Storage Facility looks like Office Building — gets the OK?!

Much to the dismay of many North College Park residents their City Councilmember, Mary Lehman, brought the JDA storage facility project up for a vote on October 22. The vote which took place with no discussion passed 9-0 in favor of the project despite the opposition of the City Council, North College Park Citizens Association and the North Autoville Cherry Hill Organization. As a party of record, I have been waiting since then for the resulting report.  You can read it in full the link below.

This decision by the County Council sets a dangerous precedent for future projects on Rt 1 in College Park.   Moreover,  in a telephone survey done by one of the four appellants, there is no need for additional storage facilities as the current ones located in College Park and Beltsville are underutilized. Moreover, a soon-to-be constructed storage facility approved for the Branchville Industrial area will be added storage space should more be needed.

After nearly two years of meetings, residents on the northwest corner of Rt. 1 had created a plan for their neighborhoods on which they could agree and would minimize future impacts by new development in their area of College Park.  They had agreed to a maximum height of four stories and the Table of Uses.  This was all swept away, with little consideration by the County Council, in October.   It makes residents question why they should get involved in the city/county’s future plans at all.

https://docs.google.com/document/d/e/2PACX-1vQOyUWRIGPkH6pNLrkOvy1-o3cfhPwiKSEyzOPrF-z9SoP0zqvX5O72i6jBDGeEJHHmUYzBouyIFZcC/pub

 

 

 

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Four-year Terms, At-large Members and Redistricting?

The information below was provided by City staff to Councilmember Denise Mitchell (D4).

Tonight, the Mayor and Council will discuss four-year terms, as well as possibly reducing the number of representatives and keeping eight Councilmembers of which four will be district- elected members and four will be at-large Councilmembers. This could be done through a non-binding referendum in 2019 or as a charter member which means only five elected officials will need to vote in favor.

During the Mayor and Council Fall Retreat held last year, the 2018 priorities were identified.  Some of those priorities was discuss amending College Park’s Charter to create four-year staggering terms, transitioning four districts seats to four at-large seats; and mid-term redistricting.  These election changes were approved as a priority by the Mayor and Council on Feb. 13, 2018.

In an August Worksession, The City Council invited Rockville Mayor Bridget Newton to provide an overview of Mayor and Council’s switch to four-year terms. To provide some context, the City of Rockville has an approximately 61,000 residents. In order to explore such a significant change, Rockville created a Charter Review Commission that was charged to discuss the following three items:

  1. The length of the elected terms of the Mayor and Council;
  2. The number of members of the City Council;
  3. The schedule by which elections for the Mayor and Council are held.

Their Commission conducted public outreach and conducted interviews with other municipalities to come to their final recommendation.  As for the Mayor and Councilmembers’ term, the Commission recommended the term length should be extended from two years to four years.  On the question regarding the number of Councilmembers on the council, the Commission recommended increasing the council from four Councilmembers to six.  Finally, the Commission recommended elections be held every four years timing them with the Federal elections.

The City of Rockville put these items on an Advisory Referendum during their 2013 election.  After the 2015 election all four council members serve At-Large. Mayor Newton elaborated on that the having council to serve four year terms in her opinion increases accountability and and more is accomplished.

Redistricting — Historical information

College Park began with five districts from 1945-1951 and since 1991 to the present has had four districts with two Councilmembers per district; the Mayor is elected at large.

 

Dates Council Composition
1945 – 1951
Five districts with 1 Councilmember per district, plus 2 at-large seats, plus Mayor (elected at-large) = 8
1953 – 1965
Six districts with 1 Councilmember per district, plus 2 at-large seats, plus Mayor (elected at-large) = 9
1967 – 1989
Eight districts with 1 Councilmember per district, plus Mayor (elected at-large) = 9
1991 – present*
Four districts with 2 Councilmembers per district, plus Mayor (elected at-large) = 9

Redistricting and Lawsuits 1970s – 2000

  1. A Redistricting Committee was appointed in 1973, Councilman Kushner served as Chairman. In August 1975, the Redistricting Committee under Chairman Kushner stated that redistricting was necessary; the City Council accepted this report. In early 1974, UMD Student Government Representative, Larry Albert, appeared before the City Council voicing complaints regarding the age and residency requirements for registering to vote, as well as the need to redistrict. He noted that such a move was necessary because of the large number of students housed on campus.
  2. Renee Dubois, a university student, also believed the City Council should address the matter. Shortly thereafter, City Attorney, Mr. Topf, informed the Mayor and Council the American Civil Liberties Union [ACLU] was initiating a lawsuit against the City.
  3. On October 1, 1975, the ACLU filed suit representing campus students Renee Dubois and David Johnson in Prince George’s Circuit Court alleging malapportionment in the City’s voting districts. In June 1976, the Circuit Court ruled the students were not legal College Park residents and dismissed the suit. Dubois and Johnson appealed the ruling to the State Court of Appeals. In July 1977, the State Court ruled that the students had standing to sue and sent the case back to the Circuit Court. In October 1977, the students requested an injunction to delay the City’s election in the event that they won their suit. The Court denied granting the injunction; the students appealed that decision to the Appeals Court on Nov. 30, 1977.
  4. Meanwhile Robert Payne, Chairman of the Redistricting Committee, appointed in early 1976, filed a report with the City Council stating that the university students should be counted in any redistricting and that all Councilmembers should run at-large. Worth noting, a minority report from the committee disagreed on both points because they felt that: 1) at-large Councilmembers might result in some areas not being well represented, and 2) on counting the students, such an action would be the inclusion of an undefined population.
  5. In March 1978, the City approved new voting districts based on number of registered voters [128 students had registered]. The Court approved the redistricting plan but also allowed the appeal to continue. The Court ruled in favor of the students in Oct. 1979, and the City’s redistricting plan was ruled in violation of the 14th On Sept. 9, 1980 the City approved and submitted two plans to the Court. The plans included the possibility of having four districts with two representatives from each, keeping the eight districts with one representative each, or redistrict on some other basis [Municipal Scene article]. In Jan. 1981, the City Council revised one of the two plans because of the associated costs and resubmitted Plan A to the Maryland State Courts. The Court approved the City plan based on the number of registered voters in May of 1981. The students filed an appeal of the registered voters redistricting plan to the Appeals Court on Jan. 7, 1982. The Appeals Court, on July 19, 1982, upheld the redistricting based on the number of registered voters. In Oct. 1982 the ACLU filed requesting the Supreme Court to review the seven-year old case. In January 1983, the Supreme Court declined to review the case. The City then canceled the voter books and began an aggressive registration program.
  6. In June 1983, a redistricting committee chaired by Raymond Galloway, submitted two plans to the Council and a public hearing was scheduled for July. There were a total of five plans under consideration by the Council – two from the redistricting committee and three submitted by others. After considerable discussion, a plan was adopted in August 1983. The major problem was dividing the City into districts of equal voter distribution, as compact as possible, and still maintaining neighborhoods and similar interests as much as possible. Students still wanted their own districts so they could elect someone from campus to represent them.
  7. In July 1983, the City Council approved lowering the age to run for Council from 25 to 21 thus enabling a larger pool of prospective candidates from the campus to run. This change was a referendum question on November 1983 election ballot.
  8. Another redistricting commission was approved in October 1988 and appointed in November 1988 for the purpose of providing a redistricting plan. The charge to the commission was to redistrict on the basis of voter registration. Their plans were presented to the City Council in March 1989, and a public hearing was scheduled for April. There were four plans presented: two from the Committee (“Red Plan” and “Blue Plan”) and two from a Councilmember. In June the “Blue Plan” was adopted. It was based on registered voters as of October 1988 and several other criteria. Questions arose concerning the 1982 court decision. A suit was filed against the City over the Blue redistricting plan in early fall 1989, and the City retained counsel to represent the interests of the City in this matter.
  9. A settlement was proposed with six points to be covered by the redistricting plan which the City Council approved in October 1990. There were four settlement documents in all to be considered and then the judge would approve the outcome. In December 1990, the Municipal Scene carried a notice stating that the City Council was considering a resolution to divide the City into four districts with two council members from each. The Student Government representative stated at the January 1991 meeting that “this proposal” seemed fine.
  10. In 1991, a redistricting committee began the process of dividing the City into four districts having two representatives each for the total of eight council members. The districts were to be based on voter registrations numbers and census figures. This change was due to a court settlement of a suit brought by Michael Smith, a UMD student. The plan had to be in effect by May 1, 1991. A report was submitted to the City at the end of March, and five plans were submitted for consideration. The City Council introduced three of the plans at their April 9 meeting and scheduled a special meeting for April 30, 1991 for the adoption of the new redistricting plan. Plan #4 was adopted.
  11. In October 1993, a City resident filed a complaint with the County Board of Elections alleging voter registration fraud in the upcoming election. The City Council discussed what action, if any, they should take to prevent any problems with the election. Several motions were proposed, and the City attorney was directed to attend the hearing and present to the court a proposed affidavit as a solution to the suspected voter fraud. While awaiting a decision from the Court on the injunction request, Council authorized the City Manager to have to the authority to “door drop” notices to all City residents if there were any change to the election to be held on November 2. The election was held without any interruption.
  12. In June 1995, as the result of a complaint lodged with Council about possible voter fraud, Council sent a letter to the U. S. Attorney in Baltimore requesting an investigation of the complaint and the County’s response.
  13. Charter Change – To provide for a more orderly redistricting procedure the Council initiated a charter change to provide for an automatic redistricting after receipt of the regular Bureau of Census population data following each national census. This charter change was introduced and passed in 2001.

 

Are Our Seniors getting the help They Need?

I have been in a quandary for months.  My neighbors, both about 80 and without children, need help.  A family friend and I have been volunteering our time to meet some of their needs.  We have mowed the lawn, weeded the flower gardens, taken care of the bills, made and accompanied them to their doctor appointments, helped them choose their Medicare advantage program as well appealed hospital bills and homeowners taxes.  After spending six hours in the emergency room with one of them yesterday, I realize it’s time for an intervention.  Today, I have made phone calls to gain some much needed knowledge and expertise as to next steps.

So, why am I writing this?  I guess for some help.  But also to say that despite the tax dollars spent  on senior services in our City, there is still is not enough assistance available to my neighbors or I to move them on to the next step.  I have asked and gotten an extremely limited response.  So now, I am asking you for your suggestions.

In addition, I am including a link to an informative monthly newsletter, Caregiver Connections, for seniors in our area. Included is information for those with dementia as well as their caregivers.  It is published on a monthly basis by the Maryland  Umbrella Group.  Check it out.

http://m-u-g.org/mugsite/DFAi%20Caregiver%20Communicator%20August%202018edits.pdf

 

City Council Found in Violation of Open Meetings Act: All Council Members Should Take the Training

The Maryland Open Meetings Act (MOMA) is just what the name implies – a law that requires public bodies to conduct their business in public except for specific exceptions outlined in the Act when the body is allowed to meet in private.   There are rules for closing a meeting, statements that must be completed, reasons cited and the requirement that nothing outside of that allowed reason be discussed in closed session.   For instance, if the public body votes to  go into closed session to get a legal opinion, the public body can speak to the attorney and the attorney can respond but there can be NO discussion among the members of the public body in the closed session.

The elected body, read Mayor and Council, is supposed to be trained in the MOMA and take responsibility for conducting its meetings as per the law.  That is, as per MOMA, the responsibility of conducting the meeting according to the law cannot be left to the City attorney – the Act requires at least one member of the elected body to have taken the Open Meetings training.  The training is available online and its fairly simple to take – I did the training one afternoon and have a certificate attesting to that.

After the discovery last September that the earlier charter amendment requiring a super majority for charter amendments was likely illegal, many of us watched the Mayor and Council go into hiding.  An outside attorney was hired, multiple closed meetings were held, various drafts of revised charter language would show up (when were these discussed and drafted? drafting legislation in closed session is not permissible under MOMA), minutes referred to straw polls which we never saw happen in public and Next Steps were listed as having been discussed in the description of meetings that were closed to obtain a legal opinion.  Clearly a lot more was happening in closed session than appeared permissible by the MOMA.

What is the recourse for citizens when MOMA appears to be violated?   The Open Meetings Compliance Board (OMCB) is a 3-member independent entity appointed by the Governor.  If the OMCB receives a complaint against a public body, the OMCB will request a response from the public body and  issue a finding.  Opinions rendered by the OMCB are published on the website of the Office of the Attorney General.  They are advisory in that they bring no consequences with them.  The expectation is that if a public body is found in violation, the body will take steps to remedy this problem.

Mary Cook, Denise Mitchell and I combed through the minutes of the meetings, studied MOMA, talked to experts on the law and filed a complaint to the OMCB on April 16, 2018 with an addendum on April 23nd, 2018 alleging numerous violations of MOMA. The Mayor and Council responded by and through their attorneys on May 31, 2018.  Their response includes the closed minutes of the closed sessions that are not available to me.  The OMCB delivered its ruling on July 23rd, 2018.  The 8-page ruling found the Mayor and Council in violation on several counts and cleared the council on others.

The OMCB requires the public body, and it specifically says the public body and not its attorney, to make an oral statement in public at the first open meeting after the ruling is made.  That first open meeting is the work session to be held this evening.   We ask you to come to the work session and bear witness.  The OMCB also requires the pubic body to sign a copy of the ruling and return it to the OMCB.

There are several documents that went into our complaint, the Mayor and Council’s response, and the OMBC ruling.  All the material we submitted, the council responded with and the OMCB ruling are available here.  We will hold an open meeting to discuss our action and the response.

 

Do We Even NEED a Mayor?

If at first you don’t succeed, brow-beat the public into submission.

The Council will once again be voting whether to make the Mayor a member of the City’s “legislative body” on Tuesday, when they consider the adoption of 18-CR-02, the disappointing sequel to Charter Resolution 18-CR-01.

I find it astounding that Councilmember Rigg, the same person who expressed nothing but contempt for having to talk about this issue the last time it came before the Council, is the same person who introduced this latest set of proposed changes. Sometimes people surprise you, but in ways you hoped they wouldn’t. For a group of people who claim to have better things to do with their time, the Council sure has been spending a lot of energy on this (non-)issue.  Why?

Why does College Park even HAVE a Mayor?

The basic problem is that the City is not really a “Weak Mayor-Council” form of government, so much as it is a “Council-Manager” form, like Greenbelt. The difference between College Park and Greenbelt is that our Mayor is separately elected AS a Mayor. Greenbelt chooses their Mayor from amongst the elected Council members, meaning their Mayor is vested with the power of a Councilmember, before assuming the additional role of Mayor. It seems to work for them, and is not a terrible system.

In addition to a Council, College Park has a City Manager, meaning the Mayor really doesn’t have a lot to do.  College Park’s Mayor isn’t busy directing staff, or interviewing new employees, or getting to the bottom of why trash truck #3 is making a rattling noise, and signing repair orders. We have someone to do that. The Mayor’s role in College Park is more akin to that of an ambassador, a central figure that can make the rounds at schools and conferences, and serve as something of a lightning rod to the press. In essence, his job is promotion of the City.  And there is no reason to make a person who is not an elected Councilmember a member of the Council.

There should be no need for the Mayor’s role to be expanded. We already have people to do these things.  While we’re at it, maybe we should be pondering whether having a Mayor is necessary, at all.

 

The Masque of the Red Folder

This week’s Council Worksession features a discussion about revamping the rules the Council operates under. The revision document is noteworthy, in that it highlights some weird rules that were already in existence. But it utterly fails in one aspect. It still does not address the City government’s Secret Weapon of Secrecy: The “Red Folder”.

“Red Folder” items at Council meetings are last-minute items presented to the Council, which often must be discussed or decided-on in the same meeting. The term “Red Folder” originates from their presentation format; literally, in a red folder.

Few Council members through the years have commented on the abuse of the Red Folder. But what makes the Red Folder such a problem, is its complete invisibility to City residents. Red Folder items are never released to the public, either before OR after the meeting, even though they are (usually) not confidential information. They are treated just like any other item on the Council’s plate, with the exception that they are never made public.

Because the public never actually sees the information, it has to be teased-out from watching the meetings. Sometimes this is easily accomplished, such as when letters are read into the record. Other times, it is impossible, because the item is quickly shuffled into a closed session, or the City staff is given instructions to carry out, disposing of the matter entirely. There may be a note made in the meeting minutes a few months later, but that’s it.  You can’t even file a Public Information Act request, half the time, because either a)  you’re not sure exactly what it is that you need to ask for, or b) you never knew it existed, in the first place.

I was reminded of the Red Folder problem at last week’s meeting, when a bond grant for a “College Park Learning Center” was discussed, and the Council recommended that a letter be sent in support of the bill. While there was some information available through the State government this time, that is usually not the case with red folder items. And whatever document was sent to the Council, alerting them to the existence of the grant, disappeared into the ether.

For the sake of transparency, and to quash the worst tendencies of the City government to keep public business private, the contents of the Red Folders must be published by the City, and in a timely manner.

Robbing Peter to Pay TDC

I’ll say it up front:  I hate eminent domain.

The government decides it wants to grab a piece of property that they don’t own, ostensibly for a “public purpose”. Then, they make an offer for the property that is only as high as the tax assessment value…a value which is set by the government.

Then, if the owner doesn’t buckle, or wants to hold out for a higher price, the City gives itself permission to take the property by-force, and gives the owner the “option” of approving the sale for the asking price, or having it taken from them against their will after an expensive (and invariably futile) court battle.

It’s a racket.

At tonight’s Council meeting, the plan is to finalize the theft…er, “acquisition”…of two parcels located along Route 1 in front of City Hall, to be added into the City Hall “renovation project”.

Instead, the Council should scrap those plans, and nullify the authority it gave itself to use eminent domain to take the properties.

The City Hall Renovation Project is a plan to build new administrative buildings both for the City AND FOR THE UNIVERSITY, with the University planning to have a building 50% larger than the City’s. This isn’t a City project; it’s a University project, utilizing the City as a  property-thieving henchman.

100% of this stolen property has to be taken by the City, because the University isn’t allowed to do that. And then, to top it off, the plan appears to be to give all of this property to the TDC for development.  Maybe they can put a seafood restaurant on the ground floor, so the entire building can smell like microwaved fish all day, every day.

It’s not every day that you see a City plan to give the property under its own City Hall to a for-profit company.  I wonder if TDC will force the City to pay rent, to occupy its own City Hall building.

The Council needs to fully understand the plans for this property, before they talk about either finalizing this “purchase”, or about transferring anything to the TDC. The City isn’t a stakeholder in TDC. They had to negotiate, just to get included on the notification list for TDC’s upcoming projects!

Any talks involving the City Hall space should happen in open session of the Council.  How the Council has been able to justify discussing this project in closed sessions up to now is disturbing.   And while we’re at it, the public has every right to see the City’s MOU with the TDC, if there is one.

All this secrecy isn’t good for keeping faith between the City government and its residents, and there is no excuse for keeping anyone in the dark about what is really happening between the City and the TDC, at this stage.