Usually this type of post goes up on January 1, but I always prefer a bit of distance to identify the biggest stories of past year. Although this is admittedly from my limited personal perspective and is bound to generate controversy (but hey, that’s what these lists are supposed to do), here’s my list for Rockville in 2010:
1. Red Gate Golf Course. This is continued to be a thorny issue and made have seen its thorniest moment when the City Council used $2.4 million in “surplus” money to pay off past debt and the anticipated shortfalls for 2011, and also (once again) punted the decision to another time. Despite countless meetings and studies, for years the Council has been astonishingly agonized about making a decision on whether to commit to an annual subsidy, integrate it into the recreation program, levy a tax to support it, or to close it down. Meanwhile, the golf course continues to bleed money and participation rates continue to slide. Perhaps we need to start over: if we were offered 130 acres today (Red Gate is the second largest park in Rockville), what would most benefit the community? I don’t think most people would say golf course.
2. Snowpocalypse. Who can forget this snowstorm? There was so much snow it closed the federal government for a week. The adventurous walked and explored the city in a new quiet way and neighbors found a new reason to talk and help each other. There was a lot of frustration with snow clearing and the City wasn’t prepared, but remember, the city worked around the clock and conscripted employees into snowshoveling duties to deal with this record snowfall. We also improved our abilities to monitor and respond to these situations so when this happens again (and it may not be for another fifty years), we’re prepared. And someone at the City gets two stars for clearing my driveway apron–piled four feet high as solid ice, I didn’t think my car was leaving until spring.
3. Public Art. There wasn’t much fanfare but the city’s “public art gallery” acquired two really great artworks and one dud. Along the Washington Avenue side of the Town Square, William Cochran painted a provocative trompe oeil mural and Judith Inglese installed a series of ceramic tile murals recalling early Rockville. They’re very different from each other, yet both are thoughtfully inspired by Rockville’s history and beautifully crafted. They’ll be a longterm asset. The Spirit of Discovery at City Hall, on the other hand, is so disappointing that I don’t even want to talk about it. Sorry.
4. Mayor Marcuccio’s Mis-Management Style. Phyllis Marcuccio just can’t seem to figure out the office of Mayor even though she served for many years as a councilmember. The annual State of the City address is supposed to reflect the thinking of the entire Council, yet she didn’t coordinate her speech, not even the date. Is that collegial? She’s clearly at odds with the City Manager, but she never identifies the problem, even if asked directly and despite the City Manager’s successful performance review. Is that honesty? She frequently says she’s confused or doesn’t remember when discussing major city topics. Is that competence? You can often hear her muttering sarcastic remarks or catty comments at the city staff or councilmembers during meetings. Is that civil? But most disturbing is that she believes she’s the chief executive for the City, which clearly conflicts with the City Charter (our constitution). Is that mutiny? Rockville needs committed elected leaders, not managers–that’s why we hire professional staff and a City Manager. Even though the City has held retreats and professional facilitators to improve things, it doesn’t look like it’s going to get any better in 2011: on January 19 she didn’t support the budget principles, which are based on the instructions she and the other councilmembers provided during the previous two budget meetings, but then offered only a tepid explanation and no alternatives. This is a mayor lost in her own office.
5. Carl Henn’s Death. Truly one of the low points of the year. I only knew Carl briefly but in that short time I instantly recognized his honesty, sincerity, commitment, and humor. And, oh yeah, his passion for peak oil. He even showed his PowerPoint about peak oil at his memorial service. The City memorialized him by naming the Millennium bike trail for him, but I wish we went just a bit further. Yes, he biked a lot, but he biked for a specific reason. He also developed community gardens, but for a specific reason. He did lots of things, and most of them were motivated by his belief that we have passed the peak of oil supply and it will become increasingly scarce, so we need to change the way we live and become less dependent on oil. If we really wanted to honor him, we should be inspired by what he cared about and advance his core passion, perhaps by committing to a serious reduction in energy use in city facilities or in our homes and businesses. The newly adopted Green Building Ordinance is a great start, but it’s limited to new construction or major remodelings and I know he wanted to go much further than that. Perhaps we weren’t ready for Carl’s ideas, but I hope we catch up with him. When I install my solar panels on my house, I’ll name them in Carl’s honor.
6. Twinbrook Citizen’s Association Election. Neighborhood associations are an important way for neighbors to work together to accomplish things they couldn’t do by themselves. That seems to have been the nature of things in Twinbrook from the start of the TCA in the 1950s, but these last few years have been incredibly contentious and unproductive, and it reached its nadir with the annual election of officers. Despite an admirable effort by the election judges to aim for a fair and open process, a host of circumstances and the tense atmosphere worked against it. It was unclear who was eligible to vote, no candidate was able to give a statement to help voters make an assessment, some audience members were openly hostile and rude to each other, the voting process was confusing, voters could easily see each other’s ballots, and the final vote was only called out, not posted. It felt like a 19th century election in small town–fascinating as a historian but frightening as a community member. Who wants to be part of this craziness? The only glimmer of hope is that it renewed interest in Twinbrook Neighbors, a listserve that encourages the sharing and discussing of neighborhood issues in an open and respectful manner. It’s a form of “organizing without an organization“.
7. Beall’s Grant II. On the surface, this highly contentious housing development seemed to be about rich versus poor, but in May, the Maryland Court of Appeals (our state’s supreme court) said it was about something very different: the City “did not take the actions required by its own ordinance” (the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance and Adequate Public Facilities Standards) and the lack of a written explanation for the Planning Commission’s decision (“made no factual findings at either the public hearing or in its written decision). The trouble with the ordinances is that they have two different ways of calculating the capacity of a school and its ability to accommodate the additional children generated by new housing development. That’s now rightfully moved to a discussion with the school district over its management of classroom space (but threatens to fall into a “you’re not the boss of me” spat that’s going all the way to Annapolis) and a committee is in place to tackle a revision of the APFO and APFS to prevent this from reoccurring. On the other hand, the Planning Commission’s mishandling of the issue has been entirely overlooked and it boils down to this: when you make any decision, you have to state your reasons or “findings”–and as the Court stated, “in the absence of such findings, the Planning Commission’s decision cannot stand.” That’s fair to everyone so they can understand what’s happening, figure out how to improve, and ensure there’s no corruption involved (that’s why we make decisions in open, not in hidden in the back rooms or locked in our own minds). The Planning Commission overlooked this crucial and essential aspect of the public decision-making process, and neither the chair, planning staff, nor city attorney intervened, to our detriment and embarrassment. And it doesn’t look like anything has changed despite the Court’s decision, indeed, it wasn’t even mentioned at their subsequent meetings. Even some members of the City Council continue to play the, “I don’t like it but I don’t have to say why” game. That’s fine if you’re a parent talking to your children, but not for a city official talking about community issues to citizens and property owners. And it exposes us to unnecessary legal risk. To misquote our new city slogan, “Get With It”.
8. Victory Housing. What a mess, no matter where you fall on the issue. And somehow, the Planning Commission and City Council are once again involved. Have we learned anything from this? What can we do better or differently? Perhaps the Communications Task Force’s finding and recommendations will turn this around (although, ironically, the report opens with a misspelled word: Foreward. Did they mean forewarned? 🙂 ).
9. Rockville Central, Rockville Living, the Gazette, and now Rockville Patch continue to inform us of what’s happening in our fair city and provide an opportunity for reader comments and conversation in ways far better than the mighty Washington Post. Some may wonder about so many news outlets for such a small community, but really, we’re over 60,000 residents and there’s still room for more given the variety of interests. In an age when newspapers are dying, it seems they’re actually transforming into a new form and we get to see it happen in Rockville.
10. Rockville is still a great place to live. Compared to the rest of the country, we’re still fortunate to have a strong park and recreation program, a responsive police department, top notch restaurants, a diverse community, a vibrant Town Square, Metro service, and more. Despite my occasional grumblings, the City of Rockville is well managed and I give special kudos to the women and men who often work behind the scenes in public works, recreation, finance, Channel 11, events, and police departments (if I overlooked someone, it doesn’t mean anything; these are just the departments I encountered that exceeded my expectations). And Twinbrook is a great neighborhood, although often maligned for its suburban monotony. I just tell folks to get out and meet the residents–they’ll discover that the sameness is just skin-deep.
For 2011, I’ll predict that the major issues will be the Red Gate Golf Course, school overcrowding, the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, the Communication Task Force recommendations, Town Center parking garages, churches in residential areas, increasing financial challenges (and service reductions), and the mayoral election. Did I misread my crystal ball?