At Tuesday night’s Rockville Election Debate held by the Woodley Gardens and College Gardens Civic Associations at the Senior Center, there was talk about Rockville being an island among the one million residents of Montgomery County. When I came home, I couldn’t help but compare the debate to the game of Survivor. If you are a fan of the CBS show, you are familiar with the back stabbing, alliances, and surprising alignments which provide all the intrigue. This comparison isn’t necessarily enjoyable for those of us in Rockville who are following the election closely, can explain both sides of the issues, and care deeply about Rockville. There’s a lot on the line for the next four years. Putting the debate into a Survivor context might help you to figure out this Rockville Election.
Moderated by Maryland State Senator Cheryl Kagan, the debate time keeping was impeccable. She cut them off mid-sentence. The questions started by asking the candidates to name three goals for their term and ended with asking what they would like to be remembered for accomplishing in four years. In between, nine questions were asked of two subsets of the candidates. They even included our old Rockville Central forum idea of having the candidates ask each other a question. The debate gave a glimpse of how candidates handle themselves when faced with adversity.
Tribe members on Survivor often express why votes weren’t good for the long-term strength of the tribe. Often previous votes will be brought up on tribal council as tribe members try to explain why it was such a bad move. This happened during the course of the debate as a few candidates explained what was wrong with the Mayor and Council changing the zoning on the East Rockville site approved for a storage facility near Maryvale Elementary. When asked about balancing property rights against neighborhood sentiment, David Hill said he handled the application twice while on the Planning Commission and he voted in favor because he was legally required to do so under the zoning but he has been able to work against encroachments to other residential neighborhoods. Richard Gottfried responded that he was active with the citizens groups and saw both sides of the issue since as a member of the Chamber of Commerce, he knew they supported Easy Storage on one side and the East Rockville Citizens Association was on the other side. Brigitta Mullican would have sought advice on all the legal ramifications and would never make a decision which would cost citizens in court. Julie Palakovich Carr held with following our laws then explained that under state law this was a Planning Commission decision so that when the Mayor and Council pulled the zoning out from under the the storage facility, the resulting court case could now produce a multimillion dollar settlement against the City. When Patrick Schoof was asked how the City could trust him with future land use issues when he took extreme positions such as lobbying the Council for a city-wide moratorium on building in order to stop this one project, he responded with a diatribe. He was the only person on the stage with a masters in development, he had evidence from Homeland Security, fire and police organizations, the Planning Commission vote was 4-3, and an industrial plan for East Rockville should have been done. “We need to take care of all of us, not just the West End, not just where we happen to be developing at the moment,” then concluded with, “When a fight needs to be fought, I will fight for residents first and foremost.”
Every loss of a Survivor challenge results in a discussion of what went wrong. The APFS school standard for overcrowding being set at 110% when the school system uses 120% could be seen as a failure since it resulted in a complete moratorium on building any housing except for seniors and the schools still became overcrowded. Another failure noted in the questions concerned the local neighborhood retail centers which were characterized as failed or suffering. Candidates were asked what actions could be taken. Mark Pierzchala explained the issue. College Plaza and Rockshire retail centers are struggling. The APFS got in the way. College Plaza was stopped cold. As a City we need to be more accepting of mixed-use not just retail because retail is in turmoil and has changed due to the internet. Our retail centers will get seedier and seedier. We need a balance between taking care of our youth when they are in schools and providing for their future when they are older and are faced with a shortage of housing because of the same policy. Virginia Onley agreed that mixed-use developments will help and had the idea of encouraging businesses by giving a 25% decrease in their tax bills for a set number of years. Beryl Feinberg’s solution is incentives such as offering a 5% discount to employees and jurors so they will go to Town Center during lunch.
Other challenges were mentioned during the debate. Julie Palakovich Carr emphasized that without a Rockville Pike Plan, the City will not be able to bring in one major regional employer which is looking for a new location. When asked how more density could be environmental, Clark Reed responded that being environmental does not mean that you can’t have development. It means thoughtfully building green, using solar energy, reducing the impacts of the buildings, and improving transportation by encouraging walking, biking, and mass transit.
It’s not very often that Jeff has to explain the rules except when there’s a fire challenge during tribal council and they pit one contestant against another. This happened when Cheryl Kagan explained the format for candidates asking each other questions. She emphasized they would have 15 seconds to ask their questions and the questions could not be speeches. Four candidates went before it was Beryl Feinberg’s turn. She was cut off before actually asking a question then claimed the time limit wasn’t in the rules sent to them. Cheryl Kagan pointed out that she had just told her twice. When the debate rules were consulted, the rule requiring a 15-second question had been sent to the candidates and it was read out loud. So Julie Palakovich Carr was left to surmise her question and stated that changing the school APFS standard to 150% as Gaithersburg is considering was ridiculous.
Of course, during Survivor you always see alliances dissolve. Sometimes the players speak honestly to each other about what will happen and at other times it’s a complete backstabbing blindside. It’s painful to watch when you know someone genuinely trusted the other player. Beryl Feinberg was on Team Rockville the last time around but not for this election. She was asked a question about her shift in opinion about the APFS, which she has never denied, explaining that she learned, read, and had a second public hearing so her views evolved. She mentioned some postings and added, “I have been above the fray.” Although this was not a part of the debate, the postings were probably those by Tom Moore who chronicled the APFS vote and his side of their interactions. If this were actually Survivor, we would have video footage of all these exchanges, but of course we don’t. During their kickoff the last time around in 2013, Team Rockville made one basic promise. They acknowledged that they would have different opinions and would disagree on issues, but they would still work together. For comparison, as Virginia Onley mentioned during the debate, she has been the swing vote. She obviously didn’t always agree on every issue but she continued to work together with everyone to keep her campaign promise.
Sometimes during Survivor tribe members will loose a challenge on purpose to get rid of one player they don’t like. This strategy always fails in the long run. They think they can win but the weakened tribe always gets picked off. When the APFS standard was set at 110% for school overcrowding, supporters could get rid of every developer who stepped forward to build housing but this no-growth policy obviously weakened the City’s economy.
What about when you have two leaders within the tribe? On Survivor they obviously don’t agree because they’re after the same million dollar prize and along the way you can see their leadership styles. The two candidates running for mayor have high stakes too.
Sima Osdoby cleared the air during her opening statement, “There is a rumor circulating that I and Team Rockville are in the pocket of big developers and are prepared to turn Rockville over to them. Nothing can be farther from the truth. We’re not beholding to developments, we’re not financed by developers, and we’re not ready to run Rockville into the ground for profit. There is no room in Rockville for this kind of nasty campaign issue.” This is more than a rumor because Rich Gottfried sent a mailer to voters over the weekend with the accusation.
When asked about the challenges facing Rockville including the recent rise in crime in College Gardens, Sima Osdoby said that living in safe neighborhoods is important and one of the first steps is adequate street lighting. She hopes the police department sitd down with neighborhoods in these situations adding that neighbors need to look out for each other. Bridget Donnell Newton responded that crime is an issue everywhere in the City but that crime was down. She wants to get tax duplications back from Montgomery County and find a way to fund more Neighborhood Watches.
When asked about supporting jobs and small businesses, Bridget Donnell Newton spoke about small business loans and incentives for new developments to provide low-cost business rents. Although she has served on Council and as Mayor consistently for six years, she said that two year terms have left us behind in terms of our planning process. East Rockville asked for a South Lawn Industrial study plan but that was never done. It was put on a shelf but would have made a difference with the Easy Storage situation. Sima Osdoby pointed out that the first thing that attracts new businesses is consistency and, as has been pointed out, Rockville has a problem with consistency. Two high profile decisions changed the rules for businesses and have had an effect on the City’s reputation. Businesses want the permit process to be faster. The neighborhood centers need to be revitalized with a serious process to figure out what should be there such as satellite senior centers, art classes, or mixed use.
When asked about ways to include the increasingly diverse residents of Rockville, Bridget Donnell Newton applauded the diversity stating that the walking town meetings were one of her campaign promises last time and the next step is meet & greets with the Mayor and Council. She volunteers to read books to ESOL students once a week and sees how much the students learn in one year. Sima Osdoby talked about diversity being one of the things that we can all agree makes Rockville a really strong community. The first thing we need to do is ask some of these representatives what they would like from the City. We need what is called cultural competency because the way people from different cultures approach government is different, sometimes they are even fleeing their government. This isn’t something that’s just episodic such as having a diversity fair or walking town meeting. We really have to sit down and work with representatives to come up with some ongoing programs that are going to be useful.
It’s almost your turn to vote! Early voting is this Saturday and Sunday at Rockville City Hall from 10 AM until 8 PM. Election Day is Tuesday, November 3, 2015. You can cast your ballots to put five people in City Hall and vote the rest off the dais.