Mayor and Council to Review Policies for Managing Grants, Staff, and Sponsorships
At its Monday, May 22, 2023 meeting, the Rockville Mayor and Council will receive reports on the city’s management of its grants, staff vacancies and hiring (p. 186), recreation and parks sponsorship policy (193), and proposed personnel policies and procedures (197). On the Consent Calendar (items approved without discussion) are grant agreements for Rockville Senior Center, Twinbrook Community Recreation Center, F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre, and the Rockcrest Ballet Center. The Mayor and Council will also issue five proclamations, including the recognition of Eritrean Independence Day on May 24 (do you know where Eritrea is located?).
Eleventh House Solutions is recommending that the City adopt a policy to bring consistency and control over grant activities. Currently, grant management is “decentralized throughout the City and are nonexistent in several departments that could benefit from grant funding. This has made grant information difficult to retrieve or track in some departments.” Furthermore, “except for Public Works, no grants or funding program had a system to track the grant’s requirements or conditions. Without these documents, departments risk not complying with grant conditions which could result in the rejection of reimbursement requests or loss of grant funding.” Kudos to the Public Works Department, who were also called out as a “perfect example of how a grants process, although informal, implemented from the top down can expand programming and, therefore, further the City’s mission and priorities.” For more details, see the consultant’s report of findings and recommendations starting on page 33 and departmental comments starting on page 43. One interesting finding is that the City Council’s approval process and August recess can delay agreements by two months (49)—is it time for them to meet year ’round?
According to the Staff Vacancy and Hiring Report (187), two positions are frozen (Human Resources Associate and Principal Network and Cyber Security Automation Engineer) and four on hold pending release (Senior Planner, Information Systems and Cyber Security Engineer, Secretary, Recreation Facilities Clerk, and Maintenance Worker III).
More details in the 395-page agenda packet are available at https://www.rockvillemd.gov/AgendaCenter/ViewFile/Agenda/_05222023-6921.
Rockville City Manager Faces Performance Improvement Plan in Surprise Session
In an extraordinary last-minute Closed Session held on Thursday morning, May 11, 2023, the Rockville City Council put the City Manager Rob DiSpirito into a three-month Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) for reasons unknown. Improvement Plan (PIP) is a formal, structured process designed to help underperforming employees identify and overcome performance issues. It outlines specific goals, expectations, and timelines for improvement, along with support, resources, and regular progress evaluations to facilitate success and growth.
When the Council came out of Closed Session, Councilmember Monique Ashton quickly moved for the PIP and was supported by Councilmember Beryl Feinberg. Mayor Bridget Newtown rushed for a vote without a discussion, but was interrupted by Councilmember Mark Pierzchala to note that, “I don’t know how the sequence of events unrolled but I’m not going to vote for it. I think things have moved past the point where a performance improvement plan is going to be effective. So I’m gonna vote against it. I had asked to make the first motion but that was not allowed, apparently. I’m not sure where that came from. Thank you.” The motion passed 4-1 with Councilmember Pierzchala voting against. A brief three-minute video is available at https://youtu.be/fIu7e9cHhoo, but of course, the closed session portion is held in secret and it’s unclear how long they debated the issue.
I typically discourage Closed Sessions because they are secret and prevent voters from knowing what’s happening—and Closed Sessions usually deal with major issues. Fortunately, Maryland has an Open Meetings Act to keep council and board meetings available to the public so they can be “in the room where it happens.” A quick introduction is available as FAQs, but here are a fundamentals:
- The Maryland Open Meeting Act lists 15 topics that the City Counci) may choose to discuss behind closed doors under specific conditions. These topics or “exceptions,” include personnel discussions about particular individuals, the receipt of legal advice from the public body’s attorney, and subjects that must be kept confidential under other laws. A discussion on “the appointment, employment, assignment, promotion, discipline, demotion, compensation, removal, resignation, or performance evaluation of an employee over whom the Mayor and Council has jurisdiction” is an appropriate reason for the Closed Session on May 11.
- Public bodies must make an agenda available before each meeting, either when notice is posted, if the items of business are known then, or as soon as practicable, but no later than 24 hours before the meeting. There is an exception for meetings held in response to emergencies. This Closed Session was not publicized as an emergency and the the agenda was posted on the city website on May 10 at 5:20 pm, that’s less than 18 hours in advance, so is in violation of the Act. Furthermore, it was not sent out as an email to those who subscribe to the City Council’s agendas (thanks to a blog reader who alerted me to this meeting).
- This meeting was not publicized an emergency, so why the rush? Two councilmembers had difficulties attending in person. Councilmember Myles was absent at the start of the meeting and showed up virtually later. Councilmember Ashton started the meeting virtually and joined in-person by the end. How much of the Closed Session discussion did they miss? Councilmember Ashton didn’t even notice that the vote to go into Closed Session occurred.
Most management leaders will emphasize that employees are the organization’s most important assets so how well are these assets being managed in the City of Rockville? Most of the current councilmembers lack significant experience in supervising employees and the City Council has a poor record of managing its most senior staff. The City Manager, City Attorney, and City Clerk have each been dismissed during Mayor Newton’s tenure. After a while, the only common denominator to these problems is the City Council.
The City Council needs to provide a better explanation for this decision and how they handle Closed Sessions. Or it’s time to rethink their privilege to serve.
May 21, 2023: This post was corrected to show a vote of 4-1 in the caption of the photo.
Mayor and Council to Consider Increasing Lots of Fees; Can it Untangle 900 Rockville Pike?
At its Monday, May 8, 2023 meeting, the Rockville Mayor and Council will discuss amending master fees for community planning and development services. On the Consent Calendar (items approved without discussion) are the pension plan for 2023. The Mayor and Council will also receive reports on the Vision Zero Action Plan, Bikeway and Pedestrian Master Plans, development of 900 Rockville Pike, and the historic preservation work plan.
Fees for building permits, inspections, and licenses are proposed to increase 2.5% to keep up with inflation; include a 10% fee to offset the cost of technology; adopt a fee structure based on square footage or estimated construction cost; and assess a separate application fee. For example, a building permit for new residential construction or to repair fire damage will be $0.25 per square foot, including the basement, garage, and roof; a license for short-term rentals is $450; and a building permit for a swimming pool or to demolish a building of any size is $553.
Interestingly, the staff report admits that the actual cost of providing services is unknown and it is uncertain whether the revenues from fees are sufficient to cover their expenses (170). Secondly, new construction accounts for 35-40% of global greenhouse gas emissions and “virtually every green rating program (LEED, USGBC, IgCC) recognizes the value of adaptive reuse” (173). Nevertheless, the City is comfortable granting inexpensive demolition permits (where does all that building material go? into the county dump!). Instead, it should encourage adaptive reuse by significantly increasing the demolition permit fees on a square-foot basis.
J. Danshes LLC has filed an application to build a 4,400 square foot one-story retail building at 900 Rockville Pike (southeast corner of Rockville Pike and Edmonston Drive, one of the narrowest lots on the east side of the Pike due to the railroad tracks). In 2006, the City adopted a Mixed-Use Corridor District zone for this small lot, which allowed up to 12,754 square feet of retail space. Despite this new proposal being a much smaller building, it is now subject to several new city regulations that have been adopted over the years plus it needs to accommodate the proposed Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) route. As a result, this project has been in the pipeline since 2017 and is becoming an enigma wrapped in a puzzle—what would you do with this property when you’re faced with the following situation:
“To create the right-of-way land area dictated by the public agencies, the Applicant must dedicate 6,523 square feet of area (0.15 acres, 25.2% of existing lot area) to public use. Said dedication reduces the size of the site from 25,862 (0.59) acre to 19, 339 square feet (0.44 acre).” (257)
More details in the 329-page agenda packet are available at https://www.rockvillemd.gov/AgendaCenter/ViewFile/Agenda/_05082023-6899.
When is the Next Council Meeting? Agenda Center Creates Confusion
In an effort to better align with the requirements of Maryland’s Open Meetings Act, the City of Rockville has revised the Agenda Center for Mayor and Council to included anything and everything that might be attended by one or more councilmembers. The City has violated the Open Meetings Act in previous years and new City Attorney is reviewing everything to assure compliance. The problem is that the Agenda Center is now a mishmash that makes it difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. Can you easily locate the regular meeting of the Mayor and Council in this screenshot of the Agenda Center?
The confusion is caused by treating all meetings the same, when they’re not. Residents and businesses want to attend the meetings that have the most impact on them, which are the Mayor and Council meetings. While a councilmember may attend the East Rockville Civic Association or the Rockville Economic Development board meeting, the City Council is not making decisions about taxes or ordinances at those events. The next step is keep the audience in mind–who uses the Agenda Center? Who is it for primarily? Secondly, distinguish the meetings to highlight the meetings that are most important for the audience. Hire a good graphic designer to figure this out. Otherwise, it’s going to cause residents and business to be even more frustrated in their efforts to learn what their elected officials are doing (have you noticed that minutes aren’t available for about six weeks, which means you have to rewatch the entire council meeting for the latest news).
The latest annual report of the Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board (which has no budget and no staff!) notes that it received 57 complaints concerning 95 separate entities, so ensuring that government operates transparently and openly is an ongoing concern. It also summarized the most common violations by city councils, boards, and commissions (emphasis mine):
“The overall number of complaints, and of those in which we found a violation, remains small in proportion to the total number of public bodies statewide. This fiscal year saw a significant increase in the number of opinions we issued (forty-eight), which is eighteen more than the previous year and the most we have issued in a single year since at least Fiscal Year 2013. But much of this increase may be attributable to COVID-19: Many complaints alleged violations of the Act based on practices that public bodies have adopted in light of the pandemic (for example, requiring the public to observe meetings virtually or limiting how many people may attend a meeting in person19), or alleged violations related to meetings (or alleged meetings) that involved topics of discussion directly related to the pandemic (for example, masking policies and other COVID-19 protocols).
“In any event, although we issued forty-eight opinions this year, we found violations in twenty-five opinions, a little over half the total number of opinions for FY 2022. Of those opinions involving one or more violations, fewer than half of the opinions (eleven)
involved a failure to provide reasonable notice of a meeting. The most common type of violation (found in eighteen opinions) involved some deficiency related to meeting minutes, either the failure to prepare or post them timely, or the failure to provide enough details. Thirteen opinions involved the failure to fully satisfy the Act’s procedural requirements for closing a meeting to the public. Eleven involved a violation of the Act’s general openness requirements, most often because a public body failed to make clear in its meeting notice that the body would be meeting in open session before entering closed session, or because a public body misapplied an exception in GP § 3-305(b) and discussed a matter in closed session that should have been open to the public.”
Artisan Greek Bakery Opens in Twinbrook
Mastiha Greek Bakery has recently opened its doors in Rockville, Maryland, offering authentic Greek baked goods to the local community—and Maryland. Since 2011, they have been operating in Kensington and delivering wholesale to Dawson’s, MOMs, Yes!, Roots, and other grocers throughout the Mid-Atlantic.
Now open to the public on a limited basis in Twinbrook, the bakery specializes in traditional Greek pastries, such as kourambiedes (almond shortbread), koulourakia (butter twists), and baklava (including some modern versions such as walnut rosemary and hazelnut chocolate). And their pita bread is handcrafted–no pocket, baked on an open flame over a grill! They also offer savory items like spanakopita (phyllo pies) and dips (hummus, tzatziki). Soon they will be offering coffee, tea, and other beverages to accompany the delicious treats.
On Friday, May 5 from 6:00-8:00 pm, they will be hosting a ribbon cutting with the Rockville Chamber of Commerce, a blessing by Father Demetrios Antokas, live Greek music, and popup stores selling wine, food, and leather shoes. Everyone is welcome and be sure to say kalimera to owner Katerina.
Mastiha is near the Twinbrook Metro and a bit off the beaten path, although close to the Twinbrook neighborhood, at 2387 Lewis Avenue (the mini-industrial area adjacent to the railroad tracks). To reach it from Twinbrook Parkway, you’ll need to take Ardennes Avenue to Halpine Road (see map below). They are open on Thursday to Saturday from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm with limited items will be available for walk-in purchase while they last.
Mayor and Council Tweaking FY2024 Budget
At its Monday, May 1, 2023 meeting, the Rockville Mayor and Council will discuss the FY2024 Budget (that’s it!). On the Consent Calendar (items approved without discussion) are four proclamations for Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Historic Preservation Month, Older Americans Month, and National Public Service Recognition Week.
The City Council is continuing to adjust the budget. Reductions include the Movies in the Park series, residential street sweeping, composting, Latino Youth Development Program, Lincoln Park Community Center, Thomas Farm Community Center After School programs, Twinbrook rentals, and Peerless Rockville [just in time for Historic Preservation Month!] (page 18). Increases include fall protection at the Senior Center, mowing for cross country events at RedGate, Teens on the Go program, energy audits, badge system annual fees, and overtime pay for Rockville Police (page 18). Concerned? Community Forum happens at 7:10 pm (but you have to request to speak by noon of the day of the meeting at email@example.com; no more opportunities to just drop in!).
More details in the 92-page agenda packet are available at https://www.rockvillemd.gov/AgendaCenter/ViewFile/Agenda/_05012023-6892.
Mayor and Council to Approve Isolated Neighborhood on Tower Oaks Blvd.
At its Monday, April 24, 2023 meeting, the Rockville Mayor and Council will discuss an amendment for a permit to construct 83 townhouses in Tower Oaks and a work session on the 2024 budget. On the Consent Calendar (items approved without discussion) are the installation of solar canopies on two city parking lots, an agreement with the Rockville Baseball Association, contracts to repair pedestrian bridges in city parks, and installation of murals at the Senior Center (artist Katie Giganti) and on the City Hall generator screen (artist Shawn James), among others.
Another isolated neighborhood is under consideration, ironically at the same meeting the Mayor and Council will approve a mural that represents the “City’s commitment to celebrating community connections.” Michael Harris Properties, LLC. has filed a Project Plan Amendment to construct 83 townhome units with a small community green space at 2200 Tower Oaks Boulevard, and to request a parking waiver for the existing office building located at 2000 Tower Oaks Boulevard. It was originally approved as a hotel and a health and recreation facility at 2200 Tower Oaks Boulevard and an office building at 2000 Tower Oaks Boulevard. An isolated forest stand (forest conservation easement), roughly 10,000 sf, is proposed for removal. The replacement forest conservation will be provided through the long-term preservation of additional forested area (~7,600 sf) contiguous to the primary forest conservation easement off the back property boundary, in addition to individual trees planted on the subject property for forest conservation credit (~2,400 sf). The proposed Project Plan will require a finding of adequate public facilities for the change in use to residential townhouse development. For the office building, Michael Harris Properties is requesting a reduction of 115 vehicle parking spaces or an approximately 18% parking reduction from the required 650 vehicle parking spaces. A couple residents have already voiced concerns about several aspects of the project (a very thoughtful letter starts on page 213) and I’ll include my concerns about the continuing fragmentation of Rockville into isolated neighborhoods, in this instance physically separated from any other neighborhood. Seems like the Mayor and Council needs to examine the larger context to see that this is NOT a good location for residential use—there are no connections between this neighborhood and others in the city. How did this get through Planning Commission with hardly any discussion? Looks like they were asleep at the wheel.
More details in the 279-page agenda packet are available at https://www.rockvillemd.gov/AgendaCenter/ViewFile/Agenda/_04242023-6882.
Mayor and Council to Receive Final Public Comments on FY24 Budget
At its Monday, April 17, 2023 meeting, the Rockville Mayor and Council will discuss FY 2024 budget (public hearing). On the Consent Calendar (items approved without discussion) are no items. The Mayor and Council will also receive reports on no items.
This is the third and final public hearing related to the FY 2024 budget, with more than 100 suggestions received at the March 29 public hearing (lots of requests for community gardens and a new entrance to the senior center from Gude Drive, but many were boiler-plate requests which I tend to ignore). The FY 2024 operating budget totals $156.4 million for the City’s ten operating funds. This represents an overall increase of 5.1 percent from the FY 2023 adopted budget. The total number of full time equivalent (FTE) positions in the FY 2024 operating budget equals 642.7, a net increase of 4.1 FTEs from the FY 2023 adopted level. The FY 2024 proposed budget includes an additional 4.0 regular FTEs over the FY 2023 adopted budget.
The proposed Capital Improvements Program will receive $35.2 million in new funding in FY 2024. The CIP is organized by program area and provides:
- $10 million to the Recreation and Parks program area, which includes funding for the outdoor recreation pool renovations and the design of the dance/fitness studio and multi-purpose space proposed for the King Farm farmstead;
- $7.5 million to the Transportation program area, which includes funding for roadways, sidewalks, and ongoing LED streetlight conversions;
- $10 million to the Utilities program area, which includes funding for water main and sewer rehabilitation;
- $2.4 million to the Stormwater Management program area, which includes funding for stream restoration projects, storm drain analysis and spot repairs, and improvements to City stormwater facilities;
- $5.2 million to the General Government program area, which includes funding for data center and disaster recovery infrastructure and improvements at the city’s Maintenance and Emergency Operations Facility.
A few council members had questions about the budget, which were answered by staff. For Councilmember David Myles, see page 251+, 268+, and 272+. For Councilmember Mark Pierzchala, see page 257+ and 272+. For Councilmember Beryl Feinberg, see page 266 (just one question!), page 269 (two more!), and 277+ (lots, looks like she finally studied the budget by March 20). For Councilmember Monique Ashton, see page 266+ and 274+. For Mayor Bridget Newton, see page 273+ and page 285. If you’re running for council (or really want to know which council members are thoughtful and informed), you’ll want to review this section.
More details in the 294-page agenda packet are available at https://www.rockvillemd.gov/AgendaCenter/ViewFile/Agenda/_04172023-6873.
Mayor and Council to Regulate Short-Term Rentals & Vape Shops
At its Monday, March 27, 2023 meeting, the Rockville Mayor and Council will discuss the annexation of 1201 Seven Locks Road; replace the Traffic and Transportation Commission with a Transportation and Mobility Commission; approve several regulations for residential rental facilities, room rentals, and accessory dwelling units; and consider a nine-month moratorium on businesses that primarily sell electronic cigarettes (vape stores) near schools. On the Consent Calendar (items approved without discussion) are maintenance of the water features in Town Center, Courthouse Square, and Maryvale Park; authorizing the Maryland Highway Administration to enter city property near Winding Rose Drive to make emergency repairs to an I-2710 storm drain; renewing contracts for the purchase of fuel for city vehicles, among others. The Mayor and Council will also receive reports on the climate action plan and staff hiring and vacancies (nearly 60 staff vacancies, including 7 in recreation and parks, 11 in police, and 25 in public works).
In 2015, there were approximately 6,000 rental units in Rockville and there are now approximately 10,500 units, for an increase of 4,600 rental units. On February 22, 2021, the Mayor and Council discussed short-term rentals, such as Airbnb, and determined that the rental of rooms should also be regulated through Chapter 18 like other types of residential rentals. Chapter 18 regulates landlord and tenant relations and different types of licenses and leases, however, short-term rentals operate more like a hotel than rental property. Therefore, any existing short-term rental units in the city are operating without sanction or approval, because they are out of compliance with City requirements for renting a complete living facility or home. The City Council is considering new regulations that would only allow property owners to operate short-term rentals; require an annual license; notification of adjacent property owners; city inspection for zoning, building, and fire code violations; a limited of six adults at a time; no more than 120 days of rental per year; and two off-street parking spaces among other conditions and requirements. About 25 stakeholders have participated in two public hearings and a work session, and if approved by Council, the proposed Zoning Text Amendment will be reviewed by the Planning Commission.
More details in the 224-page agenda packet are available at https://www.rockvillemd.gov/AgendaCenter/ViewFile/Agenda/_03272023-6849.
Mayor and Council to Choose Earmarks and Decide Upcoming Election Changes
At its Monday, February 27, 2023 meeting, the Rockville Mayor and Council will discuss proposed earmarks for the FY24 federal budget, requests from the Board of Supervisors of Elections, and recommendations from the Charter Review Commission. On the Consent Calendar (items approved without discussion) are the preservation of public art, funding for the Rockcrest Ballet Center, Taste of Rockville agreement, and funding for the flood resilience master plan, among others. The Mayor and Council will also receive reports on operating budget and capital improvements budget for FY2024.
Yes, Congress is openly using earmarks again, “funds provided for projects or programs where the congressional direction (in bill or report language) circumvents the merit-based or competitive allocation process, or specifies the location or recipient.” For some, it’s simply another form of pork barrel politics but for others it’s a vital project. Perhaps the most famous earmark was by US Senator Ted Stevens to construct the Gravina Island Bridge or the “Bridge to Nowhere” for $250 million in 2002. But if you want federal funds for a specific project, the best way to ensure it is through earmarks. This year, the City of Rockville is considering several potential requests to Senator Cardin, Senator Van Hollen, and Congressman Raskin, including the emergency operations center at 6 Taft Court, police radio equipment ($1.4 million!), storm drain improvements in Potomac Woods, security for the water treatment plant, and water main or sewer main rehabilitation in an “equity focused area” (not identified but somewhere in southeast Rockville).
Preparations for the 2023 Mayor and Council election are underway and candidate information packets should be ready by May 1—however, there is still lots to be done. The Board of Supervisors of Elections is waiting for approval from the Mayor and Council on several changes to the City Charter and City Code in limbo; proposed translation of outreach materials in Spanish, Chinese, and French; adding a second vote center at Thomas Farm and placing ballot drop boxes in Montrose, Lincoln Park, and the Rockville Senior Center. Indeed, if the minimum voting age is lowered from 18 years to 16 years and the deadline for submitting nomination petitions is increased from 60 to 90 days prior to the election, the City may have already missed its ability to implement these changes for the November 2023 election.
Discussion of the 30 recommendations by the Charter Review Commission continues, this time on a more “precise, open, transparent, and definitive administrative process” for filling a vacancy on the city council after two years; adding a “none of the above” option on election ballots; increasing the size of the Board of Supervisors of Elections; increasing the number of ballot drop-off boxes; lowering the voting age to 16; and limiting the number of consecutive terms of council members to three four-year terms (but allowing a person to serve 12 years as a councilmember and 12 years as mayor—really? 12 years is plenty, give other people a chance!).
More details in the 450-page agenda packet are available at https://www.rockvillemd.gov/AgendaCenter/ViewFile/Agenda/_02272023-6820.