Rockville’s Commission Appointment Process Reveals Flaws in Mayor and Council

A tense discussion late in the evening of the February 25, 2013 meeting of the Rockville Mayor and Council suggests that there are serious problems in the appointment process to boards and commissions, as well as in our elected officials.  It was probably missed by most citizens because the chambers were nearly empty at 10:00 pm.

A sense of the troubles began hours earlier, when Mayor Phyllis Marcuccio nominated two residents to the Board of Supervisors of Elections, a city committee that recently lost three of its five members due to resignations.  David Berthiaume’s nomination was approved with one councilmember abstaining and Andrew Powell’s nomination failed due to a lack of a second.   With one of her nominations rebuffed, Mayor Marcuccio noted that, “I would like to point out that we are in need of a quorum for the Board of Supervisors of Elections and by appointing Mr. Berthiaume I think we have achieved that. But I am quite shocked that our Council does not choose to appoint my other suggestion.”

The issue was forgotten until Old/New Business, when it was raised again by Councilmember Newton (at 3:30 of the February 25, 2013 meeting):

Councilmember Newton: I was disappointed in the decision this evening on Mr. Powell and I would like to encourage this body to think long and hard about the willingness of citizens to serve. Mr. Powell has a passion for transparency and ethics and has, in my years of involvement in Rockville, not been personal, always come out on the side of transparency. I just want to make a public statement that I’m disappointed. There have been many times that I have held my personal opinions back for the greater good of what people think in Rockville and I think we lost an opportunity tonight to have somebody who has come forward many times with suggestions, has worked to make the political process and elections very transparent so I just wanted to say that.

Mayor Marcuccio: I thank you for that. It is no small matter for your Mayor to recommend or want to appoint an individual to a Council’s body. And to have this body not take the Mayor’s suggestion seriously, I think, is a precedent I have never seen before. I hope you can explain yourselves. You don’t have to explain to me. I think you have to explain it to Mr. Powell.

Councilmember Pierzchala: Madame Mayor, I am going to respond to that. . .

Mayor Marcuccio: Go ahead. I’m sure you want to. [Marcuccio chuckles]

Councilmember Pierzchala: . . .a couple different ways. First of all, some of us suggested that the item be pulled from the agenda tonight. We have an unusual situation on the Board of Supervisors of Elections and that before tonight, there were three vacancies. We had at my count five applicants. And I certainly made my preferences known and those were not taken seriously as far as I can see.

But I will remind the Mayor that when Susan Hoffmann was mayor, there were a couple times where some of her appointments were shot down, and Madame Mayor, you led the way. And you were very upset and you didn’t think [Marcuccio chuckles] you were being paid attention to by former Mayor Hoffmann. You made that very clear in public session. And I’ll say that in my over three years of being on the Council with you as Mayor, I have almost always deferred. In fact, I think this is the first time I objected to an appointment. I’m right in line with Councilmember Newton and that there have been several that I haven’t particularly liked but I voted for them anyway in deference to the Mayor. But in this one with three vacancies and five applications, I thought that the best thing to do was to consider all the vacancies and the whole situation together, instead doing two now and some more later. I think Mr. Powell is qualified but he just didn’t hit my top three. And I didn’t think that my suggestions were taken seriously, so that’s why it ended up the way it did from my seat.

Councilmember Hall: Your honor, I will also speak to this. I think Councilmember Pierzchala eloquently stated some of my concerns and I shared my view previously. I had requested that the item to be removed from the agenda. It wasn’t. That was your prerogative. It was my prerogative to abstain from voting for any of the applicants, not because I’m ultimately inclined to vote against all of them but because I believe as we were still receiving applications as of last Friday and had just then received recommendations from the Board itself, that it was worth having an opportunity to consult and potentially reconsider and look at all of the persons who were offering to serve.

I have never abstained from nor voted against, previously, an appointment recommended by the Mayor of this body. I felt that the unwillingness to give due accord to my request compelled me to abstain from participating in that particular series of nominations. I will also say that the respect that we accord each other must be mutual and the accord we give to our views must be mutual. And for the last eight months, all four city council members have expressed to you a desire for a certain appointment to the Planning Commission that you have not deemed appropriate to consider. So I am hopeful that. . .we are making some great strides with regard to collegial government. We really are. But it’s important I think that we be mutually respectful of our wants and needs and desires, and that things that are important to one of us remain important to all of us. But the reason I abstained this evening was precisely because I wanted an opportunity for us consider these and potentially reconsider them, and so that’s why I did it. And I hope never to do it again.

Mayor Marcuccio: I’m sure, Mr. Moore, you are going to have a comment.

Councilmember Moore: I would just like to remind my colleagues that this is a two-part process. The Mayor recommends people for boards and commissions, and the Council approves, or does not approve. So it is incumbent on the Councilmembers to have some respect for the Mayor’s prerogative to appoint but it is equally important for the Mayor to realize we have a job, too. This could have been avoided tonight had you reached out to us on these appointments. I don’t know if you reached out to the others; you’ve never asked me about appointments as long as I’ve been serving. This could have been avoided tonight in several different ways. You chose not to; I’m not sure why that is. For you to have been shocked at the outcome doesn’t gel with what’s been going on these last couple days.

Mayor Marcuccio: I think you’ll find whatever rationale you wish to defend your particular positions. I have no doubt about that. I felt Mr. Powell had done more to improve our processes of open government and clear elections than anyone else has done in a long time. Here was an opportunity to give him a position where he could do more for the City, more for us in the next round of elections. Whether you like his style or feel comfortable with his particular approach, that’s personal, that’s up to you. I’ve not seen the man do anything that didn’t have the best concern for the city at the back of his mind. I thought he was an excellent choice.

Now as far as not wanting to do what you want me to do as far as reappointing a member of the Planning Commission, I have made myself very clear. Ten years is long enough for anybody to serve on the Commission. I think we need new blood and by golly, I hope some day we’ll get it. But it is not going to be by your bullying me. Take it for what it is. I do the best I know how. Thank you.

Councilmember Moore: Well, we have a vacancy on the Planning Commission. If you could do us the favor of addressing that vacancy, we would appreciate it.

Mayor Marcuccio: I am as open as anyone is, in any way. If you have something you need or you want, you tell me and I try to deal with it. I have explained to you that I do not want to reappoint an individual who has been there for ten years. Alright, we have problems enough. I’m delighted we’re getting some turnover on our boards and commissions. That’s tremendously valuable to the city.

Watching this discussion made several disturbing issues clear to me:

1.  The Council is not listening to each other and instead, is talking past each other.  Marcuccio and Newton assume the other councilmembers believe that Powell is unqualified, but that issue was never mentioned by them.  Pierzchala, Hall, and Moore focus their remarks on the nomination process, but that’s not recognized by Marcuccio or Newton.  It’s like a classic skit by Abbott and Costello, but tragic because it’s the City Council making decisions about our hometown.  If they don’t hear and understand what the others are saying and making decisions based upon assumptions, very little good work gets accomplished.

2.  Mayor Marcuccio has established arbitrary term limits for boards and commissions.  Ironically, on October 6, 2008, as a councilmember, Marcuccio suggested a 3-term limit for all boards and commissions, which the Council adopted and it went into effect on January 1, 2009.  Planning Commissioners serve five-year terms, so if someone has served ten years, that’s two terms and they are eligible to be re-appointed.  Now she’s decided that ten years is sufficient, despite the policy she herself introduced in 2008, and has been crippling the Planning Commission in the process by failing to make a nomination for months.  Let’s get back to good government and not make up the rules as we go along.

3.  Mayor Marcuccio’s lack of respect for the other councilmembers is obvious and detrimental to the City.   It’s clear by this conversation that she doesn’t welcome or invite the opinions or suggestions of other councilmembers.  By using words such as “shocked,” “bullied,” and “never,”  she inflames the conversation and turns it into a confrontation.  By laughing at the comments of other councilmembers, dismissing their concerns, and making sarcastic remarks, she shows disrespect and scorn for her colleagues–the elected officials of the City.   At no point does she try to engage in a conversation or discussion–she just issues statements, platitudes, and cliches.  Councilmembers may not always agree with each other, but they need to do so agreeably.   As the chair of the Council, the Mayor sets the tone and serves as an example of respect and dignity, but Phyllis Marcuccio fails in this basic responsibility.  Perhaps she’s not aware of the poor way she is treating others and it’s “the best she knows how,” but nevertheless, it has to change.

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7 responses

  1. Re issue#1…not getting a second to the motion to appoint Mr. Powell says to me either some thought he was unqualified, or it was political gamesmanship. I would have thought differently had the second nominee suffered the same fate. Ms. Newton was the first to speak, so she was not ignoring other comments. Had she not spoken up, I doubt anything would have been said at all. Mr. Powell was Ms. Neuman’s second choice of the 5 people who applied. It appears that carried no weight with some.

    1. When you refer to Ms. Neuman, I assume you mean Lois Neuman, who serves on the Board of Supervisors of Elections. If Mr. Powell was her second choice of the five applicants, it was never mentioned in the Council meeting nor in the staff report that accompanied that item. Perhaps that should have been shared to bolster Mayor Marcuccio’s or Councilmember Newtown’s position. But since you mentioned it, how are you aware of Ms. Neuman’s choices if it wasn’t mentioned in the meeting nor in the staff report? I thought that type of information would be confidential. I certainly wouldn’t want my ranking or rating to be shared if I applied for a city commission.

  2. Max, yes, I refer to the new Chair of the Board. Emails sent and received in the normal course of City business are not confidential and are obtainable by anyone submitting requests for documents in the public domain. The press does this routinely. Mr. Hall referred to the email in his commentary, as you show above…”and had just then received recommendations from the Board itself”.
    Mr. Hall’s approach had merit. There were suddenly 3 openings and 5 applicants. Putting off any nominations until all 3 openings were announced, and until all councilmembers could vet the candidates, might have been the way to go. The downside was the board needed a quorum, and could take no action requiring a vote until there was one.

    1. Thanks for clarifying. At your suggestion, I requested a copy of the document prepared by Lois Neuman and it’s not available. According to the City Clerk:

      “The City withheld this record for several reasons, including Executive Privilege, since the public record is a confidential executive communication of an advisory and deliberative nature; Personnel Records, as the record reveals names and information related to persons who seek public office; Letters of Reference that concern a person’s fitness for public office; and Inter-and Intra-Agency Memoranda and Letters, as the record was created to assist the City’s internal decision making.”

      So if it’s confidential and not in the public domain, how did you receive a copy? Who gave it to you?

      1. Read today’s Sentinel. In addition, I don’t buy the opinion you got from the Clerk’s office. That would mean anything sent to the M&C from a board or commission would fall under that definition, since all but three act in an advisory capacity.

  3. Max, regarding issue #2, the M&C never approved establishing term limits for any board or commission. It was recommended in 2008, but suspended in November 2008, and a task force was established, chaired by Marcuccio. Their recommendations were presented in May of 2009. From the minutes of May 18, 2009, “In terms of term limits, Mr. Hall said that, instead of recommending term limits, the group was suggesting that anyone who wishes to be reappointed be placed in a pool with new applicants and the position would be advertised. That way, the process would be open to all and the need for term limits would be negated.”

  4. Max, I’ll help you and your readers. Here are parts of two reports in the Sentinel that covered the story.

    “The Sentinel obtained an email wherein the chairperson for the BSE, Lois Neuman, provided the Mayor and Council with the board’s recommendations. Powell was the board’s second choice out of the five candidates, according to the email, and Berthiaume, who was appointed unanimously, was not recommended by the board. Carol Millman, who was appointed unanimously during the March 4 meeting, was the board’s first recommendation.” (Holden Wilen)

    “We’re talking about a voluntary position. It is often hard enough just to get residents to volunteer for anything. Powell applied and was apparently the second of five in terms of recommendation, according to an email we obtained the city tried to keep from us.
    This is transparency? Keeping the information from us? As much as the city screams about needing to be transparent, the most transparent thing in Rockville is how well the city doesn’t work.
    That’s readily apparent, transparent and repugnantly appalling.
    I think it is hilarious the city tried to keep the email from us, and I also think it is hilarious anyone on the council could or would point the finger at anyone else on the council and accuse them of being an impediment to transparency and good government.” (Brian Karem)

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