GRANOLAPARK • BY GILBERT
When the cats are away, the mice gossip about them.
The council is on August break. Takoma Park elections are coming in October. Let’s review the last term.
What has your city council done for YOU in the last two years, Dear Reader? What have they done TO you?
They haven’t raised your taxes!
They’ve even lowered the tax rate a little bit. And you got a tax rebate!
Lucky for them, the state and county, like bird parents, regurgitated cash into the city’s open beak the last couple of years. But, they are unreliable parents, don’t count on getting the same or any amount next year.
The city also has speed camera revenue. See below.
$1.4 million in county tax rebates and other money was returned to citizens (after the city council dithered for a LONG time) via a tax-rate reduction.
We insist on listing these first. These things keep the city running and are more important than the council’s controversial, headline-grabbing antics.
These include staff wage adjustments, negotiating with employee unions and contractors, funding repairs and new equipment, dealing with storm-water management, making appointments to committees and boards, awarding grants to local groups and causes, and so forth.
Behind the scenes councilmembers negotiated with the State Highway Administration, Walgreens, the state and county government, and others.
In short, this council has kept the city running and, as near Your Gilbert can tell, looked after your interests. Unless your interests include not wasting a lot of time on controversial proposals that raise your blood pressure.
Now for the sexy stuff.
This council brought out the mobs. They created three giant controversies: two proposed city charter changes and voting reforms that gave 16 year-olds the vote.
The three proposals dominated many meetings over the last 12 months. They were sparked by two events last summer/fall: the resignation of former city manager Barb Matthews, and the special election of Ward 5 councilmember Jarrett Smith.
When Barb left the ax-grinding was so loud you couldn’t hear the door slam. Turns out that as city manager she had been blocking or stalling councilmembers’ plans, especially the one to hire a “sustainability coordinator” – an environmental expert.
Like generals preparing for the last war, some coucilmembers proposed laws undermining the city manager’s powers. THEY wanted a role in hiring and firing staff. They also wanted to require the city manger to live in the city. They wanted her to be “like us!” Apparently, Barb was not like us.
Jarrett Smith’s mid-term election to office created a 4-3 majority of newcomers to veterans. This has not happened since 1987.
Since then newly elected council members were initiated in ones and twos – and were quickly absorbed into the status quo.
Until now, that is. The experienced, cooler-headed, deliberating council members are outnumbered.
That’s one reason we’ve had non-stop controversies since that July 2012 special election.
The anti-Barb laws
The new majority wasn’t always the new folks. The first city charter change was supported by veteran council member Terry Seamens, opposed by new guy Seth Grimes.
The so-called Gang of Four was: Seamens, Kay Daniels-Cohen, Tim Male (who authored most of the proposed charter change), and Jarrett Smith. The latter three were newcomers. In the end Smith switched his vote, defeating the proposal – after a weeks-long, bitter fight about whether the mayor had followed the proper voting rules.
The first proposed city charter change would have given the council a role in hiring and firing city staff and required the city manager to live in the city.
The proposal brought out the angry mobs. Resdients and several formal council members made comments at council meetings, in letters, phone calls and emails. The issue gummed up the City Manager Selection Task Force’s progress. Many council meetings dragged on until midnight or later.
This city charter change passed.
The council changed voting laws, opening up the voter registration limits. Residents can now register to vote up to and including election day. People with felony convictions can now vote.
And . . . so can 16 year-olds.
It was lowering the voting age that brought out the mobs. Most of the people who spoke against the reforms spoke against lowering the voting age. Nearly half the people who spoke in support were non-residents and/or representing special interest groups.
When the reforms passed 6-1 (Fred Schultz the “nay” vote) in May 2013, it sparked a petition to put the reforms on the ballot as an initiative. So far, that effort has not been successful.
Safe Grow Initiative
The council unanimously passed this law banning certain pesticide/herbicide use on city lawns. It imposes penalties on people who break the law, establishes at least one staff position to carry out the provisions, and requires a public education campaign.
First introduced as a petition in Nov. 2012, it started sucking up council meeting time in Mary 2013 with a “public forum.” The sponsoring activists were given seats on the council dais from which they conducted their presentation. Setting the pattern for many meetings to follow, long line of activists, experts, and parents testified on the evils of pesticides.
Questions and concerns from others were largely ignored or dismissed. A concession was made, however, to make the law only apply to lawns.
The law passed by unanimous vote.
Have you been enjoying Food Truck Fridays? Thank the council for making that possible. They waived some laws to do it. More recently they changed the city code to accommodate the trendy cuisine-on-wheels permanently.
Increased library hours
A March, 2013 budget amendment opened the library on Sundays.
Two new cameras were installed on Carroll Ave in October, 2012. That’s in addition to cameras on New Hampshire and Ethan Allen Avenues.
The council voted 6-1 (Terry Seamens the “nay” vote) in April 2013 to set up a “Safe Speed Corridor” on all of New Hampshire Avenue and University Boulevard. The city would cover these two broad, heavily-trafficked routes – amounting to around 2.5 miles of roadway, using mobile cameras that could be set up at several locations.
This followed the news that existing speed cams brought in half the expected revenues – down $1,769,223 from the $3,300,000 budget projection. Apparently, drivers have wised up and slowed down.
Those funds are used for a number of city expenses related to safety: new sidewalk construction, and some police salaries. Without the speed camera funds, the city would have to find another revenue source – like taxes.
Bikeshare & bus bay
The council can claim they brought in Bikeshare, the popular bike-rental system. Up to five potential Bikeshare stations are planned. They said installation could be as early as this summer, but summer is almost over.
We may have gained Bikeshare, but we lost a bus bay. Commuters ripped into the council when they discovered the Ethan Allen (at the corner of Carroll Ave) bus pull-over space filled in with dirt, the curb pushed out to the traffic lane. Drivers who have to now wait for the bus were upset, too.
The council wasn’t really responsible. It wasn’t their decision. The much-reviled State Highway Administration (SHA) does the maintenance on those streets. The SHA shared the extensive street renovation plan with the city, but the elimination of the bus bay went unnoticed. Even if it had been noticed, the rationale for eliminating it is solid. It was too small.
A new bus bay will be eventually built on the diagonal corner, says SHA.
As East-West Highway crumbled the city and the state have been negotiating a Memorandum of Agreement (MOU). It has taken years, set back by craziness on both sides. The State Highway Administration (SHA) changed its stance a number of times, and the council was harangued by the mob who think the council is in league with the SHA to widen East-West Highway (Route 410). Between them and the SHA it’s a miracle the council got the MOU.
But, they did, so now SHA will maintain the road, give the city notification whenever utility or road work is planned, improve traffic light cycles, and so forth.
Peace in our time
The council slowly but successfully mediated an anger-generating issue – a street sign. In response to the county barring rush hour traffic from roads near the city, Ritchie Avenue got a no-turn sign installed, enraging residents from other neighborhoods who use Ritchie as a shortcut to Takoma Park Middle School and other places. The sign was taken down after traffic-calming measures were installed on Ritchie.
The neglected and lapsed Committee on the Environment and Safe Roadways Committee were started up again.
The council put a lot of Redistricting Committee-member noses out of joint when they rejected the committee’s first proposals last summer. Committee members blamed the council for first giving them strict criteria, and then complaining about the results. They were also annoyed that in the end the council tinkered with their proposals.
The committee was told not to gerrymander, but the council’s final tinkering kept current council members in their wards.
This is a crisis the size and speed of a glacier. The Washington Adventist Hospital (WAH) wants to move. The city doesn’t really want it to go, but has come around this term to admitting that WAH has a point. The WAH campus is too small and outdated to be viable.
The council wants some kind of medical facility left there, something like an emergency room (thought it is not possible to have a free-standing ER). WAH says it does too. But, talk is cheap. Last September, the state rejected WAH’s move request. They are trying again with a greater chance of success, and with this councils’ begrudging, fearful blessings.
Montgomery College renovations
The council helped convince the community college on the edge of town to withdraw proposed building renovations that made steam come out of neighboring residents’ nostrils.
The council initiated a feasibility study on partnering 50/50 with the regional SDA Church to turn a NH Ave. property into a “business incubator.”
This is not a complete list. Nor does it cover your council member’s constituent services outside the council chambers. We can only cover so much. Probably, some of you Dear Readers will post comments noting worthy omissions.
In September Granolapark will be dealing with more election issues. And, in October The Voice will host a city candidate forum at the city council chambers. It will also be broadcast.
PS: Dear Readers with nothing better to do, poor pitiful things, can read up on the events of the term’s first year 2012 here:
Like us on Facebook: