GRANOLAPARK: The Curse of Takoma

GRANOLAPARK • BY GILBERT

Dear Readers,

First Rick Finn, now Barbara Matthews. Both are former Takoma Park city managers. Both left subsequent city administrative jobs under a cloud. Is there a Curse of Takoma befalling our former city managers?

Barbara Matthews was fired from her Rockville, MD city manager position last week. The termination was the result of three executive (i.e. closed) city council meetings in February.

Rockville’s Feb. 29 announcement about it was abrupt. “Barbara B. Matthews will no longer serve as Rockville’s city manager.” Though, they do add “The Mayor and Council appreciate Ms. Matthews’ service to the city and wish her well in her future endeavors.”

Bethesda Magazine reports that three of the five-member Rockville city council voted Matthews out. The article by Aaron Kraut quotes Rockville city council member Beryl Feinberg, “It’s very awkward, but the details of the discussion really are privileged and confidential.” Feinberg would not confirm that she cast one of the votes against Matthews.

Matthews was Takoma Park’s city manager from 2004 to 2012. She resigned to take the Rockville position.

Rick Finn was the Takoma Park city manager she replaced in 2004. He served from 1999, and is primarily remembered as the one in charge during the community center construction disaster. He was increasingly criticized for the cost-overruns and lack of transparency. He resigned a few months ahead of his contract schedule, ostensibly so he could work on a doctorate in public administration.

It was one of a string of “resignations under a cloud” that characterizes most of Finn’s city administrative job departures, both before and after his Takoma Park term in Sun Prairie, WI, Sandusky, OH and Peekskill, NY.

Is there a curse on Takoma Park city managers who leave the city? Like the Boston Red Sox’s Curse of the Bambino, the Curse of the Hope Diamond or the Curse of the Pharaohs?

Is Brian Kenner, city manager from 2013 – 2015, hearing the “dum da-dum-dum” music?

Is current city manager Suzanne Ludlow logged onto Amazon right now ordering a lucky rabbits foot and this book?

Vacant

The Takoma Park city council planned on having a first vote Weds. March 2 on the ordinance establishing a Vacant and Abandoned Property Registry, but it seems the mayor and council members got a flood of last-minute constituent feedback on it, so instead they held a work-session-like discussion.

The result was a long chin-wag ending with short straw-votes on minor adjustments.

This ordinance will require owners of vacant buildings to put their buildings on a list. And they have to state what they are going to do about fixing it up and maintaining it while it is vacant. Otherwise they face fines.

Some of the council share Your Gilbert’s qualms. A lot of the city’s abandoned buildings are situational – each one has a different reason for being vacant. And this is a one-situation-fits-all sort of law.

Sure, nobody wants to live next to an empty, falling-down building, but this proposed law seems designed to goad property owners, some of whom have financial or mental challenges, regardless of their own plans or abilities.

Councilmember Terry Seamens brought up some examples, including one of his own experiences in buying, fixing up and selling a home, that would run afoul of this law because it took longer than the required one year.

Councilmember Rizzy Qureshi worried that the registry of abandoned buildings, if publicly available, would be “a resource for developers to come in and flip them.”

That would, he felt, go against the city’s stated goal of encouraging affordable housing. Is there a way the city can use these properties to provide affordable housing, he asked.

His suggestion was largely ignored, except for a comment by Mayor Kate Stewart that they council could get into affordable housing issues AFTER the registry ordinance was passed.

Bites

Finally, someone mentioned mosquitoes. Takoma Park is home to the very species that can spread Zika virus – as the Takoma Voice reported February 12. That article pointed out that there’s not a heck of a lot of preparation going on about this, other than a briefing – attended by city manager Suzanne Ludlow – at a Council of Governments meeting early in the year. The council, known as “COG,” includes all Washington Metropolitan Area jurisdictions.

Ludlow reported to the council and public that mosquitos and Zika were discussed again at another COG meeting. Still no big plan, unless you count the annual announcements about reducing mosquito breeding grounds by draining all standing water in your yard. Which hasn’t worked for the last 20 years the city has been inflicted by this invasive species.

Councilmember Fred Schultz suggested residents install bat boxes, which are like bird houses only for bats. A worthy suggestion, but it gets complicated. Bat boxes require certain conditions – a location that gets 6-8 hours of sunlight daily, not near street or other lights, within 1/4 mile of a body of water, mounted 12 – 20 feet above the ground and more

Complicated

Another worthy suggestion that gets complicated is replacing city streetlights with energy-efficient LED bulbs. The city would save around 125,000 in energy costs, maintenance, fees and taxes. A no-brainer, right? It gets complicated.

Department of Public Works directory Daryl Braithwaite explained the complications to the council. The short version is that there are three ways to go: work with electric utility PEPCO, get a contractor to do it and purchase all the light fixtures from PEPCO and do it ourselves.

The savings are big, but so are the costs. It’s not just the bulbs that need replacing, it is the fixtures – at $1500 per. 1500 fixtures need replacing. The calculated break-even points for each plan are close to two decades.

Purchasing all the light fixtures means the city would have to get a maintenance contractor and establish an outage reporting center of some kind. And the city would only own the fixtures on the poles. PEPCO would still own the poles and the electric wires. See? Complicated.

Oh, and the cost calculations are rough, especially for the “purchase all the light fixtures” option. Getting figures out of PEPCO has to be done at their snail-like speed, said Braithwaite.

Heavy

What to do (or what not to do) about commercial vehicles parked on residential streets?

On one hand, the city gets complaints about commercial vans, trucks, etc. hogging spaces or getting in the way. On the other hand, there are a lot of small-business residents who work out of their homes and they have no other place to put their vehicles, or homeowners are having work done and the workers need nearby parking.

The current law is vague and difficult to enforce.

So the council favors, as a straw vote Weds. night showed, adopting the county definition of “commercial vehicle” as a first step in writing new commercial parking code. The county code says that to be a “heavy commercial vehicle” it must have at least one of the following characteristics: 10,000 lbs, 1 ton capacity, l21 feet long, 8 feet tall. Any one of those means the vehicle is “heavy commercial.”

The city is not going so far as to duplicate the county code, which excludes heavy commercial vehicles from parking on residential streets. Mindful of in-home business owners, they discussed creating some kind of permit system that would exempt their vehicles.

And, then, as council member Fred Scultz harruphed, HE has a recreational vehicle that would fall under the “heavy commercial” definition. So, permits look likely.

Council member Peter Kovar pointed out that it doesn’t make sense to go any father with parking laws as there is an ongoing city parking survey in process,

So, the council stopped there for now.

– Gilbert

 

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About the Author

Gilbert
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.

2 Comments on "GRANOLAPARK: The Curse of Takoma"

  1. I think that the fact that multiple individuals who have been city managers in Takoma Park for extended periods of time have had difficulties working for larger localities after a short period of time would suggest that the Takoma Park job is not particularly demanding, despite the $175k salary. Nice work if you can get it, as it were.

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