry Seamens, ran the meeting in William’s absence. Following the last election, the mayor appointed Seamens Mayor Pro Tem to serve as mayor in his absence.
In response to recent news coverage of Syrian refugees flooding Europe, Councilmember Fred Schultz suggested the city look into sponsoring six refugee families. He also announced that he is running for reelection this fall.
Toasting low income people
In the middle of a public comment session Marc Elrich clumped into the auditorium unannounced, angry steam pouring out of his ears. Elrich, a former city councilmember, is now a county council member. Acting mayor Seamens interrupted the proceedings to introduce Elrich and invited him to take the floor. Elrich asked Seamens to proceed with the item at hand but said he would like to address the council after.
When he spoke he asked the city council to poke Montgomery County in the nose. He was ticked off about the county’s handling of New Hampshire Towers – an affordable housing high-rise apartment/condo building in Takoma Park. It is managed by a county-approved private/public company. Actually two companies. A new one just took charge. The deal with both these companies was that they could sell a percentage of the apartments as condos in return for fixing up the remaining apartments and keeping them affordable.
The first company sold at a nice profit, but didn’t fix up the apartments, charged Elrich. The county failed to enforce housing code regulations. The contract with the county says the company can gradually convert those apartments to condos. In two decades there will be none.
The immediate concern is that they’ve raised the rent. Elrich is particularly upset about this because Takoma Park has rent-control – and he helped write the rent-control laws – kbut the city gave the county a rent-control exemption for Hampshire Towers and similar private/public affordable housing projects.
The city council hears county councilmember Marc Elrich. From left to right: new Deputy City Jason Damweber, councilmembers Kate Stewart, Tim Male, Terry Seamens, Fred Schultz, Seth Grimes and Jarrett Smith. Photo by Bill Brown.
Rent increases in supposedly affordable housing units combined with rampant development happening just up New Hampshire Avenue in Langley Park mean that “the low income people in this community are going to be toast.” Said Erlich.
Rescind the county’s rent-control exemptions across the board, Elrich urged the city council. He said, “Take that piece of legislation and just kill it! Say ‘no more deals with the county.'”
He also urged the city to stop using county housing code officers to inspect Takoma Park rental buildings, as it does now. Go back, he said, to doing your own inspections with your own employees.
My, what interesting and probably excellent suggestions, but of course we can’t vote on this today, said the council in words to that effect. We are so pleased to see our old comrade and we’ll do everything in our power to look carefully at your concerns in this matter and weigh them against our better interests with the county. Great to see you!
One date or two?
Councilmember Tim Male is proposing to move the city’s election day and year to match the state/national elections, to go into effect in 2018. Currently city elections are in odd-numbered years and not coordinated with any other election dates. The next city election is Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2015.
Statistics show that voter participation increases when local elections are held the same day as state/nation elections, says Male.
Campaigners and signs outside the municipal building polling site in the 2013 city election. Photo by Bill Brown.
He’s proposing to ask voters if they’d like to merge the votes. He had a draft for an “advisory” ballot question to be put, if the council agrees, on this fall’s city election ballot.
A straw vote showed four council members in favor, two against putting the question on the ballot. A fifth councilmember – Fred Schultz – cast his straw vote for the ballot question on the condition that voters be provided with “non-partisan” information about the pros and cons of the date-change.
Concilmember Jarrett Smith opposed the change, saying it was not enough. The county, he pointed out, holds county elections on the same day as state and national ones. Yet, there are only two minority council members. He would prefer to make voting mandatory, as is done in Australia.
Mayor Bruce Williams opposed the change as well. He made a long, impassioned statement via the phone line. He addressed not only the logistical problems such a change would create, he championed local control.
“Our rules and processes running elections are very different from other local governments’ and from the state’s.” He said, listing Takoma Park’s unique election features. The city allows 16 and 17 year olds to vote as well as non-citizens and certain felons. has instant runoff voting, and a unique nominating process.
City election judges and staff counting paper ballots in the 2014 Ward 3 Special Election. Photo by Bill Brown.
“We have a nominating caucus as opposed to signature petitions–it only takes a nominator and a second to get on the ballot. We don’t have to register with the state,” said the mayor. “We have a five week campaign – which others are very envious of when I tell them about it.” he said.
“All of these we can do because we control our own elections process,” said the mayor, giving the city leeway to innovate and leading to more inclusive elections.
“We lament our inability to control our own destiny in so many other cases–tax duplication, certain zoning decisions, liquor control, state highway control–why would we want to give up control to the state for our elections? Why?” he asked.
He said it would be very likely that the city would lose IRV voting and would have earlier deadlines for candidates to get on the ballot, increasing the time and cost of campaigning.
One way to keep the city’s unique voting characteristics is to have two ballots, creating an additional line voters must stand it. “Will that increase turnout?” asked the mayor.
“Will the cost of elections go up?” he asked.
City Clerk Jessie Carpenter shows a paper ballot scanner used in the 2013 city election. Photo by Bill Brown.
The mayor continued his rhetorical questions. “For the city’s costs, will we have to provide election judge coverage to all the early voting locations on all of the dates? Will we have to provide election judge coverage at all 6 precincts in the city? How will we recruit election judges for these duties, when it’s already hard to recruit enough judges to cover one polling location?
“Will candidates find that getting their message out in a much more crowded environment proves costly? Will voters even find those materials in a much more intense election season? Will voters be better informed?”
“I think our best option is to continue with the many efforts we have undertaken to increase involvement and participation by all of our residents in all aspects of life in our city.” concluded the mayor, “Let’s go down the path we are already on.”
A teen signs in to vote in the 2013 city election. Photo by Bill Brown.
Your Gilbert quotes the mayor so extensively because he outlined the potential logistical problems and consequences so well.
They are what well informed (we hope) voters will have to weigh against the statistics showing voter increases in combined local/state/national elections. They are also what proponents of this change must address (other than a breezy “oh, we’ll fix that later!”) to convince voters it would be worthwhile.
This upcoming election will have, said staff, paper ballots which will be hand-counted. There will be early-voting dates and on Halloween, one of the early-voting polling locations will be in Ward 5.
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