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.