GRANOLAPARK • BY GILBERT
What the heck happened last year? There was SO MUCH going on in some ways. Yet, so little progress was made in others.
There, there, Your Gilbert is here to explain. Pour a stiff one and read on.
Personnel changes rocked Takoma Park city government in 2012. Two top staff people resigned, a council member stepped down, and four new council members formed a “newbie” majority. All these changes together resulted in the most bitter council split in years.
Between those two announcements Ward 5 council member Reuben Snipper gave his notice. He was moving abroad and could no longer serve on the council. Snipper’s term was taken over by Jarrett Smith, who won the July special election. The three-candidate election triggered the city’s Instant Runnoff Voting system – an historical first.
Once Smith was sworn in, the newcomers outnumbered the council “veterans,” council members who had served two or more terms. This may not have been an historical first, but it doesn’t happen often. The 2011 city elections yielded a bumper crop of newbies.
It is unusual to have more than one or two newly-elected council members per election, the easier to assimilate them into the council “culture.”
This large group of freshmen was more assertive and independent. Some of them waved away veteran advice.
When the city manager declared she was leaving, three newcomers and one veteran formed a faction, a slim council majority, labeled The Gang of Four (not by us!) to create new job requirements for the next city manager.
The group: Tim Male, Terry Seamens, Kay Daniels-Cohen, and Jarrett Smith wanted a residency requirement. They also wanted the council to have a voice in hiring department heads.
This was not as easy as it sounds. It went against the city charter. It eroded (in some people’s opinions) the city’s form of government – weak-mayor/strong-manager. And it restored a bit of the old system that a previous city council worked hard to reform into the current one.
The issue swallowed up the council’s time from summer to November. A lot of citizens showed up to rant at the public hearings. Tempers were raising throughout the city even as in the council chambers the councilmembers tried to stay civil to each other and to find a compromise.
In the end – and a strange end it was – Jarrett Smith changed his vote and the efforts were defeated. The strange bit was a confusing vote in which Mayor Bruce Williams changed his mind. The vote was challenged, then the challenge was challenged. At the next meeting, after everyone had read up on their Roberts Rules of Order, Williams had a vote on whether to re-open the matter. The vote was defeated, Smith abstaining.
Hopefully, the council and city can move on from this issue and the anger it created. 2013 is an election year, however, so there is a possibility that disgruntled constituents will take their representatives to task over it. That sort of thing rarely happens, however. Usually voters are happy to keep in office anyone willing to put up with it, and incumbents often have no challengers.
Unfortunately, Ritchie is a popular route for Takoma Parkians in the morning. So, echoing the first round of this brawl two years ago, the residents of surrounding areas turned up to demand the sign be removed, and the residents of Ritchie showed up to defend it.
It was a ward-against-ward fight, as reflected by the council vote. A motion to remove the sign was defeated 4 to 3. The representatives of Wards 3, 5, and 6 voted for removal. Ward 4 (where the sign is located), 2, and 1 representatives and the mayor voted for it. The sign WILL be removed after traffic calming measure are installed on Ritchie. Work should begin on that in early 2013.
The city and the State Highway Administration (SHA) have been negotiating for a couple of years working on a memorandum of agreement (MOU) concerning Maryland State Route 410, aka “East-West Highway.” Every time the two parties seem close to agreement however, something happens and they have to start over again. That’s not too surprising since one party is schizophrenic and the other is paranoid.
The schizophrenic one is the SHA. In 2011 the agency said it didn’t own Route 410. In 2012, the SHA said it does.
The paranoid one is the city. Twice in the last two years MOU talks have been scuttled because citizens suspected the council and the SHA were conspiring to widen Route 410.
Two years ago the SHA “discovered” that technically they did not own some Takoma Park sections of Route 410. They could find no legal papers showing those parts were given to the state by the city. So, maintenance, the SHA said, was the city’s responsibility – despite the SHA having taken responsibility for 80 years. By amazing coincidence, this discovery was made in the year of a particularly tight state budget squeeze.
Suddenly in the fall, the SHA said, “Never mind!”
The SHA found (or “found”) city council minutes and maps from 1934. That was when the state extended Route 410 through Takoma Park. And, guess what? The SHA now says that the part of MD 410 that runs through the City has been part of the state highway system since the 1930s – with SHA responsible for maintaining the road.
So the SHA said it no longer wanted a “perpetual easement” from the city to maintain the route. It accepted maintenance and financial responsibility.
That’s what the city wanted to hear, they don’t want to pay for maintenance. But, citizens led by local interest group Historic Takoma objected, fearing the SHA was manouvering to widen two-lane Route 410. They pushed the council to press the SHA for a legal pledge not to widen it. But, the SHA could not make that precedent-setting pledge to limit its powers of “eminent domain,” the legal power to seize land for public use.
Under pressure from Historic Takoma and supporters, the city hired Historic Takoma’s attorney to give the city the benefit of her legal views. They differed considerably from the city attorney’s. [correction: the attorney was not hired, as was discussed at council session at the time, but only met with the city attorney to share views and information.]
The issue remains unresolved, negotiations with the SHA are still underway.
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A council majority voted for two feel-good “progressive” resolutions in May. One urged the repeal of the National Defense Authorization Act’s indefinite detention provisions The other endorsed redirecting a big portion of the defense budget to less war-like federal departments.
Councilmembers Seth Grimes and Tim Male cast “no” votes. It was a brave stand after a citizen activist accused the council of being like “good Germans” if they didn’t support the cause. The issues were not the city’s business, Grimes and Male pointed out, and the resolutions were ineffective. The city attorney took out the only phrase that had bite. It promised non-cooperation with the Feds on the indefinite detention provisions.
As near as Your Gilbert can tell, these votes had zero effect, other than to burnish the careers of the activists who pushed them through. As we observed at the time, getting the Takoma Park city council to pass a toothless resolution on progressive issues is easier than giving candy to a baby. And, about as newsworthy.
In June there was the strange clash between the Nuclear Free Committee and the city library.
“Dumb” is how Takoma Park councilmember Fred Schultz described it.
The city library asked for a waiver to purchase computers made by a proscribed manufacturer. The Nuclear Free Takoma Park Committee recommended the council turn the waiver down.
Takoma Park’s nuclear-free ordinance forbids the city from dealing with companies that profit from the nuclear industry – unless a waiver is obtained. Reasons for a waiver include there being no alternative manufacturer.
Boxes of brand new Hewlett-Packard computers were sitting in the library, unopened. Hewlett-Packard is involved in the nuclear industry.
The library claimed ““There is no other option that supplies the same level of sophistication” at the same low cost.” The Nuclear Free Takoma Park Committee was in a snit because, they said, the library had not responded to their submitted questions. The library disagreed with this claim.
The council granted a waiver, but put a deadline on it so the library (actually, a contractor to the library) will eventually have to find an alternative computer brand
Oddly, there was little drama last year over the city budget. There was the usual process. The departments all presented glowing reports on themselves. Our work is vital. Nothing to cut here. In fact, we could use a little more.
The council made up a wish-list of things they wanted to see funded. The city manager retired to her tower and with the use of magic and alchemy conjured a fiscal budget. The council and she pounded it into final shape in what they call “reconciliation.” In the end the budget dashed a few hopes on the council – no expanded library and rec. dept hours, no funding for Takoma Junction street design - but the tax rate stayed the same, and nobody was fired, so most people were happy. Not the retail business community, however. Their property tax was increased.
Takoma Junction didn’t get its streets professionally designed, but it did get food trucks. The city waived some regulations and allowed the trucks to use the city lot. They have become a popular Friday evening attraction.
The small raise and increase in benefits the council gave themselves was briefly controversial. As often happens, residents who don’t follow the council BY READING GRANOLAPARK FAITHFULLY got wind of it at the last moment and had a cow. But, the raise discussion has been going on for years, and the raise resolution the council voted on was based on citizen committee recommendations. The raise passed.
• The pesticide ban. The proposal is the “Safe Grow Zone Initiative,” which the council has largely embraced. It would prohibit the use of “cosmetic” pesticides and herbicides in the city, first on public land, then after a time on private land. There are many gnarly details to work out. Will it affect just the city or residential land? Who would enforce it and how?
• The 410 MOU. Can the city and SHA come to a mutually agreeable understanding? Will Historic Takoma ever be satisfied? Will the SHA ever make up its mind who owns what? Will Route 410 ever get regular maintenance?
• The tax rebate. Last summer the county astonished everyone by rebating around $650,000 to the city for past double-taxation. Some council members (and a lot of citizens) said the funds should be returned in some form to the residents. Instead the city held on to it, just in case, they said, looking at the bad economy and uncertain fall election results. They came back to the issue after the elections, when the economy was looking a little better, but they couldn’t agree on what to do with it: turn it over to citizens in the form of a tax rate reduction, save it for a rainy day, or pay off some debt? As council member Fred Schultz said, they “will never find a shortage of ideas to spend this on.” Likely, they will put it off until spring 2013 budget season.
• Ward redistricting. This will need to be finished up by next fall’s city election. Will any council members be “redistricted” out of their ward? Not likely.
• Takoma Junction. Last winter the Takoma Junction Task Force presented the council with a list of recommendations to improve the area. A couple of them were met in 2012: food trucks, and a crossing guard. Look for more of them in 2013. The list included: getting the State Highway Administration to put in a new crosswalk, fixing the traffic light timing, holding events in the city Junction parking lot to attract a crowd: craft fairs, festivals, etc, streetscape beutification, sidewalk improvement, business facade renovation, and getting a bike-share station located in the Junction.
Almost finished business
Dec. 3 the city council unanimously approved a contractor to develop a city “Environmental Sustainability Action Plan.” This is, finally, what the city is doing to follow the Task Force on Environmental Action’s recommendation to hire a “sustainability coordinator.” It was the first of two votes, the second vote will come soon, no doubt. This is the end of a two-year long, complex struggle to hire a “sustaininator,” as we call it in Granolaparkland.
The only hospital in Takoma Park wants to move. The state says “NO! not yet!”
Washington Adventist Hospital has been planning for a few years now to open up a new, larger suburban campus many miles away. The move has to be approved by the Maryland Health Care Commission, but the commission issued a 181 page report in September concluding that WAH may not leave.
The report left the door open in case the hospital wants to revise it’s application and otherwise address the report’s criticisms.
So, for another year the city and the hospital are in limbo, though it seems hopeless that the city will end up with a full-service hospital. It might get some kind of “wellness village” that would include an urgent care center, but we’re no closer to that than we were a couple of years ago when WAH first threw that bone to the city.
There were a couple of lighter moments in 2012.
In December councilmember Fred Schultz dressed like a Democrat so there would be no mistaking his affiliations.
On the first of April, Granolapark reported on the ultimate retirement announcement.
Dear Readers, you are all wondering who won The Rat award, aren’t you? As no worse reporting on Takoma Park has oozed forth this year, the winner is clearly Washington Post writer Victor Zapana for his painfully skewed July 9, 20012 article “A ‘post-hippie’ Takoma Park.”
As soon as we can catch a rat and have it bronzed, we’ll send it off to Mr. Zapana.
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