A Mayor and Council candidate forum hosted by the Rockville Chamber of Commerce last night at the Thomas Farm Community Center was a civil and informative affair. Hot topics remained hot, but tempers were cool, and moderator Brian Barkley was efficient in managing the evening.
Since so many of those hot button issues are of keen interest to Chamber members, it meant there were no fluff questions. Every candidate proved to be articulate, and there were no memorable gaffes. And voters got their first extended chance to hear from three Council candidates new to Rockville electoral politics, David Hill, Clark Reed, and Patrick Schoof.
Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton, who has been the target of several criticisms by challenger Sima Osdoby, came across as well-prepared and confident in defending her record. Alluding to the critics, Newton said, "Negativity spreads faster than water. Rockville needs to stop eating its own."
Osdoby pressed a theme of "fear" at the outset. She said her decision to run was motivated by "fear about our future." After mentioning some of the strengths of Rockville that convinced her and her husband to move here, she said, "I fear that we may lose what we really care about in this city."
Osdoby had launched her campaign last month with an aggressive tone, but Newton was very effective in countering her jabs last night.
The first question posed to the mayoral candidates was whether or not the city should use financial or zoning incentives to attract large employers. Osdoby said it should, and immediately went after Newton, saying the Mayor had opposed Choice Hotels and the incentives it received from the city to move its Silver Spring headquarters to Rockville.
Newton noted that Choice Hotels expressed a different view of her efforts on its behalf during the grand opening of its Cambria Hotel and Suites Monday night in Rockville's town center. During the event, Michael Murphy, SVP of Choice's luxury hotel division, declared that "there's no bigger supporter of Choice Hotels in Rockville than Mayor Bridget Newton."
Newton said her opposition to some incentives proposed was expressed during an Executive Session of the Mayor and Council, calling it "interesting" that Osdoby could know what had happened during a closed meeting. Alluding to the fact that someone must have leaked details of the meeting to Osdoby, Newton said, "What happens in executive session should stay in executive session." She said her opposition was based on the fact that the hotel giant didn't "need money from the City of Rockville," and the recession tightening city budgets at the time.
The Cambria Hotel project was an example of her ability to "bring people together," Newton said. She noted that the project fulfilled the Town Center Action Committee's goal of a boutique hotel. But Choice also agreed to her request to not include a full-service restaurant in the hotel, to ensure an economic boost for the many restaurants in the town center.
Osdoby suggested Newton would not aggressively court Marriott Corporation, which is currently seeking a new location for its international headquarters. "Nobody has worked harder behind the scenes" to bring Marriott to Rockville, Newton countered in characterizing her recruitment efforts toward the lodging colossus.
On the 2015 change in the city's Adequate Public Facilities Standards that allowed schools to become more overcrowded, and ended development moratoriums throughout the city, Newton said the APFS was "gutted without discussion. It was not the best tool. But it was the only tool" to prevent further school overcrowding. Osdoby called the APFS a "valiant but failed experiment." Both agreed on the importance of lobbying for more school construction money at the state level.
Asked what impact new developments like Downtown Crown and Pike & Rose are having on Rockville, Osdoby said, "we're getting the negative effects without getting the benefits," mentioning traffic congestion as an example. She said the lack of a Rockville Pike Plan is causing developers to hesitate to build in the city. The charge seemed somewhat off-base, as The JBG Companies has completed several projects along the Pike corridor during the Pike Plan process, and is still completing another, The Galvan. Bainbridge completed an apartment building across 355 from King Farm, and an adjacent residential building has just entered the development pipeline.
As for the Pike Plan, Newton said stumbles by a city consultant who was bent on making the Pike "like Europe" put the Mayor and Council and Planning Commission in the position of having to "make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. It's a good thing that plan wasn't approved, because it was not sustainable."
As far as the new competition north and south of the city, Newton described those developments as "the new toy under the Christmas tree.' Citing Rockville's history, independent government and community, she said, "We have everything that [Crown and Pike & Rose] don't have. Once people try the new toy, they'll come back to Rockville."
Newton did concede that Rockville Town Square's paid parking is an issue, suggesting parking there be made free "after 5 or 6 on Fridays, and on Saturdays."
Barkley asked both candidates if they thought Rockville deserved its reputation among some as a difficult place to do business.
Osdoby said she has heard the city's business reputation described more harshly as "toxic."
Newton said the city is improving, and could do more, but wasn't as pessimistic as Osdoby. "We aren't anywhere close to being a dying community," Newton said, noting that Rockville has enjoyed a 12% increase in business growth since 2010. She cited her role during that time, such as being "the principal reason Dawson's Market came to Rockville," filling Rockville Town Square's long-vacant anchor grocery-tenant space.
This perception divide extended to closing statements. Osdoby lamented that "the world is passing Rockville by." Newton described how she would build on her record, by creating a village green over a buried Route 355, creating redevelopment incentives for WMATA and 255 Hungerford Drive, and thereby giving Rockville park space needed for events like Hometown Holidays. She also said she would push for a Circulator bus, and more housing for those who make too much to qualify for affordable housing, but too little to afford market rate housing.
Osdoby is the mayoral candidate on the Team Rockville slate, which is rounded out by Council candidates Reed, Julie Palakovich Carr, Virginia Onley, and Mark Pierzchala.
Newton is running as an independent candidate, as are Council candidates Beryl Feinberg, David Hill, Richard Gottfried, Patrick Schoof and Brigitta Mullican.
Palakovich Carr began on-message during opening statements, emphasizing pedestrian safety (with a goal of eliminating pedestrian/bicycle fatalities in the city) and the environment as her top agenda items in a second term. She has put forward several environmental initiatives while on the Council, and led a successful effort to revise the city's animal control regulations. The business-oriented questions of the night did not allow her to expand much on those themes, however.
Mark Pierzchala reminded voters of his role in recent successes such as bringing Choice Hotels to Rockville during his previous stint on the Council. He pointed out that he not only has Council experience, but "neighborhood experience (as a civic leader in College Gardens) and business experience (as owner of a small business in Rockville)."
Feinberg drew on her extensive resume as a Montgomery County Government employee, and how that has been an asset to her work on the Council. But she also reminded voters she opposed the APFS changes, and vowed to "protect neighborhoods" as the city decides how it will manage development in the coming years.
Mullican, who raised the most in political contributions of any candidate in the first reporting period of the election season, also cited her longtime qualifications and contributions to the city. A 50-year resident, she has served on the Rockville Planning Commission, the Rockville Sister Cities organization as President, and was a 36-year federal employee with the Department of Health and Human Services. She promised voters she would be "the voice of Rockville's average citizen."
Schoof holds degrees in Public Administration, law and management, but also played up his twenty-plus years of "relevant real-world experience." His civic resume includes six different efforts to "better protect our schools and neighborhoods", including better relations between residents, schools and the industrial areas in East Rockville. He's been active in the Southlawn Industrial Area Study, and organized a sizable group of town center business owners to better advocate for their concerns.
Gottfried is serving his second term as the elected President of the Twinbrook Citizens Association, and is a licensed CPA. He was quite effective in getting his priorities across, hammering home his main points throughout the debate - advocating for "right-size growth" that protects the suburban character of Rockville's single-family home neighborhoods, arguing that "no child should attend a school at 120% capacity," vowing his first action if elected will be to "overturn this tragic vote" on the APFS school standards, create moderate-priced retail spaces to help small business, and have free parking at Rockville Town Square on Friday nights and all day Saturdays.
Onley again embraced her deciding vote to change the APFS school standards, saying it would allow for the creation of affordable housing for public employees and low-income families and young people. She also stressed her independence, even as a member of a slate, recalling the many times she voted against her fellow slate members on issues.
Hill has served for many years both as a civic leader in Hungerford, and on the Rockville Planning Commission. He is currently engaged in both the Pike Plan and city Master Plan rewrites being led by that body.
Council candidates were also asked about incentives for corporations.
Onley said the Choice Hotels incentives paid off in a "vibrant town center" with the resulting Cambria Suites.
Hill was less enthusiastic, saying he would support incentives "within reason," but said "it's gotten a little bit out of hand at the state level," with companies now presuming they'll be able to receive them.
Reed also demurred, saying, "I don't want to get into a back-and-forth with other cities."
Palakovich Carr said she would support incentives.
Pierzchala concurred, but said he would like to see a policy developed for incentives, including close tracking as to whether or not returns for the city actually deliver the promised results.
Regarding the impact of Crown and Pike & Rose on Rockville:
Mullican said, "I don't think it's good," and warned against policies that make Rockville "an island."
Gottfried stressed the albatross of paid parking at Town Square, compared to free parking at Crown, and 2-hours free at Pike & Rose.
Perhaps the most intriguing question of the evening was when candidates were asked to "identify a recent development that matches your vision of a model development."
Onley and Reed named RIO/Washingtonian Center.
Hill said Pike & Rose in theory, but said that was "not my vision for Rockville Pike.
Carr cited the Upton/Cambria project, and its proximity to Metro. She said all future development should contain at least 15% affordable units.
Most interesting was Pierzchala's answer. Perhaps the biggest booster of taller buildings along the Pike, he named comparatively-low-density Fallsgrove as "a development that was done exactly right" and included bike trails and green space.
Should the APFS changes be reversed?
Feinberg said they should, but argued there's more to adequate public facilities than just schools - fire, police, transportation and sewer needs have to be considered by the next council as well. "It was developers who were in favor" of weakening the school standards, she said. Now more than a 1000 units are entering the pipeline with the moratoriums lifted on development, she said.
Mullican said, "the city needs to get out of that discussion," arguing it has no control over school construction.
Schoof said the change should indeed be overturned, as the former standards were the "only tool we have." He said the city should convince the County to toughen its standards.
Gottfried said, "growth does not pay for [the costs of] growth." The impact of development on schools isn't worth it for "just a few more tax dollars."
Palakovich Carr made a personal defense of her vote to change the standards for schools. Noting that her young son will be attending MCPS in the future, she said she would not have cast that vote if she thought it would negatively impact him.
Pierzchala predicted "it's gonna be a bloody battle" to get Montgomery County to change its policy on school construction, but strongly supports the APFS changes.
Is Rockville a terrible place for business?
Feinberg said claims by Team Rockville that town center is "floundering" are "perplexing to me." She did recommend giving jury duty diners 5% off at restaurants in town center.
Gottfried reiterated the need for free parking on weekends, as well as a free meter that could allow carry-out patrons to pick up orders.
Hill said Rockville Town Square won't be fully successful until Rockville residents change their "suburban mindset."
Reed suggested Rockville recruit businesses that will be displaced along the Purple Line.
Pierzchala argued that some neighborhood retail centers "are becoming decrepit." He cited Rockshire and King Farm as examples. However, Rockshire's plug was pulled in favor of redevelopment, and while King Farm has vacancies, "decrepit" is a bit of hyperbole in describing its Village Center.
The next debate is next Wednesday, at the Rockville Senior Center at 1:00 PM.