City Council: Your Abusive Child

A funny thing happened during the city council meeting Tuesday: Councilmember Rigg spoke in proud tones that the Council discovered their power to take on a huge amount of debt.

This isn’t new information. Traditionally, the City has been very responsible with their funds. Frugal, even. Downright stingy, some might say. And residents have been perfectly fine with that approach. To my knowledge, no citizen has ever bemoaned the fact that the City had refrained from spending large amounts of money they didn’t actually have, on things they don’t really need.

But with the new City Hall project, it looks like that’s all about to change.

(Warning: Extended and somewhat-tortured metaphor follows)

The best way I can describe it, is like you gave your teenage son an old wallet you weren’t using, and they discovered a shiny new credit card tucked away in it. You had all-but-forgotten about the card, because you never use it, nor had any plan to. But now Junior has found it, and he’s going to the mall.

There are reasons you didn’t use the card. First, because you wanted it as a safety, to be kept in reserve in case of an emergency. Second, because you want to save it for really important purchases, like that security system for your house you know you’ll need someday, but keep telling yourself you won’t.

But what Junior needs, is a car. A roomier version of what he already has would be fine for his needs, but it just doesn’t have that “Wow!” factor to impress his friends. So he doesn’t want to just trade-in his Kia for a 4 Runner.

No, what Junior wants, is a Tesla.

The Tesla is shiny and new, turns heads when people see it, and it’s good for the environment, too! And their friend from college has offered to chip-in half to buy the car, so long as they can use it, too.

Great deal, right?

Except the Tesla is $350,000, where the $40,000 4 Runner would have gotten the job done just as well, and Junior wouldn’t have to share his (your) sweet ride with his somewhat-domineering older friends.

Oh well. Maybe when Junior comes back from his shopping spree, you can cut his card. Or vote him out of office, when you get the chance.

Supreme Court Hears Peace Cross Arguments

The United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments Wednesday in the Bladensburg Peace Cross case (Case Nos. 17-1717 and 18-18).

Justice Sotomayor started off the questioning by noting the size of the memorial and the park, and comparing it to other similar parks around the country, some of which may have created additional memorials merely as a “pretext” to justify their own cross-shaped memorials.   MNCPPC attorney Neal Katyal noted that other memorials at the Peace Cross location went back as far as the early 1980s.

Justice Sotomayor also mentioned the possibilities of transferring ownership back to the American Legion, or moving the memorial off government-owned property.  These options were rejected by Katyal, because the memorial sits in the middle of a dangerous and busy intersection, and would most likely be destroyed if anyone actually tried to move it.

Justice Kagan asked if a similar memorial could be created today, either to honor WWI veterans, or as a memorial for other purposes. Justice Ginsburg added the possibility of a similar memorial honoring victims of other disasters.

Justice Ginsburg’s line of questioning brought up the concept of a “community standard” regarding such memorials. Justice Kagan questioned whether it would be acceptable for a community to put a cross up in front of a school or other public institution that had been the victim of a mass tragedy, such as a school shooting.

Justice Kavanaugh asked whether Jewish soldiers would be offended to be memorialized with a cross. Justice Sotomayor noted that even deeply religious Christians might be offended by secularizing the cross for use in such a memorial. Attorney Katyal responded, “I don’t think we let those objectors dictate that. If that were the rule, you’d be tearing down crosses at Arlington Cemetery and nationwide […] and sow religious divisions.”

Attorney Michael A. Carvin urged the court to extend the Town of Greece “coercion test” to the Peace Cross, noting that there is no entanglement with a church involved with the Peace Cross memorial. “It’s just a cross,” noted Justice Kagan, alluding to the fact that aside from its Latin-cross shape, there is no religious content whatsoever in the memorial itself.

There was some discussion about surrounding communities also putting up crosses of their own, and whether that would constitute proselytizing. “Suppose after this case Hyattsville puts up a cross, and College Park puts up a cross,” speculated Justice Kavanaugh.

Justice Alito later revisited the concept of a “community standard” regarding memorials, asking whether it would be acceptable for a community to erect a religious symbol as a memorial in the wake of a tragedy, if the community specifically requested such a symbol.

Justice Gorsuch kept coming back to the sticking point of where to draw the line between using a religious symbol in a secular memorial, and proselytizing. “The Lemon test is a dog’s breakfast,” he noted, referring to a long-existing 3-prong standard sometimes used by the court to determine if the use of a religious symbol is permissible.

Many of the attorneys noted that under the existing standards, the Peace Cross should be an “easy case” for the Supreme Court to decide. If the questions asked by the justices are any indication, they seem to be trying to come up with a better test for cases like this, where a government entity finds itself in ownership of a religiously-themed piece, either by intent, or by accident. There seems to be a leaning of opinion that the way a community decides to memorialize and honor its dead is best left up to that community, unless there is some form of physical or financial coercion involved.

Here’s hoping the justices come to a well-considered opinion.

You can listen to the oral argument here: https://www.supremecourt.gov/oral_arguments/audio/2018/17-1717

All the relevant documents can be found here:
https://www.supremecourt.gov/docket/docketfiles/html/public/17-1717.html

You can read the transcript of the arguments here: https://www.supremecourt.gov/oral_arguments/argument_transcripts/2018/17-1717_0pl1.pdf

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.

 

Pre-K Coming to North College Park?

Senator Rosapepe and the 21st District Delegation have put forward a bond bill to help fund a proposed Pre-K facility in North College Park. Surprisingly, the location shows as the United Methodist Church on Rhode Island Avenue. The bill is proposing State funding for $250,000 of an estimated $660,000 renovation to the church, to make it suitable for use as a school.

The Children’s Guild, a non-profit organization based in Baltimore, is proposing to run the “College Park Early Learning Center” at the church. The school is also referred-to as the College Park Early Learning Academy.

The bill shows a 15-year renewable lease of one-third of the church’s 30,000 square foot space. The school would have 11 employees, and service approximately 110 students, according to the “fact sheet” distributed by the State. The Children’s Guild estimates a budget of $1.6 million annually for the operation.

The description of the school appears almost identical to the number of students and operating costs of the child care center proposed for the Calvert Road school last year.

The City voted during its meeting Tuesday to send a letter of support in-favor of the bill.   You can view the State’s “fact sheet” here:  hb0914B

The United Methodist Church was built in 1957, and is also the home of the City’s Meals on Wheels program, in addition to being the local voting center for the neighborhood.

The discussion of the bond bill is scheduled for Saturday, March 10.

Addendum – 03/21/2018 – You can watch the testimony on this item here:

 

Dock the Vote

In the continuing saga over the City Charter, the main issue at stake is whether or not the Mayor should be considered a member of the “Legislative Body”.

Many of the charter changes that were proposed in 18-CR-01 were based on the premise that the Mayor is a legislator, simply because he has the right to vote to break a tie of the Council.

For the sake of One College Park and future City unity, perhaps we should rethink that premise.  Maybe taking away the Mayor’s ability to break ties would be a better cure for what ails us.

When the Mayor casts a vote, it is because the City Council cannot reach a consensus. Which also means that he alienates half the City, engendering a lot of animosity from the “other side”.

If the Council cannot reach 5 votes among themselves, it really doesn’t make a lot of sense for the Mayor to step in and just pick a direction for them. The City is still split; it’s just that half of them now have to “deal with it”.

We’ve been working this way for a long time, but is it the right way?

Instead, the Council should be working together, compromising and adjusting bills,  making them more-palatable to others, to reach the votes they need. We’ll get better results from the Council, because they’ll need to take the opinions of their peers into account, rather than simply relying on the Mayor to “go their way”.

Forcing the Council to work together might also have the benefit of helping them develop skills they can take to a higher office.

Being a benevolent dictator has its perks, but the true test of a politician is their ability to compromise effectively. Maybe it’s time to give the Council more credit, and offer them a chance to develop those skills, by removing the Mayor’s tie-breaker vote.

 

Peace Cross Case Headed to Supreme Court

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals declined last Thursday to grant an en banc (full-court) review of a 3-judge panel’s ruling that the Peace Cross in Bladensburg is unconstitutional. In doing so, the Court is forcing this case all the way to the Supreme Court.

I have spoken against removing the Peace Cross a few times. It is a war memorial, not a religious shrine. It does not have a bible quote displayed, or any reference to the Almighty or any religion, with the exception of its Latin cross shape, which is apparently enough to render something religious, in the eyes of the Court.

If that is the case, perhaps the Court has created a conundrum for itself. If the memorial is, in fact, now a religious article, the Court has erred in ruling that it must be deformed, moved or destroyed in order to comply with the Constitution. The government is claiming a right to destroy a religious article where, by virtue of its own ruling, it has no right to either create or maintain one.  If there is no right to create, where is the right to destroy originating from?

This ruling may be much more dangerous than it appears on the surface, because it creates a path allowing for the destruction of religious articles, and the oppression of religion itself, at the hands of the government.

If the government claims for itself the right to destroy religious articles located on its property, what is to stop the government from seizing (via eminent domain) the property of churches, then bulldozing them? What if it decided to pick on one specific religion? What if the government started cherry-picking just the synagogues, or the mosques, or the temples? The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling could allow for just that to happen, under the guise of “following the Constitution”, no less.

Am I being hyperbolic?  Of course I am. But if there was ever a reason for the Supreme Court to take a case, it should be to prevent the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling from being carried-out, perverting the same Constitution that 49 men from Prince George’s County gave their lives to protect a century ago, and disrespecting both their memory, as well as their sacrifices.

The ruling, as most related to this case, is worth reading for its reasoning, both for and against the review. You can read the court’s ruling here:  4th Circuit Court En Banc Denial

Council Goes Back-to-Basics On Charter Changes

A lot of hay has been made over the changes to the Charter that were proposed last month. We have been told that our current charter is unclear, and to ensure that we’re in compliance with State law, we have to add some language, and correct a few mistakes.

The Charter resolution 18-CR-01 that was introduced on February 13 made a lot of minor changes, and touched many areas of the charter, mostly without any real effect. But there was one significant alteration lurking in the weeds.

The Charter resolution set out to define the Mayor as part of the City’s “Legislative Body”.

Historically, the Council is the body tasked with introducing (and seconding) new ordinances and resolutions, debating them, and voting on them. While the Mayor may work diligently behind-the-scenes to craft new laws, it is ultimately the Council’s privilege to consider and approve them. Except in cases of breaking tie votes of the Council, the Mayor has generally been prohibited from doing much of anything, in regard to making new law. The Mayor is so-far-removed from the process, in fact, that there is a different job title for him, setting him specifically apart from the Council. In short, he is not, nor has he ever been, a member of the “Legislative Body”.

Declaring the Mayor a member of the Legislative Body would have the practical effect of turning the Mayor into an at-large Council member. If it wasn’t for a specific clause in Section C6-1, prohibiting the Mayor from voting except to break a tie of the Council, this change could open the door to full participation of the Mayor in all aspects of making new laws in the City. The original version of the Charter resolution actually sought to remove that restriction, before the Council directed that something less-ambitious be crafted.

When the Council held their hearing last week, there was understandable confusion and resistance from citizens. The response of some members of the Council to this backlash was astounding, and often disappointing. You can watch the video of the meeting to see what I’m talking about.

In any case, the amendment to the Charter that passed last Tuesday was minimal, and addressed the single area where State law superseded what our Charter said. While other changes are likely to be coming down the road, hopefully the Council will understand that THEY are Legislative Body of the City, and will proceed with caution through any changes likely to weaken their roles, or the effectiveness of future Council members.

 

Abstentions! Turnips! City Hall Panics Over…Nothing

Vegetation and parliamentary game-theory dominated this week’s worksession, as the Council struggled with pressing concerns, such as requiring non-voting councilmembers to state exactly why they aren’t voting, and in creating a new subset of landscaping rule-hurdles for residents.

In a City so mired in traffic and stalled open-space projects, you’d think they’d have better things to do, than to find new ways to make everyone’s life more difficult. But, no. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

For yet another week, the City is trying to find a way to approach the “strategic abstention” non-problem. That phenomenon was addressed in my previous article, and I have no desire to revisit it. While the previous proposed solution was to make the Mayor a legislative member, the new idea is to require council members who abstain from a vote, declare the reason for their abstention. This is such a ridiculous waste of energy, I have to wonder what upcoming issues are making this such a priority for them. I guess we’ll find out soon. Stay tuned.

More interestingly, it sounds like there is a group of rogue botanists in the city, secretly growing weeds in the dark of night, and planting them in unattractive patterns. Ugly yards are in the crosshairs of the Council, as the City continues its quest to create a government-enforced tasteful-landscaping zone in the residential areas of town. All of the drawbacks of an HOA, with none of the benefits (if there are any).

Meanwhile, the elephant in the room was an article on the CNBC network, quoting the head of Bozzuto development as saying we’ve reached a tipping-point on overpriced apartment buildings. The article seems to be hinting at a new push for “affordable” housing from developers around the country. That issue isn’t likely to affect College Park, which is already buried in top-rent apartments, and would have to bulldoze your houses to make room for more. But, never say never.