Category Archives: City Council

Montgomery County Goes Lite: Even Less Coverage by WaPo

Bill Turque, Washington Post reporter.

Bill Truque, the Washington Post reporter covering Montgomery County government and politics, is leaving the paper, according to David Lublin of Seventh State.  Turque has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star. As noted in The Seventh State, the blog that covers Maryland politics (especially Montgomery County), this is a significant blow for keeping local government honest:

Politicians in MoCo had it easy from the Post until Turque showed up.  His two predecessors on the MoCo beat were Mike Laris, who wrote one or two articles a month, and Victor Zapana, who was fresh out of college.  Neither knew a lot about the county.  Turque, in contrast, was a long-time resident who quickly learned the history and the players.  Before long, inconvenient stories began appearing in the paper.  Politicians began longing for the days of scanty coverage!

How to pick the Best of Turque?  There are so many articles to choose from.  There’s the time when he outed a union-linked operative as the author of an anonymous attack website targeting former Council Member Valerie Ervin.  Then there was the article in which he called out the County Council for violating its own law on Public Information Act disclosure in taking down email addresses from the county’s website.  Council Member Marc Elrich, who has long said he turns away developer money, was caught by Turque taking money from an attorney who represents developers.  Council Member George Leventhal has yet to recover from Turque’s posting a video of his berating budget director Jennifer Hughes from the dais which was cited in Bethesda Magazine’s coverage of his Executive campaign launch.  And then there’s the Silver Spring Transit Center fiasco, the subject of countless Turque articles up to his flaying the county for getting fleeced by lawyers and experts.  Years ago, a Leggett administration official complained to me about Turque’s relentless coverage of the transit center.  Your author replied, “You can’t blame the wolf for liking the taste of meat!”

Incredibly, Rockville and Montgomery County find it hard to attract journalists to adequately cover what’s happening locally, despite its significant influence on Maryland and Washington DC.  The only newspaper, The Sentinel, is distributed weekly and covers Rockville weakly, focusing mostly on high school sports and legal notices.  Bethesda is working hard to cover the news through its bimonthly magazine and blog, but it’s mostly focused on the southern end of the county.  Rockville Nights, Rockville View, and my own Max for Rockville blog are produced by volunteers.  Rockville Reports and Montgomery County’s Paperless Airplane are government-sponsored sources and aren’t about to announce bad news. Ever since the Gazette folded, news became incredibly sparse in Rockville and a serious threat to keeping citizens and voters informed. The Washington Post hasn’t announced a successor to Bill Turque, but as subscriptions soar and its newsroom expands, I hope they’ll pay more attention to Rockville.

Advertisements

Increased Property Taxes? Who’s to Blame?

For homeowners in Rockville, July brings the annual property tax bill. I’m guessing that most people simply look at the bottom line and grumble that it’s higher than last year, blaming it on the government. But we’re the government, so we can and should tell our elected officials when it’s okay to be taxed and how we want those funds spent. Which elected officials should we blame? That’s where it can get confusing and far too often I’ve seen the wrong people blamed for the actions of others. Indeed, the Rockville Mayor and Council too often is unfairly blamed for high taxes, when it’s usually the fault of the Montgomery County Council. Take a look at the breakdown for my property taxes, which will be roughly equivalent to all other homes in Rockville because we pay the same percentage of taxes according to the assessed value of the property. As you can see in the pie chart, Montgomery County collects nearly two-thirds of the property tax (blue), Rockville about a quarter (orange), and the State of Maryland about ten percent (green). Rockville collects another ten percent for trash and stormwater management (light orange) but Continue reading →

Mayor and Council focus Priorities around Development

PriorityThe Rockville Mayor and Council recently engaged the Novak Consulting Group (who aided in the search for the new city manager) to help refine their list of 23 priorities created in 2016—far too many to get things done.  As a result, the Mayor and Council identified the priorities among their priorities, coming up with a list of twelve which are overwhelmingly focused on city planning and development, and may just be wishful thinking: Continue reading →

Will Rockville Choose Diversity or Bureaucracy?

diversityWalletHub named Rockville as the one of America’s most diverse cities in 2016 based on social class, ethnicity, economics, and households. It ranked 14 out of 301, being bested by our neighbors in Gaithersburg (#1), Silver Spring (#4), Germantown (#5), and Frederick (#8), but ranked higher than places usually lauded for their diversity, such as San Francisco (#20), Alexandria, VA (#45), Denver (#67), San Antonio (#119), and Seattle (#149).

On Monday, March 6, the Rockville Mayor and Council will hold a public hearing on the role of the City Police in the enforcement of federal immigration laws.  Will Rockville’s diversity be celebrated or feared? Will immigrants be threatened or welcomed? Will the answers be quickly forthcoming or will they become mired in bureaucracy?  It’s uncertain where the City of Rockville will land and I suspect it will be a tense and difficult conversation.

It’s a conversation that started shortly after the Presidential election. Mayor Newton read a statement at the start of the City Council meeting on November 14, 2016 to recognize that Rockville’s strengths are Continue reading →

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 →

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 →

Rockville Violated Open Meeting Law, Says State Board

TransparencyThe Open Meetings Compliance Board for the State of Maryland has determined that the City of Rockville violated the Open Meetings Act, according to a seven-page opinion issued today to Lois Neuman, Chair of the Board of Supervisors of Elections in the City of Rockville:

We have concluded that the [Mayor and] Council and the Elections Board did not timely adopt meeting minutes for meetings in 2015, and we have noted that the City will be adding staff to enable these public bodies to do that more quickly.  We have also concluded that the Elections Board’s practice of providing notice through its agendas did not always convey the required information reasonably in advance of each meeting.

All “public bodies” in Maryland, which includes most state, county, city, school, and other boards and commissions, should “hold their meetings in public, to give the public adequate notice of those meetings, and to allow the public to inspect meetings minutes” in order to “increase the public’s faith in government, ensure the accountability of government to the public, and enhance the public’s ability to participate effectively in our democracy.”

I’ve noted the inconsistency of minutes for city boards and commissions previously and it’s received attention at times by the City, but with the truly awful delays with the Board of Supervisors of Elections during an election year in 2015 (by the end of the year, missing minutes stretched back to March), I felt I needed to Continue reading →

Is Rockville Moving Towards or Away from Transparency?

TransparencyThis week the City of Rockville responsed to my complaint that the City held nearly two dozen meetings last year without documenting their decisions and sharing them with the public. Among my complaints was that the Board of Supervisors of Elections failed to post minutes on a regular basis since March 11, 2015 and the Mayor and Council failed to post minutes of a closed Executive Session on January 25, 2015.

The City approved most of the missing minutes last week, which meant that it’s taken more than a year to provide minutes for some meetings. (If you watched the March 21 Council meeting, you probably didn’t notice it because it was part of the Consent Agenda and approved with no discussion.)  That’s probably unacceptable under Maryland’s Open Meetings Act, which requires that minutes be provided “as soon as practicable.” The issue is now in the hands of Open Meetings Compliance Board, who is expected to announce their opinion next month. Although the Board doesn’t have the ability to compel the City to follow the law, it is incredibly embarrassing because it publicly and independently confirms that the City isn’t meeting openly and transparently, which is the basis for a genuine democracy.

The City says it wasn’t able to prepare the minutes because the City Clerk’s office prepares the minutes for both the Mayor and Council and the Board of Supervisors of Elections and “the City Clerk’s Office has been extremely short staffed.” That begs the question, so why was the City Clerk’s office short staffed? It’s because Continue reading →

State Compliance Board Investigating City Meeting Records

Highlighted in red are meetings of the Board of Supervisors of Elections for 2015 that are missing minutes.

Highlighted in red are meetings of the Board of Supervisors of Elections for 2015 that are missing minutes.

The Open Meetings Compliance Board of the State of Maryland is investigating Rockville’s Board of Supervisors of Elections (BOSE) for failing to maintain its meeting records in accordance with state law.  BOSE is a five-member body appointed by the mayor with the approval of the council and charged with the conduct of all City elections, the registration of voters and the keeping of records in connection with these functions. The state’s Open Meetings Act requires that all city boards and commissions provide either written minutes or a video recording of their meetings so that the public is aware of their actions and decisions.

Other city boards and commissions have had a spotty record over the past few years, but BOSE is exceptional. BOSE did not maintain records for nearly half of its meetings last year, with missing minutes stretching back to March 12, 2015 and no minutes available after October 21, which was the most intense and competitive period of the last Mayor and Council election.

BOSE has until mid-March to provide a written response to the Compliance Board, at which point they will render an opinion.  I’m not sure how BOSE will be able to review and approve so many minutes by the deadline, but even if they do, it suggests that the Supervisors of Elections need supervision as well. If you’re concerned, please let the Mayor and Council know at mayorcouncil@rockvillemd.gov.

2015 Campaign Finance Reports Shows Plenty of Holes in the System

Rockville-Election-UpdateJanuary 15, 2016 was the deadline for the latest financial reports for the 2015 campaign for Mayor and Council in Rockville, which covers the week before the November 3 election through the end of the year. Although this includes the hottest period of the campaign, it’s also assumed to be the quietest financially because most contributions and expenses have already been made. For the 2015 campaign, however, that short period represented 19 percent of the revenues and 38 percent of the expenditures so it wasn’t a fallow period.

More than $17,000 in contributions arrived in candidates’ bank accounts after October 26, including last-minute donations between candidates and from planning commissioners, creating a few more connections that weren’t apparent earlier. Expenses exceeded $60,000, most of it concentrated in the mayoral race between Bridget Newton and Sima Osdoby and the council campaign of Richard Gottfried.  Gottfried spent an additional $9,715 for a campaign total of nearly $50,000—by comparison, the other Council candidates spent an average of $6,812 and mayoral candidates averaged $25,416.

2015 Rockville Campaign Expenses for the period ending December 31, 2015.

2015 Rockville Campaign Expenses for the period ending December 31, 2015. Patrick Schoof’s data is incomplete.

For the 2015 Mayor and Council race, the eleven candidates raised $88,615 and spent $161,550 in total.  The averages in this election are thrown off by Gottfried’s extraordinary campaign, so if we exclude him and the mayoral race (which is always much higher), the average amount raised by Council candidates was Continue reading →