When is the Next Council Meeting? Agenda Center Creates Confusion
In an effort to better align with the requirements of Maryland’s Open Meetings Act, the City of Rockville has revised the Agenda Center for Mayor and Council to included anything and everything that might be attended by one or more councilmembers. The City has violated the Open Meetings Act in previous years and new City Attorney is reviewing everything to assure compliance. The problem is that the Agenda Center is now a mishmash that makes it difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. Can you easily locate the regular meeting of the Mayor and Council in this screenshot of the Agenda Center?
The confusion is caused by treating all meetings the same, when they’re not. Residents and businesses want to attend the meetings that have the most impact on them, which are the Mayor and Council meetings. While a councilmember may attend the East Rockville Civic Association or the Rockville Economic Development board meeting, the City Council is not making decisions about taxes or ordinances at those events. The next step is keep the audience in mind–who uses the Agenda Center? Who is it for primarily? Secondly, distinguish the meetings to highlight the meetings that are most important for the audience. Hire a good graphic designer to figure this out. Otherwise, it’s going to cause residents and business to be even more frustrated in their efforts to learn what their elected officials are doing (have you noticed that minutes aren’t available for about six weeks, which means you have to rewatch the entire council meeting for the latest news).
The latest annual report of the Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board (which has no budget and no staff!) notes that it received 57 complaints concerning 95 separate entities, so ensuring that government operates transparently and openly is an ongoing concern. It also summarized the most common violations by city councils, boards, and commissions (emphasis mine):
“The overall number of complaints, and of those in which we found a violation, remains small in proportion to the total number of public bodies statewide. This fiscal year saw a significant increase in the number of opinions we issued (forty-eight), which is eighteen more than the previous year and the most we have issued in a single year since at least Fiscal Year 2013. But much of this increase may be attributable to COVID-19: Many complaints alleged violations of the Act based on practices that public bodies have adopted in light of the pandemic (for example, requiring the public to observe meetings virtually or limiting how many people may attend a meeting in person19), or alleged violations related to meetings (or alleged meetings) that involved topics of discussion directly related to the pandemic (for example, masking policies and other COVID-19 protocols).
“In any event, although we issued forty-eight opinions this year, we found violations in twenty-five opinions, a little over half the total number of opinions for FY 2022. Of those opinions involving one or more violations, fewer than half of the opinions (eleven)
involved a failure to provide reasonable notice of a meeting. The most common type of violation (found in eighteen opinions) involved some deficiency related to meeting minutes, either the failure to prepare or post them timely, or the failure to provide enough details. Thirteen opinions involved the failure to fully satisfy the Act’s procedural requirements for closing a meeting to the public. Eleven involved a violation of the Act’s general openness requirements, most often because a public body failed to make clear in its meeting notice that the body would be meeting in open session before entering closed session, or because a public body misapplied an exception in GP § 3-305(b) and discussed a matter in closed session that should have been open to the public.”
Mayor and Council to Regulate Short-Term Rentals & Vape Shops
At its Monday, March 27, 2023 meeting, the Rockville Mayor and Council will discuss the annexation of 1201 Seven Locks Road; replace the Traffic and Transportation Commission with a Transportation and Mobility Commission; approve several regulations for residential rental facilities, room rentals, and accessory dwelling units; and consider a nine-month moratorium on businesses that primarily sell electronic cigarettes (vape stores) near schools. On the Consent Calendar (items approved without discussion) are maintenance of the water features in Town Center, Courthouse Square, and Maryvale Park; authorizing the Maryland Highway Administration to enter city property near Winding Rose Drive to make emergency repairs to an I-2710 storm drain; renewing contracts for the purchase of fuel for city vehicles, among others. The Mayor and Council will also receive reports on the climate action plan and staff hiring and vacancies (nearly 60 staff vacancies, including 7 in recreation and parks, 11 in police, and 25 in public works).
In 2015, there were approximately 6,000 rental units in Rockville and there are now approximately 10,500 units, for an increase of 4,600 rental units. On February 22, 2021, the Mayor and Council discussed short-term rentals, such as Airbnb, and determined that the rental of rooms should also be regulated through Chapter 18 like other types of residential rentals. Chapter 18 regulates landlord and tenant relations and different types of licenses and leases, however, short-term rentals operate more like a hotel than rental property. Therefore, any existing short-term rental units in the city are operating without sanction or approval, because they are out of compliance with City requirements for renting a complete living facility or home. The City Council is considering new regulations that would only allow property owners to operate short-term rentals; require an annual license; notification of adjacent property owners; city inspection for zoning, building, and fire code violations; a limited of six adults at a time; no more than 120 days of rental per year; and two off-street parking spaces among other conditions and requirements. About 25 stakeholders have participated in two public hearings and a work session, and if approved by Council, the proposed Zoning Text Amendment will be reviewed by the Planning Commission.
More details in the 224-page agenda packet are available at https://www.rockvillemd.gov/AgendaCenter/ViewFile/Agenda/_03272023-6849.
Mayor and Council to Choose Earmarks and Decide Upcoming Election Changes
At its Monday, February 27, 2023 meeting, the Rockville Mayor and Council will discuss proposed earmarks for the FY24 federal budget, requests from the Board of Supervisors of Elections, and recommendations from the Charter Review Commission. On the Consent Calendar (items approved without discussion) are the preservation of public art, funding for the Rockcrest Ballet Center, Taste of Rockville agreement, and funding for the flood resilience master plan, among others. The Mayor and Council will also receive reports on operating budget and capital improvements budget for FY2024.
Yes, Congress is openly using earmarks again, “funds provided for projects or programs where the congressional direction (in bill or report language) circumvents the merit-based or competitive allocation process, or specifies the location or recipient.” For some, it’s simply another form of pork barrel politics but for others it’s a vital project. Perhaps the most famous earmark was by US Senator Ted Stevens to construct the Gravina Island Bridge or the “Bridge to Nowhere” for $250 million in 2002. But if you want federal funds for a specific project, the best way to ensure it is through earmarks. This year, the City of Rockville is considering several potential requests to Senator Cardin, Senator Van Hollen, and Congressman Raskin, including the emergency operations center at 6 Taft Court, police radio equipment ($1.4 million!), storm drain improvements in Potomac Woods, security for the water treatment plant, and water main or sewer main rehabilitation in an “equity focused area” (not identified but somewhere in southeast Rockville).
Preparations for the 2023 Mayor and Council election are underway and candidate information packets should be ready by May 1—however, there is still lots to be done. The Board of Supervisors of Elections is waiting for approval from the Mayor and Council on several changes to the City Charter and City Code in limbo; proposed translation of outreach materials in Spanish, Chinese, and French; adding a second vote center at Thomas Farm and placing ballot drop boxes in Montrose, Lincoln Park, and the Rockville Senior Center. Indeed, if the minimum voting age is lowered from 18 years to 16 years and the deadline for submitting nomination petitions is increased from 60 to 90 days prior to the election, the City may have already missed its ability to implement these changes for the November 2023 election.
Discussion of the 30 recommendations by the Charter Review Commission continues, this time on a more “precise, open, transparent, and definitive administrative process” for filling a vacancy on the city council after two years; adding a “none of the above” option on election ballots; increasing the size of the Board of Supervisors of Elections; increasing the number of ballot drop-off boxes; lowering the voting age to 16; and limiting the number of consecutive terms of council members to three four-year terms (but allowing a person to serve 12 years as a councilmember and 12 years as mayor—really? 12 years is plenty, give other people a chance!).
More details in the 450-page agenda packet are available at https://www.rockvillemd.gov/AgendaCenter/ViewFile/Agenda/_02272023-6820.
Mayor and Council to Consider Changes to Mayor and Council
At its Monday, December 12, 2022 meeting, the Rockville Mayor and Council will discuss the FY22 financial report and the FY24 budget priorities. On the Consent Calendar (items approved without discussion) are a dozen items, including easements, services, grant agreement, and the tenth amendment to the interim management agreement with Morguard for Rockville Town Square, among others. The Mayor and Council will also receive reports on priorities with the District 17 Delegation and recommendations from the 2020-22 Charter Review Commission.
The Charter Review Commission has developed recommendations for a wide variety of issues related to the City Charter (its constitution), including expanding the size of the City Council, term limits for councilmembers, alternative voting systems, translation of election materials, the scope and size of the Board of Supervisors of Elections, and increasing voter turnout. After forty meetings and interruptions due to the pandemic, the Commission is recommending that,
“the City maintain the status-quo on several topics (e.g., staggered Council terms and alternative methods of advertising elections), the Commission is also recommending bolder changes to City policy and operations in order to enhance accountability and transparency, increase voter turnout, and advance racial equity and social justice. Notably, the Commission is recommending such reforms as an increase in the size of the Council, implementation of term limits on the Mayor and Council, creation of representative districts, exploring changing the time of the election, and allowing residents who are not United States citizens and those at least 16 years of age to vote in municipal elections.”
More details in the 465-page agenda packet are available at https://www.rockvillemd.gov/AgendaCenter/ViewFile/Agenda/_12122022-6765.
Heard on the street: things are heating up in the West End neighborhood regarding design guidelines proposed by the West End Citizens Association. I suspect this is related to the 2040 Comprehensive Plan. A website opposed to WECA’s action can be found at PreserveTheWestEnd.com.
Will Mayor and Council allow Self-Storage Warehouses near Schools and Adult Day Care Centers?
At its Monday, November 14, 2022 meeting, the Rockville Mayor and Council will discuss financial management policies, state legislative priorities, and a zoning change to allow self-storage warehouses in the MXE Zone.
The zoning change is prompted by U-Haul Inc., which owns a four-story office building at 1355 Piccard Drive, an industrial/office area between I-270 and King Farm, north of West Gude Drive. This is in a MXE Zone, which was created to generate more jobs by allowing retail, institutional, and residential uses that were not permitted in the former I-3 (Industrial) Zone. City staff calculated that, “with about 153,000 square feet of floor area, the applicant’s building could accommodate about 600 employees at 250 square feet per person. With only the retail and rental shop and self-storage, there would likely be only five or six employees on-site”—which fails to meet the intent of the MXE Zone. Secondly, Ann Mitchell, CEO of Montgomery Hospice, a tenant in the building, stated that the self-storage warehouse was not compatible with existing adjacent uses, including a private school (The Children in the Shoe) and a senior adult day care center.
At its September 6 meeting, the Planning Commission voted 6-1 to deny a zoning change to allow self-storage warehouses in the MXE Zone. Commissioner Sam Pearson, however, supported the change because self-storage warehouses “brought value to the community” and would not “generate traffic issues nor was it unsightly to the surrounding area.” This issue reminds me of the lawsuit by ezStorage that put Mayor Bridget Newton and Councilmember Beryl Feinberg right in the middle of a legal storm. I wonder how they’ll respond to U-Haul when it comes before the City Council.
More details in the 224-page agenda packet are available at https://www.rockvillemd.gov/AgendaCenter/ViewFile/Agenda/_11142022-6746.
Board of Supervisors of Elections Recommends Lowering Voting Age to 16
At its Monday, October 24, 2022 meeting, the Rockville Mayor and Council will discuss creating RHE Scarborough Square (no staff report was available when the agenda was posted). On the Consent Calendar (items approved without discussion) is a license to KBSG to construct a 47-space parking lot at King Farm Farmstead Park, among others. The Mayor and Council will also receive reports from the Board of Supervisors of Elections and the Traffic and Transportation Commission.
The Board of Supervisors of Elections is recommending a “series of amendments to the City Charter and to Chapter 8 of the City Code,” including lowering the voting age to 16 years; increasing the deadline for submitting nominations for candidates to city council from 60 to 90 days prior to the election; prohibit campaigning within 50 feet of a ballot drop box; requiring electronic filing of all campaign finance reports; and limiting campaign committees (“slates”) to one election cycle. Some of these changes will be controversial.
The Traffic and Transportation Commission is requesting its scope of responsibilities be updated from its creation in the 1970s, including two ex-officio, non-voting seats from the Bicycle Advisory Committee and Pedestrian Advocacy Committee; meetings be held quarterly; advise on “opportunities to advance a transportation and mobility network that is safe, equitable, convenient, fiscally resilient, and environmentally sustainable;” “approve the official names of newly constructed or reconstructed bridges” (but why not streets, turnpikes, highways, intersections, bus shelters, and parking lots?); and changing its name to the Transportation and Mobility Commission. So let me get this straight: there are three city commissions responsible for “transportation and mobility” in the city (Traffic and Transportation, Bicycle, and Pedestrian)? Seems like a lot more bureaucracy than needed for such a small city. Can’t they be combined with a balanced representation of all three interests? That might result in better solutions and more efficiency.
More details in the 109-page agenda packet (21 pages of which are devoted to proclamations) are available at https://www.rockvillemd.gov/AgendaCenter/ViewFile/Agenda/_10242022-6728.
Mayor and Council to Adopt Plan for Red Gate Park
At its Monday, October 17, 2022 meeting, the Rockville Mayor and Council will discuss the FY2024 budget and adoption of a master plan for Red Gate Park. On the Consent Calendar (items approved without discussion) are agreements with the Rockville Football League and the Road Runners Club, among others. The Mayor and Council will also receive a report from the Financial Advisory Board.
The Financial Advisory Board‘s report found no issues with City finances under its scope of work, however, it also revealed several significant differences between them and the City Council and staff. The Board believes that all recreation and parks programs should recover their full costs in fees, however, the Council wants some programs to be subsidized for specific residents to be affordable. Secondly, the Board disagrees with the staff on the handling of donations. It’s unclear what the staff position is, but the Board seems to be recommending that a written policy be adopted. Finally, there seems to be a disconnect between Council priorities and city department goals. No examples are provided, but the city has hired Raftelis to review performance management practices.Continue reading →
Mayor and Council to Discuss Priorities for Federal Actions and Funding
At its Monday, October 3, 2022 meeting, the Rockville Mayor and Council will discuss priorities for federal funding; a $7.5 M renovation for 6 Taft Court (a new facility for Public Works and Recreation and Parks departments); a Town Center “Road Diet” project (narrowing lanes on Washington Street and Middle Lane); FY 2024 budget; and an amendment to the Twinbrook Commons development on Chapman Avenue (adding parking spaces for electric vehicles). On the Consent Calendar (items approved without discussion) are approval of easements for King Buick and King Farm Farmstead Parking Lot; authorizing the City Manager to begin electricity supply agreements; awarding a $1.4 M contract for Storm Water Management (SWM) Facilities improvements; closing of an unnamed road adjacent to Twinbrook Quarter, and approving a charter for the zoning ordinance rewrite, among others. The Mayor and Council will also receive reports on performance measurement, make appointments to boards and commissions, and declare October 10 as Indigenous Peoples’ Day to recognize the “conquest, enslavement, displacement, and disease” which decimated the native people in the area.Continue reading →
Planning Commission to Approve Subdivision near King Farm
At its Wednesday, September 28, 2022 meeting, the Rockville Planning Commission is set to approve EYA Development’s subdivision of a 20-acre site to develop up to 252 townhouses and 118 condominiums, of which 58 will be moderately priced, on the site of a car dealership adjacent to King Farm. It is difficult to understand what exactly is being proposed because the site has been broken into ten plats of 1-3 acres and there is no summary.
An unusual aspect of this project is that the streets will be named for African Americans who had a prominent role in education in the region, such as Nina Clarke, Odessa Shannon, Henson Norris, and Margaret Jones. How far the City has come from the 1960s when they demolished the African American business district for a shopping mall and a decade ago, nearly changed Middle Lane—the only element that survived—to Choice Hotels Lane (a business that has already announced its departure from Rockville).
The Planning Commission continues to be working without a full deck—only five of the seven seats are filled. Indeed, there are 33 vacancies among nine city commissions. Is no one interested in serving or is the City Council failing to act?
More details in the 58-page agenda packet available at https://rockvillemd.gov/AgendaCenter/ViewFile/Agenda/_09282022-6703.
Mayor and Council to Discuss Human Rights and Rockville Town Square
At its Monday, April 18, 2022 meeting, the Rockville Mayor and Council will discuss an ordinance to establish an education commission, the management agreement with Federal Realty Investment Trust (FRIT) for Rockville Town Square, and once again, the FY 2023 budget and what to do with the remaining ARPA funds. On the Consent Calendar (items approved without discussion) are contracts for tree care ($900,000 annually) and landscape maintenance ($193,000 annually); $250,000 grant agreement for Lincoln Park Community Center improvements; and six proclamations. The Mayor and Council will also receive a report from the Human Rights Commission.Continue reading →