Author Archive: Max van Balgooy

Welcome the Mayor and Council for 2019-2023

Congratulations to Bridget Donnell Newton, Monique Ashton, Beryl L. Feinberg, David Myles and Mark Pierzchala, who were elected as Rockville’s Mayor and Council for 2019-2023. Ashton and Myles will bring new perspectives to the Council, both being under 50 years old and people of color.

Just as important is the tremendous turnout for the election. A total of 12,213 ballots were cast in this election, versus 6,468 cast in 2015. The number of votes cast increased by 88.82% between 2015 and 2019. It validates the efforts by the Mayor and Council and the Board of Supervisors of Elections (BOSE) to increase turnout and reverse the downward trend of previous elections by adopting vote-by-mail. Although used in many other states, this is the first time this type of voting has been adopted in Maryland, so I’m sure many other jurisdictions will be asking Rockville for more information. A big thanks to BOSE, the City Clerk’s office, and the city’s Communications department for planning and executing this complex project.

An inauguration ceremony for the new Mayor and Council will be held at 1:00 p.m. on Sunday, November 17 at F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre, 603 Edmonston Drive. The inauguration is free and open to the public.

The first meeting of the new Mayor and Council is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Monday, November 18 at City Hall, 111 Maryland Ave.

Election Month Ends Today

Maryland’s first vote-by-mail election ends today at 8:00 p.m. in Rockville in an effort to encourage more people to vote. Rockville’s voter turnout has declined regardless of the number of candidates or ballot questions, from 16.94% of registered voters in 2011 to 16.51% in 2013 and 15.87% in 2015, when the city held its first election to four-year terms. (Previously, Rockville’s elections were held every two years.)

In April 2018, Rockville’s Mayor and Council voted unanimously to follow the Board of Supervisors of Elections’ recommendation to implement vote-by-mail for the fall 2019 election. At least 22 states allow elections to be conducted by mail. Oregon, Washington, and Colorado, and some counties in California, hold elections entirely by mail.

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A Most Unusual Election

This year’s Mayor and Council election in Rockville is extraordinary not only because Election Day has turned into Election Month due to vote-by-mail, but also because so many new, unusual, and strange campaigning is happening. You’ve probably noticed a few of them but when you bring them all together, you realize this election is very different from its predecessors.

The number of candidates is the largest in recent memory and I’m not sure what’s prompting it. Running for office is grueling and costly. Maybe there’s a gut feeling that the city is being pulled in several directions and people are jumping in to influence the outcome or that there are two slates (which was common twenty years ago) plus the usual unaffiliated candidates.

A security camera in Rockville captured this man leaving candidate literature in the door and checking out the contents of the mailbox.

We’re now at the time of the campaign when yard signs become a point of contention. During the day, fanatics will confront homeowners who have signs of their opponents or in the dead of night, steal signs and blame it on teenagers. This election is different because many homes have motion-activated security cameras, making it easier to catch misbehavior on video. Recently posted on Twinbrook Neighbors, a camera caught a person tucking candidate literature into the door who also seemed to go through the resident’s mailbox. And he wasn’t a teenager.

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Feinberg Feigns Diversity & Inclusion in Campaign Mailer

Beryl Feinberg’s re-election campaign postcard.

Beryl Feinberg is holding a sign opposing the widening of I-270, in Asian costume, with students holding certificates, cleaning up a stream, and talking with a Latino man and an African American woman. What do these images mean? That voters need to re-elect her to Rockville City Council because she’ll “preserve Rockville’s character” and “embrace Rockville’s future.” But her campaign postcard is deceiving.

Michelle Whittaker in Beryl Feinberg’s campaign mailer (left) and as Virginia Onley for Mayor campaign manager (right).

Michelle Whittaker would know—she’s the African American woman shown in Feinberg’s mailer. She doesn’t support Feinberg’s candidacy for city council and ironically is the campaign manager for Virginia Onley for Mayor, one of her opponents. So why is she in the shown in Feinberg’s campaign literature?

Obviously, Feinberg used the photo to assure voters that she supports diversity and inclusion—gosh, look at all the people of color in her mailer! But we’re now aware it’s a dishonest portrayal. Indeed, it continues Feinberg’s insensitivity around diversity and inclusion. A year ago, the NAACP accused Feinberg of racism in her deliberations over the hiring of an African American woman for City Clerk.

Feinberg isn’t alone in her insensitivity around race and ethnicity. David Myles, a pediatrician, Navy veteran, and Yale graduate who is also running for City Council, has had Rockville residents call the police as he was walking door to door to meet voters. They probably couldn’t tell he was a pediatrician and Navy veteran, just that he was African American man in their white neighborhood. He was out of place, didn’t belong, a stranger. Yup, in 2019.

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Rockville Voters Grow Younger; Will It Matter?

Voters Under Age 40 have grown in Rockville, but will they vote in 2019? Vote-by-Mail could change traditional patterns.

An analysis of Rockville’s registered voters shows that they are dominated by Millennials, those born in the 1980s and 1990s and are now in their 20s and 30s. I suspect much of this is due to voter registration at the DMV, but the bigger question is if they will actually vote. In past city elections, reliable voters were over 50 years old but with the introduction with Vote-by-Mail, this will probably change. Without waiting for Election Day or spending time at the polls, there’s an expectation that younger voters will put their ballots in the mail in greater numbers.

The challenge for candidates is finding issues that will resonate with voters under 40. Their interests are different from older voters. Millennials value diversity and equal rights, are less affiliated with political parties (although they tend to lean liberal), support more government services (such as health care), support the legalization of marijuana, and believe immigrants strengthen the country (see Pew’s “The Generation Gap in American Politics“).

The debates on Rockville’s Mayor and Council reveal these generational differences as well, although they’re not always on generational lines. In June 2017, on a split vote, they adopted the Fostering Community Trust Act, which prohibits city staff (including police officers) from arresting or discriminating against any person on the basis of citizenship or requesting a person’s immigration status when providing city services. It was supported by Councilmembers Onley, Palakovich Carr, and Pierzchala, opposed by Mayor Newton and Councilmember Feinberg and . The differences are stark: one side aligns with the older generation, the other side thinks younger, and led by a mayor that’s unsure where to go. In the meeting, not only did Feinberg vote against the ordinance, she attempted to weaken the City’s position by making it a policy posted on the city website, rather than an ordinance published in the city code. Newton waffled and revealed her indecisiveness by abstaining from the vote on the amendments that clarified federal and city roles in law enforcement (how is it possible for someone to abstain on this topic?).

Excerpts from the June 19, 2017 meeting showing the last two votes on the Fostering Community Trust Act.

Had Newton and Feinberg prevailed, city officials, staff, and officers would be allowed to ask residents for proof of citizenship. If you called the police to report a crime, the officer could ask if you are a citizen. Before you register for a recreation class, the staff could ask for proof of citizenship. If you talked with a foreign accent at a Mayor and Council meeting, a councilmember could ask if you were a citizen.

How the generational gap will affect the election is unknown—most voters aren’t aware of what’s happening in City Hall and rely on their day-to-day experiences to decide whether to keep or change elected officials. We’ll find out in a month.

This blog post was updated on October 12, 2019 to correct information about the votes on June 19, 2017 and its consequences.

Campaign Contribution Limits Unconstitutional

The City of Rockville recently determined that some of the campaign contribution limits in the Election Code are unconstitutional. It’s a bit confusing, so here’s the official notice from the City Clerk:

The Board of Supervisors of Elections wants to let you know that the Mayor and Council introduced an ordinance this past Monday, September 9, 2019, that, if adopted, would amend Section 8-78 of Chapter 8, “Elections,” of the City Code to delete the $2,000 limit on total contributions in an election cycle in subsections (d) and (e).  A total contribution limit has been found by the United States Supreme Court to be unconstitutional in the case of McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission.  While the total contribution limit is unconstitutional, the limit of contributions to an individual or a campaign committee of $1,000 is constitutional and that limit remains in full force and effect.  While the ordinance introduced by the Mayor and Council on September 9 has not yet been adopted, the Board wants you to know that the $2,000 total contribution limit is unenforceable and will not be enforced.

Email from Sara Taylor-Ferrell, “Notice From Rockville Board of Supervisors of Elections – Contributions,” September 13, 2019.

For context, the Election Code reads (text recently eliminated is struck through) :

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Dear Council Candidate…

Dear Candidate for Rockville City Council,

With thirteen people running for a city council seat in Rockville this year, it’ll be more crowded than ever. You’ll have to work harder to get your voice heard because voters will have difficulty telling you all apart (which one is Bridget Mullican?). My advice is to be distinctive and avoid the shallow promises to lower taxes, fight crime, be inclusive, preserve green space, attract business, or modernize city services. Yawn. Everyone will be saying those things, so learn about the particular needs and interests of the various communities in Rockville and how you will you go about addressing them. Solutions are nice, but often issues are so complex that a good process is more important (has anyone mentioned the APFO to you?).

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Sister City Endorses Kuan Lee for Council?

Facebook Lee Endorsement

Facebook post endorsing Kuan Lee for City Council.

The message on Facebook asked readers to “Please support our member Kuan Lee who is running for the City Council of Rockville. Also, please join/renew the Rockville Sister City Corporation (RSCC) membership to show your support.

What? Rockville Sister City is endorsing a candidate? Not only is RSCC part of the City of Rockville, it’s incorporated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization—endorsing a candidate not only would sever its ties with the City but also jeopardize its status with the IRS.

RSCC President Drew Powell assured me that Rockville Sister City did NOT endorse Kuan Lee, nor would it endorse any candidate for elected office.  It remains confusing, however, because Kuan Lee is a member of the RSCC board, the Facebook post urges support for RSCC, and Drew Powell is a longtime vocal supporter of Bridget Newton, Lee’s campaign colleague. RSCC can’t control what other people say or imply about them, but I suspect they will have a heated discussion to sort this out and clarify their role in the election and this debacle at their next meeting.

In the meantime, a closer look reveals that the Facebook post was made by the Rockville-Yilan City Corporation. Never heard of it? It was incorporated in Maryland in 2017 by…wait for it…Kuan Lee and operates from his home in Rockville.  Yup, Kuan Lee endorsed himself in the disguise of a charitable organization.

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There are so many things wrong with this, but let’s just list a few that are most important to Rockville voters: Continue reading →

“Boards and Commission Task Force” Should be Taken to Task

Jack Kelly and Steven Van Grack, members of Rockville’s Boards and Commissions Task Force.

I’ve just returned from the Boards and Commissions Task Force meeting in Rockville City Hall tonight and was surprised by two things:

  1.  Although they lacked a quorum, they met for two hours to discuss a set of draft recommendations to reform the city’s boards and commissions.
  2. Two members of the task force openly endorsed Bridget Newton in the mayoral election (“I’ll be voting for her in the upcoming election”).

It seems ironic that a task force charged with reviewing and improving the city’s boards and commissions fails to follow some of the city’s and state’s existing policies and practices.  Can you imagine other city boards discussing business without a quorum? If members of the planning commission or environment commission expressed their support for their candidates during one of their business meetings?

They also distributed a “dashboard” with their assessment of the city’s boards and found that significant improvement is needed in:

  • diverse citizen input
  • consistent internal communication
  • a transparent and efficient process for identifying and appointing board and commission members
  • Mayor and Council and city staff providing productive advice and direction to boards and commissions

The dashboard also revealed that NO areas were acceptable; all fell short in achieving the city’s goals. Rockville’s boards and commissions are entirely composed of community volunteers so this poor rating across the board is especially frustrating.  How much worse does it need to become?

Despite these challenges, tonight’s discussion showed that the Task Force is reluctant to make any meaningful changes, especially in the process for identifying and appointing board and commission members. They admit there’s been a long-standing problem in filling vacancies, especially on Planning Commission and Historic District Commission, but are pleased to confine their tinkering to the edges, not at core—the exclusive power of the Mayor to nominate board and commission members. And yet, Mayor Newton is unwilling or unable to do her job—there are currently twenty-six (26!) vacancies (that’s more than five basketball teams). It seems we’ll be facing a civic version of insanity when their recommendations are released this fall: “keep trying the same thing expecting a different result.”

Here’s another kicker: the packet distributed at the meeting is not the same as what is available on the city website.  I’ve attached the packet so you can have a better sense of what was discussed. Their next meeting is Tuesday, July 30 at 6:30 pm in the Black-Eyed Susan Room at Rockville City Hall.

Rockville’s website shows 26 vacancies on its boards and commissions in July 2019 (this is just an excerpt).

Replacing Dawsons Market Requires a Cluster of Solutions; That May Be Too Much for the Mayor and Council

Dawson’s Market in Rockville Town Square, shortly before its closing in October 2018.

At the end of October 2018, Dawson’s Market closed in Rockville’s downtown. It was a big disappointment for the City of Rockville, who hailed its arrival in 2012 as a major success for the new Town Square. They spent years searching for an anchoring grocery store to attract daily shoppers to support the adjacent stores and restaurants (see MyMCM video, which includes hopeful remarks by several current and former elected officials).

In response to its closing, Dawson’s opened a short-lived $100,000 GoFundMe campaign and the Rockville Mayor and Council held two special meetings to discuss the future of Town Square (a couple other businesses recently closed as well) on October 9 and November 13, which attracted standing-room-only crowds.  These meetings generated lots of questions, including current efforts by Federal Realty Investment Trust (FRIT) and the City of Rockville. Unfortunately, most of FRIT’s responses are vague and uninformative:

  • “not uncommon for independent business owners to have more challenges than larger chains” (so what are the major challenges and how are you addressing them?)
  • “lease rates are determined through…many variables” (so what are the lease rates and how do they compare to areas outside of Town Square?)
  • “we value and pursue feedback from our merchants” (so what are they telling you and what have you learned?)

So what are the challenges facing merchants in Town Square? According to Continue reading →