GRANOLAPARK: Slow and speedy

IMAGE: Marilyn Berger, Co-op manager, addresses the Takoma Park City Council, Mar. 23. Photo by Bill Brown.

GRANOLAPARK • BY GILBERT

Dear Readers,

The Takoma Park city council first apologized for moving too slow to negotiate the Takoma Junction development deal, then moved at lightening speed to amend the city charter at the Mar. 23 weekly meeting.

The council voted to change the city charter as soon as possible to synchronize city and state elections in 2018. Whether or how the city’s unique voting features can be preserved is not yet known, but waiting to find out before starting the charter change process would delay the synchronization until the 2020 election. The state’s deadline is August 27.

City clerk Jessie Carpenter noted that the deadline “is like tomorrow” because of the 90-day city charter amendment process. The city, she said, would have to start the process before it made the decision whether and how to synchronize voting.

Unlike the state, the city enfranchises minors aged 16 – 17, felons and non-US citizens. It also uses an Instant Runoff Voting system in races of three or more candidates and offers election-day voter registration. Keeping those features will be a challenge. It may not be possible.

The charter-change period will start in May and the final vote will be June 22. The City Charter is the city’s core set of laws – similar to a constitution – defining how the city is to be governed, roles of the mayor, council and city manager and including how and when elections are to be held.

Plans A and B

Marilyn Abbott, city Board of Elections chair told the council that if they pursued this course, there were two options. The first, “Plan A,” would have a unified ballot including city, county, state and federal elections.  This would, she warned, require major revisions to the charter and presented challenging conflicts with the state election system, especially when it comes to Instant Runoff Voting.

“Plan B,” she said, would synchronize the dates, but use different ballots for city elections, so voters would have to line up twice. Instead of the city’s one voting station now used in city elections – the Maple Avenue municipal building – the four additional state voting stations around the city would be also used for both city and state voting. This would require additional city staffing. This plan also had challenges, including how to conduct early and absentee voting.

A third possibility is to go with Plan B – two ballots on the same day – first, then transition to Plan A – a unified ballot.

Driving this move is an advisory question on last November’s city election ballot. It sought voter’s opinions on whether to sync election days, with the caveat that the city keep it’s progressive voting features.

The vote to begin the charter change process was 2-7. Nay votes were Councmembers Fred Schultz and Jarrett Smith.

Told you so

This is EXACTLY WHAT WE PREDICTED.

We said in our December summary of 2015, “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.”

When at last Wednesday’s meeting council member Fred Schultz reminded the rest of the council that the ballot question said, in effect, “we’d consider” changing city elections, the mayor ran a steam-roller over his speed bump. She quoted the advisory question “Beginning with the election in November, 2018 …,” then she rattled through the provisions that must be met as though they were inconsequential, landing with great emphasis on the later phrase “SHOULD BE CHANGED.”

“It didn’t say … [‘we’d consider’]” she admonished Schultz.

Not in those exact words. But, first, it was an ADVISORY question, not a binding vote. Second, the councilmembers intent on doing this are blowing past all the provisions that residents voted should be met before synchronizing,

This is the part the mayor rushed over. “… providing that voting rights can be maintained for City residents who are (1) 16-17 years old, (2) non-citizens, or (3) on parole or probation for a felony conviction, and that instant runoff voting and same day voter registration can be maintained, …”

The reason they want to make the change is to increase votership in city elections. They are especially concerned that low-income, minority and immigrant populations are not voting in proportional numbers.

Your Gilbert’s chief objection to this is that despite all the hand wringing, the city council has never bothered to conduct a poll or a study to find out why those populations don’t turn out. There may be better ways to do this. They are making a stab in the dark. In the process the city will lose the small-town aspect of our election system, particularly the nominating process and timelines. We are also handing over control to the state.

As former mayor Bruce Williams said in his statement opposed to the ballot question, “We aren’t beholden to the state to conform to their process, and I think this has given us the chance to innovate, and to lead the way toward better and more inclusive elections.”

Too slow

“We’ve been criticized for going much too fast, now we’re being criticized for being too slow,” said Takoma Park city councilmember Fred Schultz, wiping bits of organic heirloom tomato off his glasses.

At least when the food co-op supporters throw produce, it’s healthy stuff.

It has been almost a year since the city picked a developer for the Takoma Junction city-owned lot next to the TPSS Co-op. So, the Co-op, which will be the development’s anchor business, is anxious to get on with it. They are anxious, too, because the developer is putting them off. The developer and the city are in overly-long negotiations so they can sign a contract and get on with it.

Meanwhile, the Co-op wants to know how the developer is going to solve some big problems. How will the developer keep the Co-op in full operation through the construction period? How will the developer design a loading dock in a smaller lot that doesn’t require trucks to drive through the neighborhood or block traffic on Carroll Avenue fronting the store?

After eleven months of no answers, they are in high-anxiety mode. As co-op manager Marilyn Berger told the council “The Coop is the only entity in this entire project whose very existence, and with it the livelihood of 43 wonderful employees, hangs in the balance.”

She made her statement at the council’s Wednesday meeting, March 23, during a special period for comments on the issue.

citycouncilbergerjunction2BBROWN

The special Mar. 23 comment session was attended by around 60 people, 22 of whom made comments. Photo by Bill Brown.

Although they have had meetings with Neighborhood Development Company that she described as “cordial,” the developer has not addressed their requirements in detail. The requirements are, “… access to the store loading dock for delivery, trash, recycling, and compost trucks. … parking for TPSS staff and customers and visitors at the other businesses in the Junction. Grocery customers must be able to bring carts to their cars…. Easy entrance into and exit from the store throughout the process. Long-term stability in any expansion space that we might occupy.”

The thing is, as the mayor explained, NDC isn’t going to answer those questions until the contract is signed. They aren’t questions the developer can answer until they have worked on the project – ALL aspects of the project. They are not issues that can be solved by themselves, ahead of all the others.

As council member Shultz said, it would be like a homeowner asking a painting contractor if they’d bought the paint yet before the contract was signed and before the homeowner had picked colors.

The council took on all the blame for the delay. They fell on the pointy end of their locally-grown carrots. As councilmember Tim Male and Mayor Steward pointed out, the city council was distracted by the election, other issues and summer and winter breaks.

There is no negotiation obstacle other than the time it has taken, said mayor Stewart. As for the co-op’s fears that the developer is neglecting or even conspiring against them, the mayor referred them to the April agreement struck with NDC which the city made conditional upon meeting the co-op’s needs.

Most of the twenty-two people who made comments to the council were in support of the co-op’s position. It was sometimes like traveling back in time to the 2014 – 2015 council hearings. Some of the same people had the same qualms and disagreements they raised then – as though a developer had not already been selected.

Not everyone supported the co-op’s position. Tebabu Assefa, chided the co-op supporters. They were not, he said representative of Takoma Park. Many residents, he said don’t have the time or wherewithal to turn out at city council meetings. He hopes to have an Ethiopian coffee shop in the junction development he said. “You are stepping on my dream” with the focus on and favored treatment of the Co-op.

Whazzat?

One type of comment annoyed Yours Truly enough to address it here. A number of people criticized the city for engaging a developer without first creating a plan for them to follow.

That would be like engaging a surgeon after diagnosing yourself and writing out surgical instructions for them to follow. The results would be about as successful.

– 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.