Rockville residents turned out in force last night to ask the three City Council members who declined to support Don Hadley's reappointment to the Planning Commission to reconsider. Demanding at least an explanation for why they opposed his return, citizens asked the Council to put politics aside. As with other contentious debates involving the future of growth in the City, residents who appear to be in the majority were told that - in effect - there is a silent majority that does not testify, but must be given equal or greater weight than those who do show up.
The sometimes-heated debate included a suggestion that one councilmember be recalled from office, and a Hadley supporter on the Council asking her colleagues to "search their souls."
Hadley became embroiled in the 2015 election after the Team Rockville slate's mayoral candidate Sima Osdoby accused him of being a business partner of incumbent Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton's husband, and therefore having a conflict of interest in moderating the King Farm candidate forum. Hadley strongly contested these and other allegations made by Osdoby, and warned her and a blogger of potential legal action should his law practice and reputation be damaged.
Some residents feel the post-election rebuke of Hadley, a highly-respected land-use attorney, is strictly politics and bad blood spilling over from the nasty election season.
"Why are we getting into all this pettiness," resident Patricia Woodward asked. "Why don't you all grow up? Enough is enough!" Fellow West End resident Jack Gelin called the 3-2 vote against Hadley a "sad performance." Hadley "served with grace and distinction," Gelin said, arguing that "there is no credible challenge to Mr. Hadley's qualifications."
Joe Jordan, a resident who criticized councilmembers Virginia Onley, Julie Palakovich Carr and Mark Pierzchala for their votes against Hadley in a February 9 email, last night said he hoped their action was not "petty retribution." Citing Hadley's dedication, "integrity, transparency and fairness," Jordan said, "Don has more than earned reappointment."
Longtime city activist Drew Powell concurred, describing Hadley as "the most fair person I've ever met." Powell said he was "saddened" by the Council vote on Hadley, and implored them to work together and reconsider the nomination.
A member of the City's Traffic and Transportation Commission chastised the Council for its "appalling behavior," singling out Onley's conduct as "disgraceful." Recalling that he "felt physically ill" after hearing the results of the Hadley vote, he suggested Onley be recalled from office.
The issue is so heated in the community, that Councilmember Beryl Feinberg's husband found himself testifying before the Council for the first time, and defending Hadley's qualifications. Feinberg herself later said she was "proud to say that I voted for [Hadley's] reappointment along with the Mayor." She asked Newton to "put his name forth again," and her colleagues to "search their souls" about this matter.
One resident, in demanding the reasons behind the dissenters' votes, said, "if you can't give 'em, then I don't know why you sit there."
Following the conclusion of the Community Forum portion of the meeting, the councilmembers under fire did give some further explanation of their votes.
Onley fired back at the harshest criticism, condemning the "accusations" and "name-calling." For those who questioned her previous argument that Hadley would not bring diversity to the commission, Onley noted that she is a "67-year-old African-American woman," and that it would be "disingenuous" to claim her concerns were not genuine. "Whether you agree with me or not, please be as respectful of me as I am of you," she said.
Palakovich-Carr and Pierzchala offered the strongest criticism of Hadley and the current makeup of the Planning Commission. The commission is now "stacked with people who have similar perspectives on [land use] issues," Palakovich Carr said. She charged that current commissioners have "no expertise" on transportation or transportation planning.
Pierzchala began by praising Hadley as "a wonderful man," but then ripped the commission for what he felt were unnecessary delays in completing the Rockville Pike Plan, which has taken five years to complete. "I don't think the Planning Commission is doing the job," Pierzchala charged. "They do not represent the community." Commissioners have defended their approach, noting that changes the Council made to weaken the city's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance required the plan to be revised. And, indeed, the changes the Commission has made to the plan strongly reflect the feedback they received from "the community."
Pierzchala also recalled that past mayor Phyllis Marcuccio declined to re-nominate past Planning Commissioners Kate Ostell and Jerry Callistein.
In response to suggestions that he and the rest of Team Rockville are beholden to developers, who have privately complained loudly about the Commission foiling their grander plans, Pierzchala said, "I don't appreciate that."
Interestingly, Palakovich Carr and Pierzchala described diversity on the Commission as being more of an ideological issue than a racial one, arguing that those who favor smart growth and denser growth aren't currently represented on the body.
One does have to wonder where those pro-urbanization residents are in all the public proceedings. A majority of voters indeed wanted the three Team Rockville residents on the Council, and voted thusly. But they also returned Newton to office, and she holds tremendous power over development via appointments to the Planning Commission. Newton has been clear that she will favor growth that benefits the City, rather than simply development interests. Her appointments reflect that, and Newton and Hadley's popularity among residents suggests the approach is what a majority want.
There is a growing effort in the County by developers to suggest there is a silent majority who favor the urbanization they are offering. The members of this silent majority, they say, simply don't have the time to testify or write letters. Engaged citizens are described as busybodies who have nothing better to do. Montgomery County Planning Board Chairman Casey Anderson is the foremost proponent of this theory.
But the silent majority suggestion threatens democracy itself. A loud minority that can simply ignore masses of residents who turn out in force, is not what anyone had in mind when the nation was founded. I'm sorry, but we have a system. We have a public process. And if you choose to not participate, you forfeit your political power as a citizen. Period. Let's be frank: the "silent majority" Anderson and others speak of are the developers, ever trying to find new ways to subvert the public will and sheer numbers of Rockville's well-organized neighborhoods.
It is virtually assured that Hadley will not be reappointed by this current Council. The three members who oppose him made that clear last night. That's too bad, although Newton can leave him on the Commission by simply not nominating a replacement, as long as he is willing to serve.
But it's also too bad for the City in the larger sense. Volunteers to serve are hard to come by, much less ones as qualified as Hadley. To hire an attorney or planning staff member of Hadley's caliber would cost the City six figures. They've had his services and good judgement for free on the Commission.
I've been an observer of the Planning Commission for at least 17 years, and it is difficult to think of a commissioner who had the knowledge, deliberative and thoughtful approach, ability to listen to colleagues and the public, and the skill to forge a consensus on difficult issues while placing residents first, that Hadley has brought to the panel.
Speaking of majorities, I would challenge anyone to produce a majority of residents who feel the consultant's original Pike Plan proposal is better for the city than the plan the Commission is about to transmit to the Council.
Finally, many engaged and qualified residents have come forward during these growth debates who themselves would likely be fine members of the Planning Commission. They should apply for a seat on it when candidates are sought in the future.
* Although the quotes attributed to Joe Jordan are correct, the wording was updated in one sentence to better reflect the intent of one of his statements.