Council Retreat Uninspiring

Rockville City Council Retreat at Glenview, January 2010.

Rockville City Council Retreat at Glenview Mansion, January 2010.

The Rockville Mayor and Council held a retreat this past weekend to establish a vision for the city and along with goals for the near future.  Friday evening and all day Saturday, the entire City Council along with the City Manager, City Attorney, and City Clerk worked with a professional facilitator to complete a SWOT analysis, review and adjust the existing vision, and determine priorities.   Gajewski videorecorded the retreat and a handful of observers attended.   I sat in for about an hour and despite the opportunity to consider Rockville’s future in the beautiful setting provided by Glenview Mansion, I left uninspired.

During the portion of the meeting I observed, the Mayor and Council went through four of the seven elements of the Vision:  Quality Built Environment, Distinct Neighborhoods, Business Friendly, and Exceptional City Services and Amenities.  For each topic, the group was expected to brainstorm and list their goals–everything the City is currently doing or should be doing to achieve that vision.  Given the short time available, I expected a rush of ideas.  Instead, they were slow to respond and  groping for words, coming up mostly with ideas that were vague, trite, or uninspiring.   “Parks”, “bike paths”, “safety”, “high quality standards”, “protect trees”, “air and water quality”, “pedestrian friendly” were typical responses–no one seemed to be able to speak in sentences.   Even with all the campaign rhetoric about improving communication with citizens and the establishment of a taskforce to examine this issue, no one mentioned it.  For very brief moments there was big visionary thinking:  Peter Gajewski suggested a downtown performing arts center and a professional sports arena and Mark Pierzchala asked for WiFi throughout the city.   Otherwise, it was as if you asked, “what makes a good city?” to a high school class.

I’m not sure what went wrong.  I know all of these people from the campaign and that they were passionate and thoughtful about the ways they wanted to improve the city.  But this weekend those ideas had utterly drained out of them.  Perhaps they were tired, unprepared, or overloaded, but if this is the Council’s best effort in strategic planning, I’m worried.  Some people have accused the staff of setting the city’s agenda.  I’m not sure that’s true, but if it is, it’s because the Mayor and Council can’t set a clear direction.

Perhaps they were able to pull it all together in the afternoon and with staff’s help, they’ll produce a thoughtful strategic plan that can pull everyone in the same direction.  As you may know, I was disappointed in the 2008 vision and offered an alternative, and I hope this new Council can be much more inspiring.

3 responses

  1. Wifi throughout the city – I can get behind that! Thanks for reporting, Max.

  2. I attended the session Friday evening and all but the last 30 minutes on Saturday. While I consider it unfair to criticize a 15 hour planning session based on being there for an hour, I do think the meeting fell short of its’ goals. The biggest problem was the fact the Sunday portion was eliminated, having then to stuff everything into a day and an evening. There wasn’t enough time to do things right, and parts of the revised agenda were not done. An entire two hour segment where the council and city manager were to work on defining respective roles and responsibilities, and discussing how they would all work together as a team, was dropped. The reason it couldn’t get done was the facilitator couldn’t get the council to come up with the criteria to identify priorities. Instead, they took votes on the “ideas” Max refers to above. The number of “ideas” under each of the 7 topics determined how many votes each councilmember got. Huh???

    The Vision is supposed to be available in late February, and is being written by Bridget and Mark.

  3. I can’t disagree with Max’s assessment of the so-called planning session. The unmentioned background to this session and other endeavors of the Mayor and Council is the awful budget situation that Rockville may face. It’s hard to be inspiring when revenues are dipping for the first time in years and we’re not even sure of the revenue situation as I type this. We have to get through a tough couple (or more) years and that will be this body’s priority, whether any of us like it.

    Joe makes a valid point about a part of the worksession that did not take place (on relations between the elected body and city staff). It will likely take place sometime in March.

    To slightly rebut Joe, the council did come up with one criterion to evaluate priorities and that was the amount of money spent for the line item. That information was not part of what we had to work with. Neither did we have a complete list of line items to work with.

    Several members of the Finance and Budget Task Force attended some or most of the weekend’s session. They were there to evaluate the priority-setting part of the meeting. It will be interesting to see what they come up with. We had a good first meeting last night (January 27).

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