Author Archive: Max van Balgooy

Is Rockville Mayor Exploiting Loophole to Keep Friends on Board?

Red bars show expired terms for members of three key Rockville commissions.

Red bars show expired terms for members of three key Rockville commissions from January 2015 to October 2016.

Is political patronage motivating Mayor Bridget Newton to exploit a loophole in the law to keep friends on influential city boards and commissions, or is it merely bungling?  Right now more than half of the Planning Commission is serving on expired terms and one commissioner’s term expired more than a year ago—and it’s hard to figure out the reason.

The city code (Chapter 1, Article III) states that “Boards and commissions shall consist of members that may include alternate members, appointed by the Mayor subject to confirmation by the Council” and that “Each member shall serve for the term set by law or resolution or until a successor takes office.”  But what happens when the Mayor is unwilling or unable to appoint a successor? It’s created an unfortunate loophole for good government. If these members vacated their seats when their terms expired, the Planning Commission would now be unable to conduct business.  Instead, they’ve continued to serve for months, but in the process have secured a silent appointment to a board without the approval of Mayor and Council.

The Mayor and Council is well aware of vacancies years before they expire, so this clogged situation could only be a result of: Continue reading →

How Will County’s Plans for Bus Rapid Transit Affect Rockville?

Bus Rapid Transit corridors for Montgomery County under consideration in 2016.

Bus Rapid Transit corridors for Montgomery County under consideration in 2016.

Plans for a BRT (bus rapid transit) system in Montgomery County will affect Rockville in two ways:  Rockville Pike (Clarksburg to Bethesda) and Veirs Mill Road (Rockville to Wheaton).  On Wednesday, September 28 from 6:30 to 8:30 pm, the Maryland State Highway Administration will hold a public meeting in the cafeteria of the Montgomery County Executive Office Building (EOB), 101 Monroe Street in Rockville. Parking available in the garage underneath the EOB.  The meeting will provide information and gather public comments on the alternatives for BRT service between Rockville and Wheaton. The proposed MD 586/Veirs Mill Road BRT Corridor Study extends approximately 6.7 miles from the Rockville Metrorail Station to the Wheaton Metrorail Station in Montgomery County, Maryland.  This study also includes the extension of enhanced bus service from the Rockville Metrorail Station, north in mixed traffic along MD 355, an additional 1.5 miles to Montgomery College.  There will not be a formal presentation, so you can drop by anytime to learn about the alternatives, operations, environmental impacts, and cost estimates from representatives from both the county and state departments of transportation. A draft of the recently completed Continue reading →

MoCo Board of Education Candidates’ Forum on Sept. 28

Montgomery County Board of Education, 2016.

Montgomery County Board of Education, 2016.

The League of Women Voters of Montgomery County, Montgomery County Council of PTAs, Montgomery County Branch of NAACP, and the Montgomery County Interbranch Council of AAUW (whew!) are hosting a Candidates’ Forum for the Montgomery County Board of Education on Wednesday, September 28 from 7:00-8:45 pm at Kennedy High School, 1901 Randolph Road in Silver Spring.  For more information, visit

Tracie Potts of NBC4 will moderate the discussion among At-Large candidates Jeanette Dixon and Phil Kauffman, District 2 candidates Brandon Rippeon and Rebecca Smondrowski, and District 4 candidates Shebra Evans and Anjali Reed Phukan.  If elected, these persons will not only be responsible for the education of children in the county but also more than $1 billion in taxpayer funds.  Choose wisely!

In Montgomery County, a Board of Education district means a geographic area in which an elected member of the Board must live. In Montgomery County there are five resident-district members and two at-large members of the Board; however, all Board members are elected by the county as a whole.

Three Ways the City of Rockville Can Improve Its Public Meetings

TransparencyThe Open Meetings Compliance Board of the State of Maryland has rendered another opinion that the City of Rockville once again failed to meet the Open Meetings Act. They determined that Rockville’s Board of Supervisors of Elections did not provide adequate notice for its meeting of February 6, 2016 and that it did not adopt minutes in a timely manner.  In their official opinion, you can detect a sigh in their voice: we discussed similar issues back in May, we have nothing to add, so please Rockville, just get your act together.

With this second opinion from the State of Maryland, it’s clear that Rockville’s Boards and Commissions have difficulties achieving basic standards for transparency and accountability.  This isn’t a one-time aberration or a difference of opinions, it’s an on-going problem that isn’t being resolved on its own and it’s caught the attention of the Attorney General’s office—again.

It’s time that the Mayor and Council stop forgiving the problem because commissioners are volunteers or they believe the work isn’t important.  We should treat our twenty-seven boards and commissions professionally and regard them as a serious contribution to the City, otherwise, we should thank them for their service and close them up.  Secondly, the Mayor and Council should stop shifting the blame. The Boards and Commissions report directly to the Mayor and Council, so they shouldn’t find a scapegoat among staff or point fingers at each other.  They’ve appointed every member of every commission so if they don’t do their jobs correctly, the Mayor and Council needs to step in.  Here are three ways to start: Continue reading →

The Domino Effect of the New Safeway on Rockville Pike

Former Safeway grocery store in the Twinbrook Shopping Center.

Former Safeway grocery store in the Twinbrook Shopping Center.

The new and larger 24-hour Safeway store that opened in December on Rockville Pike near the Twinbrook Metro in Rockville is having a domino effect on other businesses in the area.  When it opened, it made the Safeway in the Twinbrook Shopping Center at 2200 Viers Mills Road redundant, so it closed a couple months ago and left another empty store in the shopping center. Recent rumors suggest that it soon be filled by Lotte Mart, a South Korean market chain with more than 200 stores worldwide, including Gaithersburg and Wheaton, but its arrival won’t be welcomed by everyone—the nearby small Asian Market will close, leaving another hole in the shopping center.

As the owner of Asian Market explained, “between the increased rent and the new competition [Lotte Mart], I can’t stay in business. It’s already hard enough to make a profit while working 16 hour days, so I’ll be closing at the end of August and looking for a job working for someone else.”  Although it’s small store with just three aisles, it represented a wide range of culinary cultures, including Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Cambodian, Korean, Philipino, and Indonesian, that are not typically found in the larger Lotte Mart or Great Wall.  To clear out its inventory, it is selling its bottled, canned, and dry goods (except rice) at a 20 percent discount.  The soy sauce and sambals are all gone, but there still was plenty of Thai curry, coconut milk, and noodles on the shelves when I visited a couple days ago.

The former Safeway store, just like the Twinbrook Library, is on a parcel that is owned separately from the rest of the shopping center but serve as anchors that attract customers. The building is almost twenty years old but still serviceable, but too small for today’s major grocery, department, or hardware stores.  An Asian or Hispanic grocery store seems to be the most likely candidate, especially with the demographics of the neighborhood, and when it comes in, it too will have a domino effect on the rest of the shopping center.  Whether it will be good or bad remains to be seen. It’s pushed one business out but could attract others—and it badly needs to fill the half dozen stores that are empty.


Rockville’s Twin Valley Distillers Debuts at Olney Farmers Market

IMG_1350Twin Valley Distillers, the first distillery to operate in Montgomery County since Prohibition (that was nearly a century ago!), debuted four of its spirits today at the Olney Farmers and Artists Market thanks to a recent loosening of Prohibition Era regulations (when can we eliminate the county’s liquor department?).  They offered tastings of their 1812 Maryland Bourbon whiskey, Aged Wimsey gin, Dirty Apples cinnamon flavored whiskey, and Black Joe coffee liqueur, offering special discount prices of $25-35 per 750 ml.  They also produce rum, rye, and vodka, but didn’t bring them along for this debut.  Twinbrook neighbor Matt Von Hendy mentioned this place to me a couple months ago but I couldn’t fathom a serious distillery business was actually in operation in our hometown. Boy, was I wrong.  The owner is serious and the products are much better than expected.

IMG_1354The Bourbon whiskey and coffee liqueur were surprisingly good, so I picked up a bottle of each.  If you want to try some yourself, I suspect they’ll be returning to the Onley Farmers Market on Sunday mornings but you can also experience a tasting and a tour at the distillery on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday afternoons at 711 East Gude Drive, Bay D in Rockville.  This is in an industrial area, so you’ll need to watch the address numbers and be a little adventurous. To find it, look for Maaco and Abka Marble & Granite Countertops and pull into the parking lot.  At the back of the parking lot is a blue and white “White Flint Collision Center.”  Drive through the gates on the left and go around to the rear of the building to park and enter the distillery. Twin Valley has plenty of orange signs leading you there but that area is full of signs and they just get absorbed in the clutter.

For those of you that support “farm to table,” you can now expand your pantry to include liquor!  The spirits are not only made in Rockville, but the ingredients are sourced locally as much as possible. Local farmers supply all the grain for the spirits and Mayorga, which is also based in Rockville, provides the organic coffee.  On October 1, Montgomery County will allow Twin Valley and other distillers to sell directly to restaurants and bars, so you’ll see it appear more frequently (right now, there’s no place in Rockville to buy or drink these Rockville-made spirits except at the distillery. Ugh.).

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Garrison Keillor to Be Honored in Rockville in October

Keillor ReaderThe F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Festival, which this year will honor Garrison Keillor, founder and host of A Prairie Home Companion and The Writer’s Almanac, invites writers to submit entries for the festival’s short story contest. There is no restriction on subject matter but stories must be fewer than 4,000 words and unpublished and only residents of Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. are eligible to enter.  Entries for the 20th Annual F. Scott Fitzgerald Short Story Contest must be postmarked by Friday, Aug. 12, 2016.

Garrison Keillor will be the festival highlight when he receives the F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for Outstanding Achievement in American Literature.  Keillor went to work for Minnesota Public Radio in 1969, and on July 6, 1974, he hosted the first broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion in St. Paul. He is the host of The Writer’s Almanac,  the editor of the Good Poems series of anthologies from Viking, and author of nearly fifty books, including Lake Wobegon Days. The award is named in honor of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who is considered one of America’s finest writers and like Keillor, was born in Minnesota. Scott is buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery with his wife Zelda in downtown Rockville (did you know that he’s related to the author of our national anthem, Francis Scott Key, hence his name F. Scott?).

The award has been presented to some of America’s most distinguished writers, including Norman Mailer, Pat Conroy, John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates. The festival’s activities include writing workshops designed for emerging and established fiction and nonfiction writers, literary discussions, panels and a film screening. The festival is for writers and book lovers who are not themselves writers.  Festival sponsors include the City of Rockville; the F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference, Inc.; and the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County.

Learn more about the contest and festival at or by calling 301-309-9461.

Twinbrook hosts Bicycle Drive on Sat., June 11

wall-sport-green-bikeThe Rockville Bike Hub (RBH) will host a bicycle drive on Saturday, June 11, between 3 and 6 p.m., during the Bikes, Brews and Barbecue event outside Revolution Cycles at 5750 Fishers Lane adjacent to the Twinbrook Metro. All bikes will be accepted but the critical need is for bicycles for children in first through fifth grade. Adult bikes will be used for education and volunteer training or donated to Bikes for the World.

In partnership with the City of Rockville, the non-profit, RBH recently gave away more than 30 bicycles to local elementary school children as a reward for performing a small service project. “In general, a bike gives a child a sense of independence and freedom and the ability to broaden the area that they can explore in their neighborhoods,” said Rockville Bike Hub Board President Steve Andruski. “Our hope is that, it turns into a lifelong activity and they become connected to the bicycling community.”

In addition to collecting bikes, the Rockville Bike Hub will be Continue reading →

MoCo Beat Podcast Launched

podcastRockville residents Tom Moore and Dana Tofig recently launched MoCo Beat, a podcast about “the news, the politics, and the life of Montgomery County.” Moore is an attorney with the Federal Elections Commission and recently concluded four years of service on the Rockville City Council. Tofig works in the research arm of the US Department of Education was formerly the Public Information Officer with Montgomery County Public Schools.  Their first episode looks at the Rockville Pike Plan, the recently adopted Montgomery County budget, places to buy beer, and new restaurants in downtown Rockville.  The first podcast is just short of 40 minutes and looks like it might be a weekly production.

With the demise of the Gazette newspaper and spartan coverage by the Washington Post, it is difficult to locate news about Rockville but here are the ones I know: Continue reading →

Rockville Pike Traffic Solutions Appear Confusing, but 252′ Width Seems Right

Rockville Pike proposal for 252 feet.png

Rockville Planning Commission’s proposal for a 252′-wide ROW for the Rockville Pike.  It includes eight lanes for cars, two lanes for Bus Rapid Transit, four lanes for bikes, and two sidewalks for pedestrians along with landscaped medians and left-turn lanes.

On Monday, May 9, the Rockville Mayor and Council will continue its worksession on “Rockville’s Pike Neighborhood Plan.”  Along with building heights and pedestrian crossings, traffic congestion is a major controversy and the conversation has become terribly confusing:  widening or narrowing the road, keeping or eliminating the access roads, extending adjacent roads, increasing Metro service, and incorporating bus rapid transit (BRT).  Some of these solutions are beyond the control of the City (such as Metro service), some benefit one group versus another (such as businesses or nearby residents), and others are so expensive or far in the future that their feasibility is unclear (such as the BRT). What’s become incredibly confusing are Continue reading →