Friday, October 23, 2015

League of Women Voters hosts Rockville Mayor & Council Debate as early voting looms

The Montgomery County League of Women Voters hosted a Rockville Mayor and Council candidate forum last night at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre. LWV President Linna Barnes served as moderator of the debate.

As the last debate scheduled before the first votes are cast in Early Voting this weekend, candidates were under pressure to land a few punches with a televised platform to work from. City Council candidate Richard Gottfried accused several members of the Team Rockville slate of being untrustworthy at the close of the forum. He said Council candidate Virginia Onley stated she had not received contributions from development interests, but that in reality, "50% of her contributions did come from developers." Onley has previously denied the charge. The second campaign finance reports are not due for another 3 days.

Gottfried also accused Council candidate Julie Palakovich Carr of taking credit for creating the Vision Zero concept, a movement to reduce pedestrian and cyclist fatalities to zero that originated in Sweden. He said she "ripped off the idea from a New York plan," naming one of several jurisdictions that has tried to adopt facets of the plan.

However, Palakovich Carr has cited the results of Vision Zero's success in Sweden in previous public forums, and she denied ever claiming credit for the proposal following the debate. "I never claimed the idea was my own," she said in an email.  "As I previously said in other debates, Sweden is the poster child for Vision Zero, with pedestrian fatalities dropping by half in just a few years. Effective leaders don't reinvent the wheel. They look for best practices and modify them to fit the needs of their community. Vision Zero is a best practice that we should implement in Rockville."

The ghost of Beall's Grant II was summoned by mayoral challenger Sima Osdoby during a question on affordable housing. That was a controversial affordable housing project planned adjacent to Beall's Grant, an apartment building converted from an old hotel at 254 N. Washington Street. The site was also adjacent to single-family homes in the West End neighborhood. Residents expressed many concerns, including loss of green space, out-of-character density and height, massing of affordable housing contrary to Master Plan recommendations that it be scattered, and the City having misapplied the then-new Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, to allow the project to go forward.

Ultimately, several citizens, including former Mayor Larry Giammo, were forced to take the latter question to court, and the project was ultimately tabled.

Osdoby referenced Beall's Grant II, saying "When [current Rockville Mayor] Bridget [Donnell] Newton was representing her neighborhood association, I believe she opposed that."

Newton said that in reality, she served as co-chair on a committee that was tasked with trying to reach a compromise between residents and the developer, Montgomery Housing Partnership, that would have allowed the project to go forward. She has also discussed her own ideas for a workforce housing plan that could potentially revive a blighted Montgomery County Public Schools property on Stonestreet Avenue. The mixed-income rowhouse concept would include affordable units for teachers, firefighters and police officers.

Transportation, and Bus Rapid Transit in particular, came up often in the course of the evening. A majority of candidates support BRT, which is being proposed for Rockville Pike and Veirs Mill Road. Council candidate David Hill warned voters not to put too much hope into BRT, noting that it serves more of a long-distance commuting role than a City mobility function. Newton suggested BRT won't help Rockville's businesses much if it isn't implemented correctly, and simply moves commuters through the City. "We don't need people coming through Rockville," she said, "we need them to stop in Rockville" to dine and shop.

Newton said she brings additional clout to Rockville as a member of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments Transportation Planning Board. "That gives Rockville a seat at the table" in regional transportation conversations and planning.

Another of her transportation proposals, a Circulator or trolley, is gaining support among some of the other candidates. Onley said she supports a Circulator, in arguing that "mass transit is the answer to congestion." Newton said she was pleased the idea is catching on. "I've tried for five years to get a discussion going about a Circulator," saying "the last mile" for the transit-using commuter is a vital one to address.

Osdoby said she would break down the major challenge of congestion into "short, medium and long-range solutions." She said passing the Rockville Pike Plan and BRT would be critical to success. Osdoby advocated for more cooperation with the County and state on transportation. "Rockville's role is really to be a forceful advocate of our needs," she said. "I'm not sure the City has always done the best job in doing that."

Newton countered that, after former mayor Phyllis Marcuccio appointed her to a Maryland Municipal League committee, she was successful in bringing $2 million in state funds back to Rockville.

Barnes brought up an interesting topic not previously discussed in the 2015 debate season. That was regarding the MCPS properties on Mannakee Street that include the Carver Center and Rock Terrace School.

Palakovich Carr said the County does have plans for the Rock Terrace School, but "no definitive plans" for the Board of Education to move out of the Carver site. She recommended the City monitor the plans, and engage with the County. "We are somewhat limited in our oversight because of an issue called 'Mandatory Referral'," she said, referring to localities' reduced authority over government development projects. For example, the County Planning Board can advise, but not stop, a federal project like the Intelligence Campus in Bethesda.

Council candidate Beryl Feinberg said the City should "work collaboratively" to determine what is best for those properties. Gottfried argued that the City should have begun working with MCPS on this issue as far back as 2012. Hill, who sits on the Rockville Planning Commission, noted that the front of the Carver site is already in long-range plans for Montgomery College. He urged the City to "start articulating plans for sites like this."

Council candidate Brigitta Mullican said, "There's really not a whole lot the City can do," and recommended that it be upfront about those limitations, so residents do not have raised expectations.

Onley called for "a bigger push" on the future of the site, making "sure we're at the table with Montgomery County." Council challenger Mark Pierzchala recommended forming a working group on the matter. He said there was precedence for such a group, in his own experience working with Montgomery College as President of the College Gardens citizens association.

Council candidate Clark Reed noted that 2/3 of variations in the quality of schools are determined by non-school factors, and that it was important the City keep that in mind as it plans.

Patrick Schoof, another first-time candidate for Council, was more optimistic about influencing the outcome on the site. "There is a lot the City can do," he said. "We simply haven't done it." He said the City needs to establish trust and an honest partnership with the County, and take "a much more proactive" approach than it has to date.

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