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Picking on Banjo Man

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Dear Readers,

The old news is that Montgomery County Council voted 7-1 to restore the $690,000 tax duplication reimbursement amount to Takoma Park and other municipalities (see “Something Untoward”). This has been widely reported elsewhere. So has the fact that the Washington Adventist Hospital is definitely leaving Takoma Park, but as compensation to the community, will (maybe) establish some sort of an emergency-care facility here.

The new news is that the city council has lately been focusing on budget matters and other stupor-inducing tasks. An exception was the May 14th executive council session – “executive” as in “none of your beeswax”- held behind closed doors to discuss “potential litigation regarding rent stabilization.” Uh oh!

In the regular session that followed, councilmember Terry Seamens was the lone “nay” vote against the city paying $28,000 to an architect for a city council auditorium renovation feasibility study. This would be a study of how best to turn the council meeting room into a sort of Swiss Army knife. The idea is that if the massive and permanent council podium could be replaced by one that folds discretely away, and other changes made to the room, the stage could be used as a theater, concert hall, and so forth. The room could be available for such events the six evenings and seven days it is not in use as a council meeting room.

Seamens, however, objects to spending so much money for no physical result, and would rather spend it on food programs for the low income or recreational activities for young people on the street.

Councilmember Colleen Clay fell off the wagon. Her New Year’s resolution not to micromanage was forgotten when the city’s recreation department’s proposed 2008 budget was presented for review. She grilled the recreation director Debra Haiduven about the Extreme Horizons summer day camp program the department runs for teens. She questioned everything from the cost, to the camper/staffer ratio, to the very purpose of the camp, which takes participants on daily field trips. These trips include white water rafting, caving, the DC Science Center, rope courses, swimming, mountain biking, rock climbing, and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. To the disgruntlement of councilmember Clay, however, they also include amusement parks and destinations such as Dave-n-Busters, Funland (go carts, arcades, laser tag, putt putt), Busch Gardens, Hershey Park, King’s Dominion, movies and sports events.

Councilmember Clay, tapping her inner Obsessive Supermom, blasted the staff for including too many activities that are “pure amusement.” Pure amusement – on summer vacation! What were these recreational folks thinking? Clay said she would like to see the program, indeed, all of the recreational department programs, offer personal enrichment and development instead of simple “amusement”. The rec. dept. should not exist merely as a “gang diversion” program, she said, Her ambition for the department is “greater than that.”

Mayor Kathy Porter suggested that the councilmember was getting into far more detail than was necessary for a budget review and perhaps Clay should sit down with the staff and discuss program goals at another time.
Clay complained that if she did that “I’d be accused of micromanagement!”

. . . (sound of pin dropping) . . .

The Mayor pointed out that Clay was instead micromanaging from the dais. Clay responded that it was out of frustration with the system, calling it “a trap.” She had, she said, no other opportunity to weigh in on such matters since the council seldom gets to review specific city programs, and the budget process offered no opportunity for line item reviews.

Mayor Porter said that was on purpose, that when the city used to have line item reviews the council would get bogged down. Ahem.

Councilmember Seamens spoke up, saying he was not happy that there was only a month to go before the budget had to be approved, leaving not enough time for careful review or questions such as councilmember Clay’s. He reminded the Mayor that a year ago the council had agreed that it wanted to discuss city programs in more detail, but it had not been put on the council schedule.

He was also concerned with what he called the “Wallmart” strategy of hiring part-time employees so it didn’t have to pay them full-time staff benefits. There are 30 part-time employees in the rec. department.

Finally, he said he felt the city had done the wrong thing when it stopped taking scholarship applications on the “honor system”. Now, the city makes applicants provide tax information, which, Seamen’s suspects, stops many deserving people from applying.

Your Gilbert suggests that scholarships should be awarded on councilmember recommendation and that constituents apply to their councilmember, who can use his or her discretion in determining worthiness.

Probably all of this and any other “serious” news events in Takoma Park will be eclipsed by the Banjo Man, which is why we left it for last. It seems unnamed persons have complained about Frank Cassel the Banjo Man’s street performances on Carroll Avenue during the Sunday Farmer’s Market. They complain about the obstructed sidewalk and the sidewalk chalk drawings his young listeners leave behind. The city staff has jumped right on this and decided that Banjo Man is in violation of City Code, and are in negotiations with him to “identify options” that would address the complaints..

If the Banjo Man is forced to leave, Your Gilbert suggests the complaining citizens and overzealous city staff members should be required to baby-sit the children in their homes every Sunday morning while the parents shop at the market – but only after their homes are brought up to code for a child-care facility.

- Gilbert

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.

3 comments

  1. Colleen Clay says:

    Gilbert, Like the Gazette, you missed the point. I object to the recreation department putting the kids in a van for as much as six of the ten hours the kids have for recreation on the days they go to the amusement parks, and I object to taking the same ten kids to the amusement park 8 times over the course of one summer. Further, I object to the inaccurate budget reports that claim that the program costs 35 dollars per day per child, while charging roughly the equivallent. In fact, if you add the cost of the van, the driver, the supervision and the admission costs, not including overhead the program costs the city three times that amount, over $500 per kid per session. It is a fiscal responsibility issue, not a micro-management issue. Anytime a council member challenges any aspect of how the city conducts business, micro-management is charged. You fail to note that I do not object to any portion of that program except the repeated amusement trips, and supported one or two such trips over the course of the summer, just not 8 for a single summer with the same kids.
    It is unfortunate that elected officials and the press whould either support or remain silent to such low expectations for our recreation department, and the innacurate statement made by the recreation director that the program costs just 4.50 an hour, including transportation costs. The average of the activity cost alone is 4.50 an hour. There is a lot more than that to developing a cost analysis of a recreation program.
    You also fail to note that I did not suggest that we cut the recreation budget, only that we spend the money better, serving more kids in a more meaningful way. Neither did I, as the Mayor and rec director suggested, put forth that the summer camps be some purely educational experience.
    I think this all begs the question of why there is such a lack of transparancy regarding the budget, why the misinformation, and why are there so many people vested in squashing any evaluation of the services that could make the program better.
    That is part of my responsibility to the citizens of this city.

  2. Steve Davies says:

    A modest retort
    from a TP citizen
    OK, Gil–this is my last attempt at commenting on your blog. If I don’t make it on, then I shall have to peddle my disgruntlement on my own site…
    Sadly, right here in Takoma Park, the venues for intelligent discourse are so few that CouncilMember Clay and other misguided people (me) must resort to responding to a pseudonymous something or other.
    It may be time to change that.
    But on to the real subjects. I’m basically with ya on Frank, tho I understand some/a few businesses don’t like the chalk dragged onto their carpets, which they’re responsible for.
    A neighbor of mine made a good suggestion — why not the gazebo?
    it makes sense, I told him. But watch — some bureaucratic technicality (money) will prevent it from happening. My hunch is Frank would have to pay for the privilege.
    The Post Office — doesn’t seem like a good idea either. You just move the problem down.
    It woulda been nice if the city had taken the same interest in the “parking spot” in front of Savory that was quite often filled by SUVs that blocked most of the sidewalk, forcing ALL people — not just kids, not just parents with kids or baby strollers — to venture into the street.
    Some question of safety was brought up about Banjo Man. Gimme a break. Savory is right at a sharp turn… hell, we all know where it is. A car drove through the front of the B&B next door and LEVELED THE PLACE. Remember the dilapidated structure that was there for years?
    In any case, some will have noticed the “No Parking” box where there used to be asphalt beckoning quick-pay-and-go coffee drinkers who were just parking “for a minute” (make that five), even as kids were walking to the bus stop.
    Who painted that space?
    a) Savory
    b) The city
    c) U-Md students who ran out of “BAY DRAINAGE” Stencils?
    d) none of the above
    If you answered d, you’re right. It was a family of friends of mine (2 parents, 2 children) from Westmoreland who went out with buckets and brushes in broad daylight while the customers sipped java.
    No one objected.
    They and I had complained multiple times to the management and to the police. I had gone into the place (actually did so again the other day when someone was parked in the NEW space) and complained.
    A painted No Parking space had been suggested.
    Nothing was ever done until citizens took it into their own hands.
    woulda been nice if the level of intensity directed against Banjo Man had been used instead on Savory. But hey, this is Takoma Park, and those self-absorbed parents and their unruly brats are far worse. (I mean, pulling money out of SunTrust in protest? Are you kiddin me?)
    But on to my other point, Gil — Clay has every right to ask questions. The budget is incredibly general! Congressional appropriations are more detailed! Why do you think no one is showing up for the hearings? Because they can’t figure out what the hell is in the budget!
    Look at maintenance, look at the amount of money spent on gasoline for city leaf blowers and street cleaners, and on right-of-way upkeep.
    I would rather my tax dollars not go to take kids to Kings Dominion every week, if the councilmember is correct on the facts.
    If anything, Takoma Park seems to think of itself as a mommy, but without the means to really pull everyone up. We assess our needs and goals and then … leave them unfulfilled or unaddressed. Health care , for instance. Um, what exactly can Takoma Park do for people who don’t have health care? Yet we have a committee looking into it.
    They will probably produce another report destined for the bookshelf, right next to the great Climate Change Action Plan, now going on 7(?) years old.
    It might be worth looking at the dusty document to see what has been implemented. My guess is, not much.
    But hey, it’s Takoma Park! Let’s celebrate ourselves! We’re doin great!
    Seamens also has a good point about temporary labor, although I see how there would be significant cost savings.
    All of the city departments should have to justify their budgets in detail.
    By the way, is our local press missing the great stormwater fee story? Stay tuned.
    All the best

  3. ap says:

    I ‘heard’ the conflict with the Banjo Man was based on the fact that he plays next to the alley that cars come in and out of, and with little kids running around while he plays, posed a serious health hazard. Not true?

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