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.

Click to access 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.

 

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.