Who Will Fill This Empty Seat? Jim Gilchrist Elects Not to Be Re-elected

Portrait of Jim Gilchrist.
Delegate Jim Gilchrist representing District 17 (includes Rockville).

Jim Gilchrist, one of three Delegates representing District 17 to the State of Maryland, has decided not to run for election in 2022. Serving as a member of the House of Delegates since January 2007, he’s unfortunately been one of the least effective of our elected representatives. He rarely introduces legislation and he’s hardly made any effort to bring state funds to support community projects. He makes no effort to keep voters informed—he has a stagnant website, no newsletters, and a Facebook page with only five posts this year (three for the same event). Most recently, he failed to take a stand for or against the widening of 270. Everyone has an opinion on this major construction project that cuts through Rockville but incredibly, not Gilchrist. If you’re elected to office, politicians have to make tough decisions so voters know where you stand.

Becoming a state Delegate is a relatively easy campaign compared to running for city or county council. With three seats available, you only need to capture enough votes to be in the top three. If you’re an incumbent, you typically campaign with the other incumbents, making it even easier. The downside it’s a job that requires you to be in Annapolis three months out of the year when the legislature is in session, so anyone with a typical full time job can’t serve.

It’s an important position that has immense opportunities to make a difference in Rockville and Maryland, but with the complications of serving, who will make an ideal candidate? So far, only one person has announced an interest: Joe Vogel.

Joe Vogel, candidate for District 17 Delegate.

Yesterday, Vogel announced his candidacy to represent Gaithersburg and Rockville as a Delegate in the Maryland General Assembly. He launched his campaign with videos in English and Spanish, sharing his story and vision. As a young Marylander, a Latino immigrant, and an openly gay man; Joe states he will bring a new perspective to Annapolis and the ability to build strong coalitions.

Joe’s family immigrated to Rockville, Maryland when he was three years old. At 15, Joe volunteered on President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign and later worked for Senator Cheryl Kagan during her 2014 campaign. In 2015, Joe was nominated and confirmed by the Governor of Maryland to serve as a member of the Maryland Youth Advisory Council. Joe has been an active volunteer in community organizations working to address the ongoing economic and public health crises facing the community.

Before running for office Joe worked as a policy fellow for Montgomery County-based Interfaith Works; started Learn It Together, a non-profit to support children of essential workers in their transition to remote learning during the pandemic; worked on the Presidential campaign staffs of Senator Cory Booker and Secretary Hillary Clinton; and was a consultant for the March for Our Lives, NARAL’s campaign against Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, and President Joe Biden’s general election campaign. Joe is finishing a Masters in Public Policy from Harvard University and received his Bachelor’s Degree from The George Washington University.

More at Bethesda Magazine and at HillRag.

Major Expansion Planned for Carl Sandburg in Twinbrook

When the Carl Sandburg Learning Center moved from Twinbrook to East Rockville to join Maryvale Elementary School, the future of the now vacant building was unknown. During the last few months, lots of vehicles were visiting the empty building along with surveyors and utility crews. None had any answers about what was planned, although the neighboring residents were curious.

Carl Sandburg Learning Center on Meadow Hall Road in the Twinbrook neighborhood of Rockville was designed by architect Arthur Anderson and opened in 1962.

Mike Stein, president of the Twinbrook Community Association, asked Rob DiSpirito, Rockville’s city manager, about it and it turns out that Montgomery County Public Schools is planning a major expansion that will add loading for seven school busses, expand the parking lot by 50 percent to add twenty-nine more spaces, and add twenty-one (21!) portable classrooms (aka trailers). MCPS recently met with the Planning and Development Services department at the City of Rockville to discuss their plans, but have not yet filed an application.

A closer look at MCPS’s Capital Improvements Program for FY2022 reveals that Jack Smith, superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools, recommended to the Board of Education in October 2020 (six months ago!) to use the “former Carl Sandburg Learning Center as another elementary school holding facility” to accelerate the construction of Stonegate Elementary School for completion in September 2023 (Capital Improvements Program/Master Plan, pages 5, 1-2, 3-6). That means the school children, faculty, and staff at Stonegate will commute to Carl Sandburg for the next two years.

MCPS is moving fast and not thinking about the impact on the surrounding neighborhood. Carl Sandburg Learning Center is sited just south of Twinbrook Parkway, which serves as an unofficial cross-county connector for Rockville. Sharing Twinbrook Parkway within a mile are Meadow Hall Elementary School (402 students) and Rockville High School (1448 students)—all will be starting and ending their rush hours at about the same time. By turning Carl Sandburg into a holding school, it will add to the already significant traffic snarls we face every weekday on this two-lane road (but maybe when the pandemic lifts, we’ll continue to work from home?).

Concerns?

If you are concerned about the size or impact of this holding school on the neighborhood, contact the Rockville Planning Commission at Planning.Commission@rockvillemd.gov and copy Jim Wasilak, chief of planning, at jwasilak@rockvillemd.gov. Twinbrook residents Anne Goodman and John Tyner are planning commissioners, so you can contact them as well. The State of Maryland grants school districts significant latitude in the use of their land (basically, their decisions trump city and county government) so if you’re really concerned, you need to contact your elected officials, such as County Executive Marc Elrich, County Councilmember Sid Katz (who represents Rockville), and Bridget Newton (mayor of Rockville), who can apply political pressure.

If you are concerned about the school district’s lack of communication with the neighborhood about this major expansion project, contact Jack Smith (MCPS superintendent of schools, retiring in June); Brenda Wolf (chair of the board of education, who also represents District 5 where Carl Sandburg is located) at Brenda_Wolff@mcpsmd.org; or the entire Board of Education at boe@mcpsmd.org. While residents, businesses, and developers have to notify the neighborhood of significant changes to their land, school districts are largely exempt—and it’s a bad civic practice.

If you are concerned about the potential damage to the majestic old tree behind the school (anyone know the species?), well, maybe the City Forester can help at forestry@rockvillemd.gov, but it is on school property and they tend to treat landscaping as a low priority.

On all messages, please copy Mike Stein at Twinbrook.President@Gmail.com to keep the Twinbrook Community Association in the loop. They are local association of residents advocating for the neighborhood.

Helpful Facts

Carl Sandburg Learning Center (451 Meadow Hall Road, Rockville) had 93 students in grades PreK-6 and was built in 1962 with 52,227 square feet on 18 acres OR 31,252 square feet on 8 acres (MCPS data conflicts).

Stonegate Elementary School (14811 Notley Road, Silver Spring) has 492 students in grades K-5 (currently over capacity by 92 students with seven portable classrooms) was built in 1971 with 52,468 square feet on 10 acres.

“Holding facilities are utilized for capital projects, such as major capital projects and large-scale addition projects, to
house students and staff during construction. By relocating students and staff to a holding facility, MCPS is able to reduce the length of time required for construction and provide a safe and secure environment for the students and staff.” Currently, there are six holding facilities for elementary schools: Emory Grove, Fairland, Grosvenor, North Lake, Radnor, and the former Carl Sandburg Learning Center.

The majestic old tree behind the Carl Sandburg Learning Center in winter 2020.

Asian American Population Increasing; How Should Rockville Respond?

Population growth of Asians in and around Rockville, Maryland by census tract from 2016 to 2019. Source: American Community Survey, US Census.

The recent increase in anti-Asian American threats and attacks prompted me to examine their presence in our hometown and who might be affected by racism. The US Census shows that the number of Asians in and around Rockville has grown in recent years, which might prompt good and bad reactions.

If we value the contributions of Asians in our community, they should serve in leadership roles. At present, Rockville’s boards and commissions include very few people from the Asian community, instead serving in ethnically affiliated and less influential taskforces or committees, such as the Asian American Task Force.

Mayor Newton appoints citizens to Rockville’s boards and commissions—how well is she addressing this disparity? What should she do?

Signs of COVID-19 in Rockville

With the increasing restrictions on restaurants and social gatherings, Rockville is slowly feels like a ghost town, or that we’re in the midst of a snowstorm without any snow. To document the effects of COVID-19 on the community, I randomly photographed shopping centers from downtown south on Rockville Pike. A few stores and restaurants were open (such as Fresh Market or Buy Buy Baby), but most were closed or had limited access or hours. Many had signs in the windows explaining they had temporarily closed or that they had switched to pick-up only, but a few just locked the doors and turned off the lights. On an otherwise busy Saturday afternoon, the parking lots were nearly empty. I have a terrible feeling that if this closing continues on for another week or two, it will have a devastating impact on many small businesses, which will have a cascading impact on the city.

Here’s what’s happening at the Mayor and Council on this issue:

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Should Rockville Support Another Assisted Living Facility?

“Rockville officials are considering a new use for the closed RedGate Golf Course — a second state veterans home,” reports Bethesda Beat. Furthermore, “The veterans home is one of the most popular suggestions, endorsed by County Executive Marc Elrich and supported by many city officials. [Rockville Councilmember] Pierzchala said he told advocates that the home was a ‘done deal’ — just as soon as the city worked out the specifics of the project.”

So far, the discussion of the veterans home (a euphemism for a skilled nursing facility or assisted living facility) has yet to be officially discussed at a Mayor and Council meeting, and it should certainly require a public hearing if it donates 25 acres of the former golf course site. While it sounds like a good patriotic gesture by elected officials, we should put the idea in context.

The number of veterans in Maryland grows smaller with each passing decade. Source: US Census.

In Maryland, there are 427,068 veterans and nearly 40 percent are 65 years or older. But the cohorts that follow them are significantly smaller, in other words, the number of veterans that would be eligible to live in a veterans home would be smaller with each passing decade. Will there be sufficient demand for this facility in 10-20 years? Fifteen miles away, the Armed Services Retirement Home in Washington, DC (one of two in the nation) has shuttered or demolished several residential buildings in recent years due to declining demand and to reduce costs.  

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Welcome the Mayor and Council for 2019-2023

Congratulations to Bridget Donnell Newton, Monique Ashton, Beryl L. Feinberg, David Myles and Mark Pierzchala, who were elected as Rockville’s Mayor and Council for 2019-2023. Ashton and Myles will bring new perspectives to the Council, both being under 50 years old and people of color.

Just as important is the tremendous turnout for the election. A total of 12,213 ballots were cast in this election, versus 6,468 cast in 2015. The number of votes cast increased by 88.82% between 2015 and 2019. It validates the efforts by the Mayor and Council and the Board of Supervisors of Elections (BOSE) to increase turnout and reverse the downward trend of previous elections by adopting vote-by-mail. Although used in many other states, this is the first time this type of voting has been adopted in Maryland, so I’m sure many other jurisdictions will be asking Rockville for more information. A big thanks to BOSE, the City Clerk’s office, and the city’s Communications department for planning and executing this complex project.

An inauguration ceremony for the new Mayor and Council will be held at 1:00 p.m. on Sunday, November 17 at F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre, 603 Edmonston Drive. The inauguration is free and open to the public.

The first meeting of the new Mayor and Council is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Monday, November 18 at City Hall, 111 Maryland Ave.

Election Month Ends Today

Maryland’s first vote-by-mail election ends today at 8:00 p.m. in Rockville in an effort to encourage more people to vote. Rockville’s voter turnout has declined regardless of the number of candidates or ballot questions, from 16.94% of registered voters in 2011 to 16.51% in 2013 and 15.87% in 2015, when the city held its first election to four-year terms. (Previously, Rockville’s elections were held every two years.)

In April 2018, Rockville’s Mayor and Council voted unanimously to follow the Board of Supervisors of Elections’ recommendation to implement vote-by-mail for the fall 2019 election. At least 22 states allow elections to be conducted by mail. Oregon, Washington, and Colorado, and some counties in California, hold elections entirely by mail.

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A Most Unusual Election

This year’s Mayor and Council election in Rockville is extraordinary not only because Election Day has turned into Election Month due to vote-by-mail, but also because so many new, unusual, and strange campaigning is happening. You’ve probably noticed a few of them but when you bring them all together, you realize this election is very different from its predecessors.

The number of candidates is the largest in recent memory and I’m not sure what’s prompting it. Running for office is grueling and costly. Maybe there’s a gut feeling that the city is being pulled in several directions and people are jumping in to influence the outcome or that there are two slates (which was common twenty years ago) plus the usual unaffiliated candidates.

A security camera in Rockville captured this man leaving candidate literature in the door and checking out the contents of the mailbox.

We’re now at the time of the campaign when yard signs become a point of contention. During the day, fanatics will confront homeowners who have signs of their opponents or in the dead of night, steal signs and blame it on teenagers. This election is different because many homes have motion-activated security cameras, making it easier to catch misbehavior on video. Recently posted on Twinbrook Neighbors, a camera caught a person tucking candidate literature into the door who also seemed to go through the resident’s mailbox. And he wasn’t a teenager.

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Feinberg Feigns Diversity & Inclusion in Campaign Mailer

Beryl Feinberg’s re-election campaign postcard.

Beryl Feinberg is holding a sign opposing the widening of I-270, in Asian costume, with students holding certificates, cleaning up a stream, and talking with a Latino man and an African American woman. What do these images mean? That voters need to re-elect her to Rockville City Council because she’ll “preserve Rockville’s character” and “embrace Rockville’s future.” But her campaign postcard is deceiving.

Michelle Whittaker in Beryl Feinberg’s campaign mailer (left) and as Virginia Onley for Mayor campaign manager (right).

Michelle Whittaker would know—she’s the African American woman shown in Feinberg’s mailer. She doesn’t support Feinberg’s candidacy for city council and ironically is the campaign manager for Virginia Onley for Mayor, one of her opponents. So why is she in the shown in Feinberg’s campaign literature?

Obviously, Feinberg used the photo to assure voters that she supports diversity and inclusion—gosh, look at all the people of color in her mailer! But we’re now aware it’s a dishonest portrayal. Indeed, it continues Feinberg’s insensitivity around diversity and inclusion. A year ago, the NAACP accused Feinberg of racism in her deliberations over the hiring of an African American woman for City Clerk.

Feinberg isn’t alone in her insensitivity around race and ethnicity. David Myles, a pediatrician, Navy veteran, and Yale graduate who is also running for City Council, has had Rockville residents call the police as he was walking door to door to meet voters. They probably couldn’t tell he was a pediatrician and Navy veteran, just that he was African American man in their white neighborhood. He was out of place, didn’t belong, a stranger. Yup, in 2019.

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Rockville Voters Grow Younger; Will It Matter?

Voters Under Age 40 have grown in Rockville, but will they vote in 2019? Vote-by-Mail could change traditional patterns.

An analysis of Rockville’s registered voters shows that they are dominated by Millennials, those born in the 1980s and 1990s and are now in their 20s and 30s. I suspect much of this is due to voter registration at the DMV, but the bigger question is if they will actually vote. In past city elections, reliable voters were over 50 years old but with the introduction with Vote-by-Mail, this will probably change. Without waiting for Election Day or spending time at the polls, there’s an expectation that younger voters will put their ballots in the mail in greater numbers.

The challenge for candidates is finding issues that will resonate with voters under 40. Their interests are different from older voters. Millennials value diversity and equal rights, are less affiliated with political parties (although they tend to lean liberal), support more government services (such as health care), support the legalization of marijuana, and believe immigrants strengthen the country (see Pew’s “The Generation Gap in American Politics“).

The debates on Rockville’s Mayor and Council reveal these generational differences as well, although they’re not always on generational lines. In June 2017, on a split vote, they adopted the Fostering Community Trust Act, which prohibits city staff (including police officers) from arresting or discriminating against any person on the basis of citizenship or requesting a person’s immigration status when providing city services. It was supported by Councilmembers Onley, Palakovich Carr, and Pierzchala, opposed by Mayor Newton and Councilmember Feinberg and . The differences are stark: one side aligns with the older generation, the other side thinks younger, and led by a mayor that’s unsure where to go. In the meeting, not only did Feinberg vote against the ordinance, she attempted to weaken the City’s position by making it a policy posted on the city website, rather than an ordinance published in the city code. Newton waffled and revealed her indecisiveness by abstaining from the vote on the amendments that clarified federal and city roles in law enforcement (how is it possible for someone to abstain on this topic?).

Excerpts from the June 19, 2017 meeting showing the last two votes on the Fostering Community Trust Act.

Had Newton and Feinberg prevailed, city officials, staff, and officers would be allowed to ask residents for proof of citizenship. If you called the police to report a crime, the officer could ask if you are a citizen. Before you register for a recreation class, the staff could ask for proof of citizenship. If you talked with a foreign accent at a Mayor and Council meeting, a councilmember could ask if you were a citizen.

How the generational gap will affect the election is unknown—most voters aren’t aware of what’s happening in City Hall and rely on their day-to-day experiences to decide whether to keep or change elected officials. We’ll find out in a month.

This blog post was updated on October 12, 2019 to correct information about the votes on June 19, 2017 and its consequences.