GRANOLAPARK • BY GILBERT
The next time councilmember Seth Grimes asks someone to correct any misconceptions he might have, would somebody please get back to him right away? This would save Mr. Grimes the risk of injuring himself while simultaneously getting in everyone’s face, getting his knickers in a twist, and sticking his foot in his mouth.
Yes, the Feb. 12 Takoma Park city council meeting was a shocker. The auditorium was stunned into silence by councilmember Grimes three times.
The council was discussing in work session a proposed deal between the city and the State Highway Administration (SHA) about the maintenance of state highway Route 410, which bisects the city. This is a touchy subject for a number of reasons: Route 410’s annoying traffic light timing, the city’s desire for new crosswalks, the ownership of the road itself, and some residents’ fear that the SHA wants to widen it.
When it was his turn to comment, Ward 1 councilmember Seth Grimes, took deputy city manager Suzanne Ludlow to task for not supplying him with materials and answers he requested earlier. His suggestions, many of which he had passed on from residents, had been ignored, he said. Grimes apparently submitted the list of 18 questions to city staff earlier that day, questions he also posted to his blog the day before.
On his blog he wrote, “I’m a council newcomer and have quite a few questions about the proposed MOU [memorandum of agreement]. I’m putting them out for comments, suggestions, and correction of any misconceptions I might have.” Apparently, the staff did not get back to him. It has been mentioned at least once in every meeting this year that city staff is overworked.
Grimes objected to the course the city was on. He said it was addressing a political problem as though it were a legal one. The MOU was unnecessary, he said, dismissively flipping a copy of the MOU out of his hand. The solution was not to negotiate with SHA but to have politicians bring pressure to bear on the agency, he said.
The MOU draft fell short on many of the city’s requirements, he said, and did not even mention others. He complained that support documents mentioned in the MOU draft were not included in his packet. He had requested them, but none were provided. He demanded to know why.
After a stunned pause, Ludlow and city attorney Susan Silber, solicitously explained that they were dealing with rough a draft, therefore not all of the supporting documents mentioned in it were available or created yet. Silber and then mayor Bruce Williams assured Grimes that his concerns and frustrations about the MOU were shared, and that was why they were discussing them. The draft MOU, they said, represented only the positions they have so far been able to negotiate with SHA, and were primarily to show the council where negotiations now stand. The purpose, they said, was to get council feedback, not to get the MOU approved as is.
Grimes was not assuaged, he interrupted the mayor mid sentence to demand to know why he had not been informed of all this by staff earlier. The second stunned silence was longer than the first.
Grimes apologized to the mayor, saying he should not have interrupted. The other councilmembers were models of politeness throughout the rest of the discussion, making a point to praise the staff for their hard effort.
Perhaps Grimes should have formed a study group with councilmember Tim Male. Male, who is also newly elected, earned a shiny gold star for doing his homework and paying attention. He earlier reviewed the document stating the goals of the SHA negotiations, noted that those goals had been met as well as they could be, and acknowledged the problems of dealing within SHA’s rules and limitations. He also understood the vital point that though there are many issues and controversies about Route 410, the MOU doesn’t and shouldn’t address all of them.
There are limits to what Takoma Park can get. That was a thread that ran throughout the discussion. The city can make demands, which it certainly likes to do, but it can’t be exempt from rules the rest of the state has to follow. For example, if the city wants a crosswalk on a state road, it has to prove to the SHA that a specified number of pedestrians cross there. The SHA can’t cede total ownership of a road to a city or promise that it won’t widen the road. Not because it wants to widen the road, but because it can’t set that precedent. If would then have to cede the same thing to all the other state municipalities.
So, when the MOU says that though the SHA will maintain Route 410, “it will not be construed as consent by the City to any future widening of the roadway nor as a reduction in the standing of the City in any future condemnation proceeding initiated by SHA. It also will not be construed as any diminishment of the City’s local authority that does not conflict with the easement,” that’s the best the city can get.
That position was chiseled out of what the negotiators, city attorney Silber and deputy city manager Ludlow, called “a wall” that SHA initially presented in the negotiations. It may not be the wording that some constituents or councilmembers want, but it is what the city attorney said is one of the small but significant changes that resulted from developing a working relationship and respect for the other side.
The mayor said, and perhaps he was indirectly or unconsciously addressing the meeting’s earlier drama, that what doesn’t get any such concessions “is to go up against the rules and when you don’t get what you want to stomp your foot, and throw your papers down on the floor, and scream.”
None of this had the effect of cooling Grimes down, however. He sat through the discussion polishing his hand grenades and lining them up in a nice straight lines with the pins all facing the same direction. Near the end of the session, he said he said he doubted his concerns were going to be addressed, so he would submit his and his constituents’ suggested changes in writing, adding “I’m not asking permission, I’m TELLING you I’m going to go ahead and do that!”
” . . . That’s always welcome.” said the city attorney.
Grimes then requested for staff help finding pertinent state codes so he wouldn’t have to do it himself. He also requested that before further negotiations between the SHA and city representatives that city priorities and negotiation points be discussed publicly – or published online where residents could see them. His motivation, he said, is his own desire for open government, and constituent feedback. He said his constituents feel they have not been adequately kept abreast of this issue.
“I want to see significant changes” in the MOU he said. “Political officials need to have a greater say in what goes into this – a direct and explicit say – not someone interpreting what they are thinking,” he said, glancing in the direction of city staff.
No councilmember was entirely happy with the MOU draft, though most recognized that SHA would not likely concede any more on some points. Councilmember Terry Seamens suggested that the council meet in private to discuss negotiation strategy, but the city attorney said that would not be allowed under the state’s open meeting laws.
Psssst! Seth, use your indoor voice!