PHOTO: The 2015 Takoma Park city election – the last of its kind. Photo by Bill Brown.
GRANOLAPARK • BY GILBERT
Takoma Park’s 2015 started with a shock and ended with a bummer.
The shock was the resignation of the city manager. The bummer was the local hospital getting final permission to relocate. The city’s distress was underlined by the death of former mayor Stephen Del Guidice the same day.
In the months between the council chose a developer for Takoma Junction, and the city elected a new mayor. The Bruce Williams’s Era ended, the Kate Stewart Era began. The pool was imperiled three times.
Let’s look at 2015 chronologically.
Former city manager Brian Kenner. Photo provided by City of Takoma Park.
A year ago there was lot of yelling and disagreement about which of four companies was the best to develop the city’s Takoma Junction parking lot, how it should be done, or whether it should be done at all.
The Takoma Junction development process was city manager Brian Kenner’s baby. That baby was nearly clawed to death by critical residents. As 2015 dawned, the people who wanted to roll back the process seemed to be getting some traction with the council.
City manager Kenner resigned Jan. 8, 2015. The reason, he said, was not related to the development controversy, it was to take a better job in the new Washington DC mayor’s administration.
Kenner’s departure did not stall the development process. Nor did the council roll the process back to the starting point, as supporters of the (rejected) plan proposed by the TPSS Food Co-op. Co-op plan supporters were the largest, best organized and most persistent group attending public hearings through 2014.
In early January 2015, however, a new, pro-process group emerged. They claimed 250 supporters, including well known community activists, business-people and former council members. “We urge the Council to see this process through to completion.” said their website, Revitalize Takoma Junction:
Nearly too late, city staff found out that the open lot behind the dilapidated old Washington-McLaughlin School was about to be auctioned off in two weeks by the IRS for unpaid taxes. The council nervously voted to bid on it.
A group of residents also formed a private group they called “Plan B” to bid on the property if the city didn’t. They raised around $115,000 in donations and handed it to the city to use for the bidding.
At the auction a group of residents calling themselves “Plan C” unexpectedly showed up to bid, angering the Plan B people as they drove the price up. They reasoned that the property would end up in developers hands anyway, so they might as well be the developers.
The city’s winning bid was $253,000. Mayor Bruce Williams was not upset by Plan C’s bidding war. The IRS was still owed back taxes and the city would have to pay it all off eventually.
Something to do with residents not shoveling their sidewalks happened last January – really ticking off the council and staff. Whatever it was, the dial under the council got set to “simmer,” where it stayed all year.
In late January 2015 the council reviewed proposed new snow-removal codes. They wanted to get tough with residents who don’t shovel their walks in a timely manner. They wanted fines that drew blood, especially for repeat offenders.
The Washington Adventist Hospital relocation has been slithering to conclusion for years. It wound through 2015, starting with a report by the hospital president to the city council in January.
The president’s presentation was the same old blah blah blah, ending with the usual weak pledge to “evaluate the feasibility” of establishing a standing emergency facility in the hospital’s stead.
Later in the meeting, however, resident-activist Brian Robinson interrupted, repeatedly shouting “Save our hospital!” and was escorted out by police.
Speaking of police, Chief Alan Goldberg said the city force had a couple of body cameras to try out. But, he said he’d like to see some state laws passed that would give police guidance for their use.
City councilmember Seth Grimes stands across the street from the city’s Takoma Junction lot due to be developed. 2014 photo by Bill Brown.
One of the four “finalist” development companies in competition for the Takoma Junction project dropped out.
Nobody acknowledged that Your Gilbert’s plan was best. Jealousy.
Jamie Raskin congressional campaign kick-off at Republic restaurant. Photo by Jackie Camer.
US Senator Barbara Miklulski announced she would not run for re-election in 2016, setting off a stampede.
US Congressman Chris Van Hollen immediately announced he would run for her seat. Maryland state senator, Takoma Park resident Jaime Raskin soon announced he would run for Van Hollen’s seat. Now there are a gazillion candidates.
Your Gilbert noted how so many state politicians hail from Takoma Park, part of a little municipal program for world domination.
The Takoma Park dog park plan was simplified and made smaller.
Last year the city lost a $53,000 state grant that was supposed to subsidize park expenses. Actually it was swiped by the county. Read about that here. Also gone is an expected state $30,000 grant for the following year.
The state and county have huge deficits and the governor is a Republican, so little state/county financial support for a dog park is expected.
The acting city manager, however, said the city could handle the $190,000 – $200,000 construction cost. The council voted to proceed.
You’re the one
That’s what the Takoma Park city council said to Neighborhood Development Company/SORG Architects, the group the council picked to develop the city’s Takoma Junction lot.
The council approved a new, possibly annual, event, the Takoma Truck Garden, held June 2, notable because it was the first city event on city property that allowed alcohol sales.
City manager Suzane Ludlow. Photo courtesy City of Takoma Park.
New city manager
The city council’s choice for Takoma Park’s new city manager was the obvious one – acting city manager Suzanne Ludlow.
Washington Adventist University wanted to build a Health Professions center on Maplewood Avenue, a narrow residential street bordering the university’s campus. They wanted to build it 51 feet tall, which upset the across-the-street residents. Not to mention it would violate the height limit. That’s not so bizzare.
What IS bizarre is that they got county council member Nancy Floreen to sponsor an amendment to the county code, exempting WAU from the height limit. But not just WAU – every other religious-educational institution in the county.
“It’s like using a sledgehammer to tack a postcard on the wall,” said city councilmember Fred Schultz.
The city council scrambled to oppose the amendment and line up county-councilmember allies. By June the amendment had lost sufficient county-council support to pass.
Pool crisis #1
There were no funds for the Piney Branch Elementary school pool in Montgomery County’s budget this year.
The pool is an oddity. The county owns it, but Adventist Community Services of Greater Washington runs it. It is a local treasure, but the county periodically unfunds it. This is probably to gauge constituent support for it. When constituents yell loud enough funds are restored.
The city council and constituents yelled loud enough, funds were restored.
The Photo Rebellion
Councilmember Kate Stewart, supported by council members Terry Seamens, and Jarrett Smith, proposed a surprise, late-evening amendment to a police purchase order concerning police photographing minors.
The amendment would have withheld the purchase until the police stopped photographing minors not involved in criminal activity.
It was a bold, unexpected move that left Mayor Bruce Williams, the city manager and Chief Goldberg tut-tutting about the late hour and lack of prior discussion or warning.
“I’ve tried numerous times to ask for this conversation.” said Stewart.
Keep in mind, Chief AlanGoldberg said, that the under-aged “people who did the carjackings and burglaries in your neighborhood” were eventually identified by pictures and descriptions taken by Washington, DC police.
“We have a reason for stopping people.” he said, though it is not always clear to the person being stopped.
Other cop concerns
This was a foreshadowing of Stewart’s campaign, in which she made “police approachability” part of her platform. It’s an issue that other council members, such as Seth Grimes and Seamens, have expressed concern about.
Stewart and Seaments previously noted the larger, more intimidating size of the new Ford Interceptor police cars. They are SUVs rather than the usual sedans.
Councilmember Seth Grimes noted that city police vehicles have changed from white to black in recent years. Police uniforms were changed from blue to black, also.
In 2014 Stewart pushed for and got funds for a contractor to do a police/community relations analysis. It didn’t happen in 2015, but now that Stewart is mayor, look for it in 2016.
The city budget spoils every spring. 2015 was no exception.
The city manager’s budget included a staff pay raise. This was needed, said city manager Ludlow, because the city’s salary and wages were below market. If the city wants to attract and keep excellent workers, it needs to pay them as much as the other cities around here, she said.
The city council wanted to keep library renovations in the budget, too.
To achieve the amount needed, taxes were raised 1.5 cents. Taxpayers paid 58.5¢ on every $100 of their property value -higher than the 57¢ they paid last year. It wasn’t too bad a bite, however, because home property taxes were based on three-year-old assessments.
THIS YEAR – watch out. They’ll be using new assessments.
Distinctively ugly curb. Photo by Bill Brown.
Yet another sign of the city’s creeping priority shift from community values to property values was the Residential Streetscape Task Force report, “Safeguarding our Distinctive Visual Character.”
It’s a puzzling title. Though some parts of town have been spiffed up, Takoma Park’s distinctive visual character is still scruffy yards, chain link fences, and dinky little homes that lower-middle income people can barely afford to buy or rent.
Once upon a time residents wanted to preserve THAT distinctive visual character. A decade or two ago they marched in the July Fourth parade with signs reading “Keep the Tacky in Takoma Park!”
Those people are now lying in a mass grave beneath an Historic District sign.
The city council accepted the report May 26. The policy presentation is tentatively scheduled for March, 2016.
The Voice’s big moment
The council discussed allowing the city newsletter to be more like a newspaper. Then-editor Virginia Meyers, a highly capable journalist who used to work on the Takoma Voice, wanted to cover more local news.
Nothing came of it and Meyers left for another job (a move unrelated to her request).
In the council discussion, however, the Takoma Voice was mentioned, along with a lot of misinformation.
The Voice’s managing editor appeared at the next city council meeting to correct the record. The main correction was that the Voice’s online coverage is diminished. The number of monthly online articles equals or exceeds the average number of articles in former print editions.
The public appearance and related editorial boosted online readership and subscriptions, a trend that continued through the rest of the year.
Bulletin board design.
A “sponsored” bulletin boards proposal passed June 8 by a quick, unanimous council vote. The public didn’t notice or didn’t care if a business puts up ads in public parks – ads attached to public bulletin boards. Landis Construction gets a good deal – perpetual advertising for the mere one-time cost of a few pieces of wood and hardware, plus the installation. They don’t even pay for maintenance, the city does that.
Marilyn Abbott, Board of Elections Chair reported how the board was gearing up for the city fall election. To get more voters out they had outreach plans – voter registration bus, registration at city events such as the annual Folk Festival, holding five days of early voting, maybe in different ward locations.
What ways are there to “stir people” to get them to turn out for elections, asked Councilmember Fred Schultz.
The question got a storm of answers that rivaled the torrent pounding the community center room that evening: Mandatory voting, curbside voting, randomly drafting an opponent to run in uncontested council races, turn it into a festival? free ice cream for those who vote?
Takoma Park Mayor Bruce Williams. Photo courtesy City of Takoma Park.
It was definitely the end of an era and apparently the fall’s city election would be epic.
Within seconds of Takoma Park mayor Bruce Williams’ July 20 announcement that he wouldn’t run for fall re-election, the rusty Gears of Change began to clank and rattle.
Four days later Ward 3 council member Kate Stewart sent out campaign kick-off invites. She launched her campaign July 24.
Ward 1 council member Seth Grimes indicated he would announce soon, also.
That meant their council seats were open. Speculation and rumor began about who would run for them, and who else might run for mayor
At the last city council summer meeting July 27, council member Stewart followed up on community/police relations, which was now part of her campaign platform. A number of police-equipment purchases were on the agenda. Getting emotional at times, she questioned the purchase of police cars. Not so much the cars, but the paint jobs. Black police cars look intimidating, she felt, which has the opposite effect of making police “approachable.”
Library renovations looked hopeless until just before the recess. Council and residents were dismayed that the options meant either taking out beloved trees or moving a beloved mosaic (potentially damaging it).
The architect and council resolved the dilemma by taking the renovation in a direction not previously considered – into the parking lot on building’s western side.
Pool crisis #2
A county budget crisis again threatened to close the Piney Branch pool. Again, the constituents yelled and the council lobbied to stop it.
Peter Kovar, first announced candidate for Ward 1 council seat.
Ward 1 Councilmember Seth Grimes, who earlier said he would run for mayor, decided not to. Also, he said he would will not run for re-election to the council.
Peter Kovar of Holly Avenue announced to his neighborhood email list that he would run for the Ward 1 spot.
Children will die
During the August break, Granolapark explained Gilbert’s Rule. This generated more controversy than Granolapark’s usual coverage of actual council events. Go figure.
At the city’s nominating caucus two surprise candidates emerged: Warren Holmes for mayor and Elizabeth Wallace for Ward 1. Photo by Bill Brown.
Back with a bang
At the first fall meeting, mayor Williams 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.
Tim Male, Ward 2 representative, proposed the “advisory question” on the 2015 election ballot. The question was whether the city election date be moved to coincide with statewide elections. Right now, city elections are stand-alone events in odd-numbered years.
The council was divided on whether to put the question on the ballot. But the majority was in favor.
The mayor read a long statement against coordinating election days. He cited the potential loss of a number of unique features: the city’s nominating caucus, the five week campaign, inexpensive, short campaigns, IRV voting, under-18 voting, non-citizen voting, same-day voter registration, use of the community center as the city’s one polling station and early voting. If those features could be kept, likely voters would have to cast two ballots, which many might find inconvenient, undermining the reason for the change – increasing voter attendance.
Councilmember Schultz, moved by scenes of Syrian refugees fleeing to Europe, proposed that the city should do something. The issue was dropped until after the elections.
Marc Elrich, a former city council member, now a county council member, clumped into the meeting unannounced, angry steam pouring out of his ears. 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. The city waived it’s rent control laws for the building, though it is located in the city.
It changed hands recently and it came to light that the previous owner handn’t fixed up the affordable-housing apartments. The new company was jacking up rents between 25 – 75 percent.
At the urging of residents, many of them in other wards, the city council at first raised objections to the building of a Taco Bell at the corner of New Hampshire Avenue and Holton Lane in Ward 6. Middle class residents had their panties in a twist because a Taco Bell did not fit their dreams of gentrification, despite the fact the site was a strip mall near a largely Hispanic, immigrant and lower-income population.
Eventually, the council backed off and made no further comments on the issue, to the disgust of some.
Two surprise candidates jumped into the Takoma Park election at the Nominating Caucus. The mayoral race gained a candidate and the Ward 1 council race gained two.
Warren Holmes, a life-long Ward 3 resident and landlord was the mayoral candidate running against previously announced candidate Kate Stewart. His issues were taxation, rent control and alienation from relatively well-off newcomers.
In Ward 1, where Peter Kovar was already posting campaign signs, Victor Thuronyj. “A tax lawyer to works for the common good,” and Elizabeth Wallace, local businesswoman, announced their candidacies.
All the other candidates were unopposed. Your Gilbert bravely endorsed them all, writing “People bemoan the fact that there are so few contested races in Takoma Park. Your Gilbert celebrates the fact that at least one person in every Ward has stepped up for the rest of us.”
The week before the Nov. 3 election, late-comer Jason Small announced a write-in campaign for Ward 6, running against incumbent Fred Schultz..
Mayoral candidates Warren Holmes and Kate Stewart at the Takoma Voice candidate forum.
Thanks to CHEER, there was a series of forums in high-rise rental-apartment buildings – where issues that concern immigrants, minorities and renters might come up. And they did, mainly thanks to Warren Holmes.
Many tenants were interested in Holmes’ objections to rent control’s effects on landlords, making it difficult to maintain their properties. Renters want to live in well-maintained buildings. They also were shocked by the amount homeowners pay in taxes. Some of them dream of buying a home in Takoma Park. When Holmes enumerated the monthly cost of mortgage, insurance and city taxes for an average Takoma Park house, they were appalled.
The Takoma Voice forum featured all of the candidates and a debate on the ballot referendum. Tim Male argued for the measure, Fred Schultz spoke against it.
A Voice editorial advised voters to vote against the referendum. Some political heavy-hitters came out of the woodwork to lobby and leaflet for it in print or in person at the polls: district 20 delegate David Moon, ACLU of Maryland’s Terrill North, and Darian Unger, community activist. North and Unger were also district 20 candidates in the last general election.
It was a bit of a WTF moment – suddenly the referendum looked less like a home-grown idea than some outsider’s agenda item.
Former mayor Bruce Williams and new mayor Kate Stewart at the council inauguration. Photo by Eric Bond.
Winners were Kate Stewart for mayor, Peter Kovar for Ward 1, Fred Schultz for Ward 6, and the ballot question.
The last city election
And so ended the last Takoma Park election – as we’ve known them.
Farewell to the nominating caucus, the single polling place, and potentially much more. Despite the caveats in the “advisory” ballot question that the city should not combine elections if it means losing our unique features, the council majority wants to merge election days and they’ll find a way to do it. The ballot question vote gives them, in their minds, the mandate to do so. That’s how Your Gilbert reads their minds, anyway. Hopefully, we’ll be proved wrong.
The November 16 inauguration was the usual Thank-fest, even more than usual because of the End-of-An-Era thing with Mayor Williams stepping down. He had to get extra-thanked. Several times. And he had to speechify about “passing leadership on to another generation.”It was an extra-long wait for the cake reception in the lobby.
Shovelers shove back
One of the last thing the old city council did was to pass a new snow-removal policy.
They were set to pass it – including the strict rule about residents having to shovel freshly fallen snow off their sidewalks by 8 a.m. Fortunately, a bunch of PTBTs (pitchfork and torch-bearing townspeople) turned up at the council meeting to say “ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR FREEKIN’ MINDS?”
So, the council voted 5- 2 to move the sidewalk-shoveling deadline to noon the day after the snowfall.
Was it good for you?
The November 23 session was the first full meeting of the new city council under the new mayor.
At the second meeting of her administration Mayor Kate Stewart set out some new meeting rules.
The biggest change is the meeting day – from Mondays to Wednesdays. This will start Jan. 13, 2016.
There will be Friday morning coffees with the mayor and council for any residents who care to show up. These will be held in various places around the city.
The Nov. 23 meeting had some “chew off your leg to get out of the trap” moments as they group-explored the new city website. The site was displayed on the big screens as several people simultaneously directed a staff member where to guide the cursor.
The Washington Adventist Hospital, the only hospital within city borders, was all but given final permission to relocate to White Oak, MD. This was not unexpected. The process has been rolling forward for years.
The state health commission offered the city the chance to submit an objection at the final Dec.17 hearing. The council went into a couple of closed meetings to discuss it.
Washington Adventist Hospital – allowed to leave. Photo by Bill Brown.
The city council in response to spreading xenophobia passed an ordinance welcoming Syrian refugees. It was emotionally satisfying, but it did not offer any new programs or funds to make it happen.
There was some discussion of holding the weekly council meetings at different location, on different days and at different times. This was one of the mayor’s campaign pledges. Nothing formal has been decided on that, apparently. One question to be answered first is whether the meetings could be broadcast and taped. The Deputy City Manager said the cable tv department “may have the technology.”
The big letdown
The city made an oral presentation to the state health commission, but as expected, “MHCC approved the recommended decision as proposed,” as city manager Ludlow reported Dec. 17 immediately after the hearing.
No freestanding emergency facility to replace it, either. That’s still a posiblitiy, if you can trust the hospital’s vague, uncommital pledge to ““evaluate the feasibility” of locating one in Takoma Park.
The revised noise ordinance has sharper teeth than it used to. Police would be able to shut down events without having to take decibel readings. The vote on revisions will be in 2016.
Pool crisis #3
The last council meeting of the year featured the council asking a county school system representative to ‘splain to them their plan to solve overcrowding by razing the popular Piney Branch Elementary School pool.
The school system is dealing with overcrowding, eyeing the school’s small footprint and seeing room for classrooms where the pool is now. As much as they want additions and moderizations to local schools, the city council’s priority is to save the pool.
In Your Gilbert’s years council reporting (TEN years as of last November), we predict that, as usual, most of 2015’s unresolved issues will continue to move slowly and many will not be resolved. These glacial movements will be punctuated by fast-moving, sudden developments that must be dealt with within a few days or weeks.
So expect slow progress on the dog park, the emergency facility to replace the hospital, Takoma Junction development, the Piney Branch Pool, the dismantling of city elections, streeetscape policy and the budget process.
In other words, this year will closely resemble last year, except meetings will be on Wednesdays. Read Granolapark to keep up with all the drawn-out, excruciating minutes without having to sit through them yourselves.
Happy New Year!
Like us on Facebook: