GRANOLAPARK: Failing to learn from history, again


Dear Readers,

Here we go again. The council wants to “help” pick a new police chief.

History lesson: about thirty years ago the city had big problem – the city council’s interference and influence with the city staff. Councilmembers could call department heads directly – and vice versa – to make policy decisions conflicting with the city manager’s.

The council did the right thing. They installed a city charter firewall between themselves and the staff. The council can hire and fire a city manager. But the city manager hires and fires all the department heads. The council has no direct part in those decisions.

Indirectly, however, the council has an strong, influence on the city manager. She or he knows if the council gets ticked off, they can fire her or him. And of course the city manager does all she/he or he/she can to stay on the council’s good side. The city manager backbends like a yogi to enact the council’s priorities and respond to their time-wasting antics with hardly any bloodletting.

Drawing by councilmember Terry Seamens in response to Fred Schultz’s quip about the council being “sitting ducks,” his summary of why there has been a police presence at city council meetings.

But, the current council either doesn’t know this backstory, or doesn’t believe it – or they just love opening cans of worms. Yum! Councilmember Tim Male, for example said at the April 19 council meeting that he has been looking at other municipalities, and notes that some have a weak city manager system. There is a spectrum of systems from “strong city manager/weak mayor” to “weak city manager/strong mayor.”

This became a big deal in 2012 when city manager Barb Matthews resigned. Matthews rubbed people the wrong way, passive-aggressively turning aside a lot of council or constituents’ initiatives as if they were kooky or overly-expensive or wasteful of staff time. Hahahahaha, as if!

Then, before Matthews left, the police chief resigned. She had the right to pick a new chief before she left, even though he would never serve under her, starting weeks after she departed.

In response, four councilmembers wanted to change the city charter, giving themselves advisory roles in choosing city department heads. The proposal was controversial, but the vote was notorious. One of the four councilmembers in favor of the change unexpectedly voted against it. To make a long, confusing story short and simple, the vote was challenged. It dragged out for weeks. In the end, the vote stood and the charter change was stopped.

Now, five years later, it looks like it is being revived.

If the council votes for a city charter change it will likely not get through the long legal process before the new chief is selected.

Residents enter the Takoma Park Community Center to attend the April 19 city council meeting. Photo by Bill Brown.

So, at their April 19 meeting the council also discussed how, under the current strong-city manager system, the council can affect the police chief choice.

They can give the city manager a list of traits they are looking for, much the way they give her their list of priorities by which she writes the yearly budget and directs her department heads.

So, they took turns giving her a long, long wish list of characteristics, talents and superpowers they want the new chief to have.

Be careful of what you wish for.

Your Gilbert remembers how the 2012 council formed a citizen’s advisory committee to gin up a similar list to guide them while choosing the new city manager. The council found a great candidate who hit all the marks – which could be summed up by the wish that he/she be “one of us.”

What was his name? We forget. He barely had time to sit at his desk. He left after a year and a half. One of us. Uh huh.

So much for wish lists. The current city manager and former deputy city manager Suzanne Ludlow, was picked with much less public involvement. She’s been on the job for over two years and seems a lot more “one of us” than whats-his-name.

Equity impact and cattle

The city proposes to assess all new ordinances for their racial equity. It will be similar to the now-required environmental and fiscal impact assessments on all ordinances.

So, for example, if the council considers installing traffic calming do-dads on a street in a predominantly white, well-off neighborhood, the proposal will assess whether it will shunt traffic into any adjacent minority, poor neighborhoods.

They should do something similar for public hearings – an assessment of public speakers. For instance, when nearly half of the 25 people who showed up to speak at the April 12 city budget hearing addressed ONE SENTENCE in the whole budget, you have to wonder what that represents. And what does it mean when most of the rest of them are also there just to speak for one program such as Play Day, or the city library?

We need a measure of what’s true public sentiment and what’s just a good lobbying effort. Maybe the people who show up to speak should be given a test to see how much of the proposed budget or ordinance they have actually read. Then when they speak they’d have to wear a big hat with their test score written on it. It would be pretty clear whether they were truly engaged, or just cattle herded into the room by activists.

Not cattle

Only four of the 25 were there to discuss the budget as a whole.

Paul Huebner asked that the city manager not hike taxes, but to use the constant yield rate so property owners pay the same amount (factoring in cost of living rises) they did last year.

Resident Paul Huebner addresses the council at the April 12 budget hearing. Photo by Bill Brown.

Arthur David Olsen objected to the sharp 67 percent storm water fee increase. He asked for city operating costs to be cut to match the cost of living increases. “It is not sustainable to outstrip it,” he said.

Mary Rooker said property tax is a flat rate, regressive form of taxation. Those with modest homes pay more than those with richer homes, she said.

Wayne Sherwood praised the city manager for her work on the budget, which he called “a Professional document.” He approved of the new priorities, youth and racial equity. His only gripe was that it was hard to understand how budget items were prioritized.

– Gilbert


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About the Author

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.

1 Comment on "GRANOLAPARK: Failing to learn from history, again"

  1. The city manager is over-paid and the city council acts at her behest. I want more city council involvement in decisions, not Suzanne Ludlow who doesn’t even live her to have the final word. Frankly, I detest the woman. She’s elitist and completely incognizant of what it’s like for the middle income TP property owner. The storm water fee is way too high and we need a cap on property taxes. If we made it a rule that the city manager actually has to live in the city, perhaps we’d have better management too. By the way, I did read the budget. Most of it is to cover staffing. I was at a city council meeting and some lady said she moved into Takoma Park full well knowing the taxes were high. As she walked out she said to me that if I didn’t agree with the high taxes I should just sell my house and move out of the city. Needless to say I told her to F&^k off.

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