OPINION • BY FRANCIS PHIPPS
I am thankful to Ward 1 councilmember Seth Grimes who has listened to his constituents and offered sound guidance on this issue. He also has provided an objective and, I believe, generous report on Monday night’s Council actions.
However, below are my Old Takoma Resident far less generous and unvarnished views & recommendation to my fellow citizens. If the citizens of Takoma Park feel the Council is off-track – as I do – you can make a difference. See below.
What Happened to Representative Government?
Monday, after receiving over a hundred emails, reading numerous letters, listening to multiple public administration experts, two former Mayors and many former Council members, the four Council members from Wards 2, 3, 4 & 5 ignored the 75% to 80% of Takoma constituents who overwhelming recommended against the proposed Charter changes and pushed hard and won more Council control over hiring and residency requirements for a City Manager and senior staff. These Council members were elected to represent majority views of their constituents – not to ignore them.
The thrust of all this aggressive legislating is to be sure that the City Manager and senior staff listen to the Council. Let me ask you a question: Did the Council listen to us? Well, they listened to 20% of us. It is an affront that they want to be listened to but refuse to listen to the vast majority who elected them.
Making Changes to City Management : Same Proposals – Different Rubric
The Mayor and two Council members – Wards 1 & 6 – who had listened to their constituents – worked hard at damage control. The evolving “compromise”
Is this a Compromise? You Be the Judge:
• a Charter change to allow residency requirements to be enacted by ordinance – [a distinction with a procedural not a substantive difference] – and
• Charter language to allow an ordinance to require the City Manager to “consult” three times with the Council on each individual senior staff hire : once before the hiring process begins; once during the process; and once right before the position is formally offered. The most pernicious “consent” portion of the original proposal was dropped.
The Council intends to discuss the residency requirement on Monday and propose that an ordinance be drafted that if someone from out of the area is chosen, he or she will have to live in the area. Huh? How is this different from what a large majority of citizens opposed? Oh, we’re told, it’s different because it’s not directly in the Charter per se, but it included by reference in the Charter as an Ordinance.
Two Justifications Offered for Proposed Changes:
The justification for all of this is that there have been some staff who have exhibited a “culture of entitlement and arrogance” toward residents. If this is true, then this is truly a personnel and management problem. To correct this, you do not need an Ordinance or a Charter change. You need to ensure that your strong manager knows the Council will not tolerate this.
Another justification is that on the Federal level and in some large jurisdictions, advice and consent is the norm. To mistake procedures which are appropriate at the Federal level as equally appropriate for a small 2 square mile jurisdiction with approximately 16,000 residents, demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of small, local governments. It also ignores Takoma Park’s history and the painful steps we have taken toward professionalizing and not politicizing our little bureaucracy.
Now, I do agree that any City Manager should consult with the Mayor and Council on new senior staff hires. I strongly recommend that any instructions in this vein be done in the simplest and most-straightforward manner – such as developing a brief personnel manual on senior staff hires and leave the Charter and Ordinances alone.
Four Best Arguments Against the Value of Residency Requirements Are the Council Members from Wards 2, 3, 4,& 5
The argument made for the value of residency was that it would make staff “more sensitive to and responsive to” the values of Takoma Park. Whoa! How is that residency criteria working out for us? Here are four Council members – all of whom live here and have been inundated by their neighbors and constituents urging them not to do what they did Monday night. Just how sensitive and responsive are they to us?
There is another – I believe more disturbing justification being offered – which I’ll call “Takoma Park Exceptionalism.” That is, Takoma Park is so special and so exceptional that if you don’t choose to live here you can never understand it. I find this echo of “American Exceptionalism” exceptionally out of sync with true Takoma Park values.
The WACO Community Organization met, discussed the issues and concluded “that it would not be in the best interests of the City” to endorse these proposals. They wrote a carefully argued letter and presented testimony – all of which was ignored. In Ward 1, we can thank Seth for the leadership and responsiveness he has shown on this issue. Ward 6 should also to be proud of its representative. Residents in the other Wards may be getting a taste of what the next years portend.
How Did We Get In this Mess: Serious Issues Swamped by an Artificial Deadline
The Council feels the urgency to begin the City Manager hiring process and some members saw the current vacancy as an opportunity to “improve” outcomes. Once serious new requirements were proposed for hiring, they triggered – according to the City Attorney – the requirement for a Charter change. Charter changes have required procedures and a clock that starts ticking and is rigid. According to this timetable, which concludes on December 25th – Merry Christmas to us – resolutions must be read and action concluded before the deadline. A referendum against this action is provided for.
How Do We Get Out of This Mess & Fill the City Manager Position Sensibly Now?
The jurisdictions in which I have worked – when faced with overwhelming opposition to a proposal – have wisely chosen to step back and give themselves time to work out a response more in keeping with their constituencies.
Table the Discussion & Stop the Clock. There is nothing that says that a charter change process once begun cannot be stopped. Charter changes are serious business. They should be discussed rationally and reasonably. This can be done while the City Manager search begins.
Instruct the Citizen Search Committee to include the fact that the City is discussing a residency requirement and a larger role for the City Council in the hiring of senior staff. All applicants will be forewarned and their answers to such issues may play a role in the interviews.
City Manager searches take a long time. It is unlikely that any final decisions will be made until early next year. That provides the opportunity for these issues to be dealt with reasonably.
WHAT CAN YOU DO? Take 30 seconds & email:
Write the Mayor and all the Council members requesting they table the discussion and begin the City Manager search with the caveats above.
For your convenience, I’m attaching the email addresses: email@example.com. Bruce Williams <firstname.lastname@example.org>, Fred Schultz email@example.com>, Jarrett Smith <JarrettS@takomagov.org>, Kay Daniels-Cohen <firstname.lastname@example.org>, Seth Grimes <email@example.com>, Terry Seamens <TerryS@takomagov.org>, Tim Male <firstname.lastname@example.org>
IN CONCLUSION: This is your government which is ignoring you. They will continue to do so unless you make it clear that you won’t tolerate that. It’s up to you
Frances on Holly
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Frances Phipps, Ward 1 resident for 43 years, fought against the expansions and developments that would have destroyed homes and communities around Metro and Montgomery College. Her firm revitalized Old Town, and she renovated many old Victorian homes in Takoma Park, including the Cady Lee Mansion in Takoma, DC.