Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Rockville Mayor & Council debate tackles hot-button issues, remains civil

Rockville Mayor and City Council candidates participated in the first televised debate of the campaign last night at the Rockville Senior Center. The Council candidates were split into two groups, and each group was asked a different set of questions. They included Monique Ashton, Cynthia Cotte Griffiths, Beryl Feinberg, Richard Gottfried, James Hedrick, Kuan Lee, Charles Littlefield, Donald Masters, Brigitta Mullican, David Myles, Matthew Perkins, and Suzan Pitman. Two candidates for Mayor, incumbent Bridget Donnell Newton and current Councilmember Virginia Onley, participated in a separate debate following the two Council groups.

The tone of the debate was civil, and did not feature the personal attacks that have marred the last several City elections. It was moderated by Diane Hibino of the League of Women Voters.

All candidates likely wanted to weigh in on the troubles surrounding Rockville Town Center, but only the first group was asked about it. To their credit, each candidate had one or more specific strategies they would implement to tackle the Town Center crisis if elected. 

Charles Littlefield, who has served on the Rockville Planning Commission since 2013 and helped shape the Rockville Pike Plan and the City's Master Plan update, proposed moderately-priced commercial units be added as a policy, just as moderately-priced living units have been for residential development. Richard Gottfried, a licensed CPA for 29 years in Rockville who nearly won a seat in the 2015 election, called for "an honest conversation" to be had about Town Center. He noted that VisArts only pays $1 per square foot for space that might be leased to others for far more, and that the complicated finances around the parking at Rockville Town Square don't allow for easy solutions. Gottfried also criticized subsidies from City taxpayers that have gone to Dawson's Market in the last year.

Kuan Lee - an attorney with the Social Security Administration and Rockville Board of Appeals appointee - and Donald Masters - a business owner and member of Rockville's Climate Change Committee - zeroed in on the high rents at the Square, which is owned by Federal Realty. "The biggest short term issue is dealing with Federal Realty," Masters said. 

Brigitta Mullican, a former federal employee who has lived and served on numerous City boards and volunteer organizations in Rockville for over fifty years, said voters she has spoken to campaigning door to door across the city have strongly agreed with her proposal to offer free parking at Rockville Town Square after 5:00 PM and on weekends. Suzan Pitman, a three-term President of the East Rockville Civic Association who played a major role in the recent master plan for that area, said the next Mayor and Council should give "serious attention" to the findings of the Urban Land Institute report on the troubles of Town Center.

When the issue of Gov. Larry Hogan's I-270 Express Lanes plan was raised, only Mullican expressed strong support, saying it is "absolutely false" that property would be taken for it. Littlefield suggested Hogan spend more time trying to attract corporations to locate near Rockville, so that residents wouldn't have to deal with long commutes. Montgomery County hasn't attracted a major corporate headquarters in over twenty years. 

Gottfried said he would push to restrict Maryland's power of eminent domain in such instances, and would favor two reversible lanes instead of Hogan's plan. Pitman preferred to spend on anything else but roads - favoring transit, bike lanes and crosswalks instead. Masters said he would focus on two choke points: the American Legion Bridge, and the narrow segment of I-270 as it nears Frederick County.

The future of RedGate Golf Course will be a major issue the next Mayor and Council will confront. Monique Ashton, a senior vice-president at Ogilvy who has served as President of the College Gardens Elementary PTA and on the City's APFS workgroup, and pediatrician and Navy veteran David Myles both said listening to nearby residents should be the top priority. Ashton, an MCCPTA cluster coordinator for Rockville schools - who, in that capacity, played multiple roles in establishing Bayard Rustin ES' naming, boundaries, principal selection and the school's first PTA - proposed building housing for veterans on the site, as well as retaining significant green space.

Ashton and James Hedrick, a 5-year resident who has worked at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and Federal Housing Finance Agency - in addition to serving on the Board of Rockville Housing Enterprises - both supported building an amphitheatre on the site. Hedrick said more parks and athletic fields are needed on the east side of the city, and that RedGate would be an ideal location for some of them. 

Matthew Perkins, a Montgomery County native who has lived in Rockville since 1999, said he would like to see green space at RedGate split between developed parks and undeveloped parkland. Cynthia Cotte Griffiths, executive director of an immigration legal services firm and past editor of Rockville Central and Rockville View, said that as a member of a Boy Scout family she would like to preserve as much green space on the property as possible. 

Incumbent Councilmember Mark Pierzchala said the varied terrain of RedGate alone will require exempting 30-40 acres from development. He argued that development on the site could provide funds for new attractions in the Town Center area. Fellow incumbent Beryl Feinberg called for housing for veterans and those with disabilities first, and what she called "the missing middle," a recently-trendy term for housing aimed at those who make too much to qualify for MPDUs - but not enough to afford market rate housing.

The second group got to weigh in on another hot potato they'll juggle if elected: the future of the Rockshire Village Shopping Center. Developers have so far failed to come up with a plan that can win popular support, comply with City zoning, and navigate existing parking commitments to an adjacent church and community pool.

No candidate openly said he or she would not protect the church and swimming pool concerns. Ashton, Cotte Griffiths, and Myles stressed involving the community, which has already organized and presented a coherent message at past community meetings. Ashton called for the project to take into account the community requests regarding church parking and the pool. Cotte Griffiths noted that any developer will need a zoning change to get residential, and that this reality gives residents significant leverage in future discussions on the shopping center. Hedrick and Pierzchala envisioned any redevelopment to be mixed-use in nature.

With a discussion on sanctuary cities, the second group was on the hot seat for a third time. Illegal immigration is a lightning rod in local and national politics, and no candidate opposed the City's policy that police officers should not ask anyone for their citizenship status. But Feinberg objected to the sanctuary label, arguing that neither Rockville nor Montgomery County meet the official definition of sanctuary communities in her view. 

Feinberg expressed concern about the first vote by mail election in the City when that topic was addressed. While candidates mainly said they hoped it would boost voter participation, Feinberg warned that the 8:00 PM cut-off for accepting ballots by mail would lead to votes not being counted. She recommended the policy be changed to accepting any ballot postmarked by Election Day.

When the mayoral candidates took the stage, it seemed like there would be more time for in-depth discussion with only two in the race, but the format remained the same - which was probably welcomed by most in the audience, given the decision to schedule a debate for the dinner hour.

Town Center was again at the top of the issue list. Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton described her actions immediately following Dawson's Market's earthshaking announcement it was closing last October, and how that closure was then prevented - including an unprecedented public meeting that included all stakeholders, and the commissioning of the ULI study. Newton pushed back against a rumor floated earlier in the evening that Dawson's was again threatening to close, after having received taxpayer subsidies over the last year. "Please don't spread that around - it's not true," she said. 

Virginia Onley said the top priority in saving Town Center must be increasing housing density there, to provide sufficient foot traffic to support the businesses. Parking must also be addressed, she said.

On the Hogan I-270 plan, Onley honed in on mass transit as the solution and alternative. Newton argued that toll roads have failed in states like Indiana, but said she was pleased that Hogan has at least committed to keeping the project within the current right-of-way, echoing Mullican's earlier point on land seizure concerns.

Another big community concern that has been overshadowed by more controversial ones this year is the future of the Georgetown Hill Day Care and swimming pool site. Most in the neighborhood want the pool to be restored after the property was devastated by fire in January.

Both mayoral candidates promised to do what they could to make that happen. "Residents really want that pool to come back," Onley said. Reopening the pool would be an "unbelievable win" for the neighborhood, Newton concurred, but added that she would like to see more pools built citywide.

Asked about their leadership styles, both considered a sense of humor important when personal conflicts threaten to boil over. Onley told a humorous story about how she dealt with a colleague who would leave important meetings to smoke when she was at IBM. But she added that she can also be firm when needed. "I speak softly, but I carry a big stick," Onley said.

Newton likewise found it helpful to deploy humor during a tense meeting, but also considered "communication, trust and respect" as equally important to reaching consensus in a diverse group. 

Overall, no candidate bombed out last night, and there were no notable gaffes - impressive, considering that many of these candidates had never participated in a political debate before. Admirably, there were no personal attacks. I thought it was interesting that, while there are two formal slates of candidates (and others running independently), not a single member of a slate mentioned them until Onley in her closing statement plug for Team Rockville (Rockville Forward is the second formal slate in the election).

Occasionally, a candid comment also broke through the policy discussions. "Sometimes I upset an awful lot of people," Pierzchala said of his often-controversial takes on growth and development density. When asked to give an example of a difficult situation with colleagues that she successfully resolved, Newton replied, "If you've watched enough meetings..." Both remarks garnered some knowing chuckles from those in the audience who follow Rockville politics closely.

The next televised debate is scheduled for Wednesday, October 2, 2019 from 1:00-2:30 PM at the Thomas Farm Community Center, located at 700 Fallsgrove Drive.


  1. It was clear that Onley didn’t know what she was talking about when she said that impact taxes from developments, such as Twinbrook Quarter, would go to paying for Rockville schools. The fact is, impact taxes generated in Rockville do NOT go directly to Rockville, but are allocated throughout the county. Rockville may see little if any of those funds for school construction. Onley simply is not qualified to be mayor.

    1. How could she not know something as basic as that? Hasn't she been on the council for a while???

  2. Was there any mention of Onley soliciting support from pols outside of Rockville? Why would she think holding a fundraiser in Frederick County was a good idea? And why are outside groups knocking on doors in support of Team Rockville? I hope these issues are addressed at the next forum.

  3. Are the people doing the telecast camera and sound work paid professionals? The sound quality was not good and the close ups of the candidates when they were talking individually was not always good. I disliked having different sets of questions for the two groups. I would like someone to explain to me who the realtors want to attract to Rockville Town Center. The Center does almost no advertising to City residents. The opening screen of the Center's website has two white thin twenty something blonde women, later there is a white couple standing in an apartment. There is one photo later of an African American couple. Everyone is young and yet the bulk of age demographics in Rockvillehas isbetween 25-64 and we have an ethnically diverse population. In all of the years the Center has been there we have eaten there fewer than 10 times in all. The parking is not fun. The restaurants and stores are essentially passive in outreach expecting customers to find them.

    1. Yes, sometimes the sound level was too low for a particular candidate, which certainly hurts them in an event like this.

  4. I forgot to tell you thanks for the summary.

  5. Excellent summary. Yes, the candidates and the moderator should have been given some coaching on speaking into the mics.

    I don't see the big deal in candidates welcoming support from friends, family, and like-minded individuals from outside city limits. The same coalitions can be helpful when governing, especially when so many of the challenges Rockville faces are regional, like housing, traffic and even deer. All donations and in-kind contributions are disclosed, so there is transparency.