Proposal: A Truly Multi-Modal Rockville Pike

pikeplanscreenshotRockville’s Mayor and Council has been studying the Planning Commission’s draft Rockville Pike Plan for months, and we have heard testimony from dozens of interested citizens and landowners on how we might best approach the corridor’s future.

By and large, I have been pleased with the Planning Commission’s vision for the future of the Pike. But I have had a concern from the start.  I was not able to fully articulate it before our months-long study of the draft Plan; I can now do so.  It is in the Plan’s insufficient embrace of multi-modal transportation.  While the cross-section proposed by the Planning Commission includes dedicated lanes for mass transit,  local lanes to improve vehicular flow, excellent bike lanes, and much-improved sidewalks, the Plan’s overall vision of possible modes of transportation is too cramped.

Today, I am proposing an alternative cross-section for the careful consideration of the public, the Planning Commission, and my colleagues on the Mayor and Council.  Details may be found here: Pike Plan – Multimodal Focus.

Rockville Embraces Vision Zero

I’m delighted that the Mayor and Council last night adopted my suggestion that we include “Vision Zero” principles in the Rockville Pike Plan.  Vision Zero is a policy that countries, states, and local governments can establish that sets a goal of zero fatalities and injuries on their roadways.  Over time, this will save the lives of Rockville’s pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers.

At its heart, Vision Zero shifts the responsibility for road incidents from drivers to the road system itself:

Vision Zero requires a paradigm shift in addressing the issue of road safety… It requires abandoning the traditional economic model where road safety is provided at reasonable cost and the traditional transport model in which safety must be balanced against mobility. At the core of the Vision Zero is the biomechanical tolerance of human beings. Vision Zero promotes a road system where crash energy cannot exceed human tolerance. While it is accepted that crashes in the transport system occur due to human error, Vision Zero requires no crash should be more severe than the tolerance of humans. The blame for fatalities in the road system is assigned to the failure of the road system rather than the road user. 

 

The concept first originated in Sweden in 1997.  Its results have been good:

Fatalities involving unprotected pedestrians in Sweden have fallen by almost 50% in the last five years. The number of children killed in traffic accidents has also been cut. In 2008 the first traffic death involving a child did not occur until 22 October that year.

 

Results in the U.S. have been very good as well:

The plan cites successes from several U.S. states that have implemented similar approaches with dramatic results, including a 43% reduction in traffic fatalities in Minnesota, a 48% reduction in Utah, and a 40% decrease in Washington State.

This report from the Swedish Road Administration (on the United Nations website) has some great visualizations of the problems that Vision Zero intends to address.

New York City has embraced Vision Zero wholeheartedly (here’s a New Republic article about it); Mayor Bowser has also announced plans to commit the District of Columbia to Vision Zero.   Each jurisdiction implements the vision in its own way; NYC has a focus on bus drivers and improvement of some archaic city and state laws that would be inappropriate for Rockville; the idea is to chart our own course in a way that will best get us to our goal.

The vision of keeping every adult and child safe on Rockville’s roadways is not controversial, nor will setting this goal ever obligate the City to spend money a future Mayor and Council doesn’t want to.  What it does do is take Rockville’s already-impressive efforts in making our streets as safe as possible and focus it on the goal of reducing fatalities and injuries on our roadways to zero.  We, and future mayors and councils, can do what we want, but our actions — appropriately — will be viewed through the prism of whether a proposed action helps reduce roadway fatalities and injuries.

On supporting the Pike’s local lanes.

After a lot of thought about the local lanes that the Planning Commission has proposed for the Rockville Pike master plan, I have decided to support including the lanes in the plan.  Here’s my thinking.

In a nutshell, the Pike cross-section proposed by the Planning Commission would keep vehicle capacity where it is, which I think is appropriate. Over time, we’re going to use our cars less, but there are going to be more of us living here, so it balances out.  The proposed plan makes room for bus rapid transit, which I think is great. It creates a pleasant space for bicyclists and pedestrians to actually use the Pike, and not just hop from place to place in their cars. And the local lanes make the driving, the biking, and the walking safer, which is absolutely key for me.

The proposed 252-foot cross-section is a reduction from the current 1989 plan’s 270 feet. Between the BRT, the bike lanes, the green spaces, and the wide sidewalks, it provides about as much space for cars as we do now.  But many other uses are provided for as well.

The Planning Commission has worked on this for five years. They have no financial stake in where this goes; they’re just trying to do what’s best for the City.  The City’s planning staff has also been working on this for five years.  (Click here for the staff’s summery of the options before the Mayor and Council).  They also have no financial stake in where this goes.  Neither does your Mayor and Council.  Our only goal is a safe and prosperous Rockville in the future.

Those who do have a financial stake in the success of the parcels they own would like to see the local lanes removed so they have more room to build their projects and can make more money.  There’s nothing wrong with that, and I’d argue that these developers also have a pretty good interest in seeing Rockville be safe and prosperous over the long haul.  But they have not launched this battle over the future of the City.  If the local lanes didn’t hurt the developers’ bottom line, I sincerely doubt they would have spent as much time and money as they have done to try to get them stripped out.

I kept an open mind on this for a long time.  I’ve talked to everyone who wanted to talk to me, I’ve weighed all the information, I’ve used my judgment, and I have decided that the local lanes should be included in the Rockville Pike Master Plan as the Planning Commission has recommended.  No one would ever accuse me of blindly accepting whatever our Planning Commission says, but on this issue I think they have gotten it right.

City staff on the options for the width of the Pike

In response to a citizen’s inquiry, Rockville’s Chief of Long Range Planning, David Levy, explained in great detail what’s going on with the proposed width of Rockville Pike.  It’s a good summary of the choices before us:

Thank you for your email and request, which was forwarded to me by the City’s Clerk’s office.  I am one of the City staffers working on the Rockville Pike Plan.

We appreciate that there is a great deal of confusion in the community regarding this topic. I will do my best to explain here. If you have the appetite for a much more detailed discussion of the topic, or of more comparison documents (there are many!!!), I can point you to places on the City’s Web site where you can find information or I can send them to you directly.

In short, there are three distinct “cross-sections” (which are plans for the road area) that are important to understand.

 

1) Current (1989) Plan:  There is an existing plan for the Rockville Plan corridor, which was adopted in 1989 and still stands. It establishes a “cross-section” distance of  270 feet  between the buildings on opposite sides of the Pike. It includes the road, sidewalks, service drives, buffer areas, and other components.

2) Planning Commission June 2014 Draft:  Rockville’s Planning Commission, through many work sessions, developed a proposed revised cross-section, which is the version that the Mayor and Council are considering now. It has a proposed cross-section distance of  252 feet , which includes the road, sidewalks, service drives, buffer areas, dedicated bike lanes and dedicated lanes for bus transit.

3) Narrower Cross-Section:  Some public testimony has proposed narrowing the Pike even further than the current Planning Commission draft. Two particular notions have been presented – a) removing dedicated lanes for bus transit, or b) removing the “service drives” (or access roads).  A proposal from B.F. Saul, for example, has proposed adopting one of the two cross-sections from Montgomery County’s White Flint Sector Plan, which has approved a cross-section distance of 182 feet , without service drives.


I will do my best to explain clearly some key differences among the three of them.

Current (1989) Rockville Pike Plan

The current (1989) plan width along the Rockville Pike corridor is 270 feet, from building face to building face.  What that means is that new buildings are required to have a large portion of the building front at 135 feet from the center of the road. The new buildings that are under construction right now are meeting that requirement.

Within those 135 feet are the main travel lanes of the Pike, a service road, landscaping, and parking.

As you may have heard, the service roads are a big part of the discussion with the Mayor and Council, and community. The current (1989) plan re-affirmed the City policy, dating from the 1960s, that service roads be a part of the cross-section. Just to be clear, the service roads are the drive aisles and informal roads that run parallel to much of the Pike now and that allow for movement between sites without having to return to the main roadway. They are in front of Best Buy, Jos Banks, and many other places.

The service roads are not completed and are not quite “real” roads. Plus, there are gaps; they are not designed as consistently as would be preferred; and they do not all line up in the same location. Furthermore, in their current design, they do not make walking or biking on the Pike comfortable. However, these service roads do serve a function now by allowing local, inter-site movement and they do reduce the number of curb cuts that would otherwise be required if every property needed its own access point from the Pike. As a result, they help keep the right lane of the Pike flowing a bit better than if they were not there.

In their current (1989) form, their primary purpose is to separate traffic that is passing through from local traffic, to make the system function better for automobile travel. The new draft plan attempts to make them good for pedestrians and cyclists, as well.

Planning Commission June 2014 Draft Plan 

The Planning Commission June 2014 draft plan proposes that the overall width be  narrowed  from the existing policy of 270 feet to 252 feet.    Please understand, because there is much misunderstanding out there on this point – the Planning Commission draft is proposing to  narrow  the entire cross-section, not widen it, compared to the current (1989) plan and where buildings are currently being built.

The narrowing is permitted mostly by changing the approach to parking, with greater emphasis on reducing (but not eliminating) the amount of parking that would be in the front of buildings.

The other main changes that the Planning Commission draft proposes as compared to the 1989 plan are 1) to include two new lanes for bus rapid transit in the center of the Pike, and 2) to make design adjustments to the service lanes. The Mayor and Council has heard testimony in favor of and opposed to both of these.

The proposed new bus transit lanes widen the overall cross-section by approximately 35 feet, compared to not having them; though they are accommodated in the 252 feet.

The main proposed design changes to the service roads are 1) to make them one-way, in the same direction as the traffic to which it is adjacent; 2) add two-directional bike lanes (on both sides of the Pike); and 3) require 20-foot-wide sidewalks at the front of buildings, which would include the walking area and the area for trees, signs, outdoor seating, etc. Below is a diagram of the service road portion of the cross-section, as shown in the Planning Commission’s current draft. The main portion of the proposed new cross-section for the Pike is on the left of the picture.

37194080Narrower Cross-Sections

As mentioned above, there are two lines of testimony indicating how the cross-section could be narrowed. One of them proposes to eliminate the dedicated transit lanes. To date, the Mayor and Council have indicated their desire to retain that feature and preserve lanes for transit.

The other line, which is the active community discussion to which you referred in your email, proposes a cross-section of 182 feet, from building face to building face.  This proposal has been actively promoted by the B. F. Saul Company, in the context of their current concept for a development project near the Twinbrook Metro Station; and quite a few community members have testified to the Mayor and Council in favor of this approach, while others have testified in opposition.

The concept proposes that the City adopt one of the two cross-sections presented in Montgomery County’s White Flint Sector Plan. That proposal includes sidewalks and bike lanes, and on-street parking on the main portion of the Pike, as illustrated below. It also includes dedicated transit lanes in the middle of the Pike. As such, the center portion of this cross-section, which includes three travel lanes on both sides and dedicated transit lanes, is the same as the Planning Commission’s draft.

The main difference from the Planning Commission draft, and the existing (1989) plan, is that this approach would eliminate the local service roads. By eliminating the service roads, the need for the buffer between main lanes and service roads (shown above in the prior section) is also eliminated.

The Mayor and Council have not yet made a decision as a body regarding whether to retain the service roads, though they did indicate their preference that there not be parallel parking on the main roadway.


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This is fairly complex stuff and difficult to synthesize briefly in writing.  I would be more than happy to meet with you or discuss by phone, if that would help. 

Sincerely,

David Levy

David B. Levy
Chief of Long Range Planning and Redevelopment
Dept. of Community Planning and Development Services
City of Rockville
111 Maryland Avenue
Rockville, Maryland 20850-2364
Desk: 240-314-8272
Main: 240-314-8200
dlevy@rockvillemd.gov

The facts on Rockville’s failed school standards.

There’s a lot of noise out there on the issue of the City’s school standards, but here are the facts.

The effort to change the standards is being driven by members of the Mayor and Council who care deeply about our schools and our City.   As many of you know, Amy and I have two kids at RM, three at JW, and one at Beall. No one is more heavily invested in the success of our schools than we are.

Rockville’s APFO has failed to keep our schools from becoming more overcrowded.  It is hurting our schools and hurting our City.  It’s the Mayor and Council’s job to get rid of this failed experiment and find something that works.

The school standards Rockville wrote into its development laws in 2005 were tighter than Montgomery County’s based on two untested theories:

  1. That the standards would keep our crowded schools from becoming more overcrowded, and
  2. That the County would direct money to Rockville sooner than it otherwise would because without the funds, sections of the City would fall into building moratoria.

Nine years later, it’s clear that these theories were wrong, our standards have failed, and Rockville and its schools are paying the price.  Our schools have become substantially more crowded since 2005.  And Montgomery County has made it clear to the City that it will never direct money to us more quickly because we have standards that are different from theirs.

Rockville Town Center has been in moratorium as to new projects since the APFO was enacted, and the entire Richard Montgomery High School cluster – which includes all of Town Center and most of Rockville Pike – will be at a standstill until at least 2029 if we fail to fix our standards.  This imperils all the hard-won progress we have made in Rockville Town Center, and makes impossible the improvements we have been hoping to make on Rockville Pike.

The APFO has shut down our progress in Town Center in an attempt to stem school overcrowding, but it has failed to accomplish that goal. The problem is that it aims at the wrong target.  85% of the enrollment growth in our schools has come not from new development, but from people who move here for the good schools and fill our existing houses with children.

Likewise, Rockville’s standards have failed to bring school-construction funds to the City any sooner.  The County only funds construction when schools are over the County’s capacity standards (not the City’s).  Therefore, having a lower capacity standard than the County makes it less likely that schools in the City will be expanded or replaced.  When the County had a chance in May 2011 to dedicate money to expand Julius West and build a new elementary school for us, it decided not to do it because the funds wouldn’t lift the area out of the City’s artificially strict moratorium.

Worse, The City’s standards do not prevent development just across the city limits in the County, where there is no moratorium.  This County development places pressure on Rockville’s roads and schools without providing any benefits to the City.   In clusters like Walter Johnson HS, where much of the cluster is outside Rockville, we’ll soon be facing a situation where we’ll stop development when the high school hits 110%, but the County will keep building in the areas outside the City until it gets to 120%.  Our kids will end up going to a school that’s just as crowded, but Rockville will lose out on a lot of economic development.  This can happen in four out the five high schools Rockville kids go to: Rockville, Walter Johnson, Wootton, and Gaithersburg – all but Richard Montgomery.

The better course is to adopt Montgomery County’s school standards, as recommended by the 13 community members who studied the issue during the 2012 Rockville Summit on its Housing Working Group:

After extensive review and considerable discussion about the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance the committee has determined policy makers should give significant consideration to modifying Rockville’s APFO to mirror that of Montgomery County’s. The primary reason for this recommendation is the impact the school occupancy portion of the APFO has on residential development. The City does not have domain over the schools. That authority lies with the county. To limit development based on something out of Rockville’s control is not in the best interest of the City.

Twenty-six community members on the Summit’s Education and School Capacity Working Group who studied the issue closely also recommended that the City “[m]odify its Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (APFO) to harmonize with the County, especially with regard to school facilities.”

Montgomery County only acts according to its own standards, not the City’s.  If we adopt the County standards, Montgomery County will have the same incentive to invest in Rockville’s schools as it does elsewhere.  Our law will better reflect and predict what the County’s school-construction plans will be.  This will allow Rockville to more accurately plan for future growth, which is the entire point of an APFO.

Nine years of failure is enough.  The APFO school standards have not protected our children from crowded schools. All they have done is damage Rockville’s ability to manage its growth and plan for its future.  It’s time for them to go.

The Mayor and Council are holding a public hearing on these proposed changes on January 5, and I invite you to come and listen or speak.

On public campaign financing…

Below is an e-mail I have sent to members of the Montgomery County Council urging them to pass Phil Andrews’ public campaign financing bill and recommending that they remove an amendment that would not serve the County well.

––––––––––––

Dear [Councilmember],

I wanted to take a minute to thank you for hearing my comments on the Right to Vote Task Force report on Tuesday night, and once again to strongly encourage you to pass Bill 16-14 on Public Campaign Financing of Elections next week.

I am writing to you as an individual member of the Rockville City Council (and silver medalist in the most recent County Council primary election) and not on behalf of the City of Rockville.

I am alarmed by the amendment that has been added in committee to Bill 16-14 that would match contributions raised outside Montgomery County. As a policymaker and as a Montgomery County taxpayer, I believe such a provision to be inappropriate. It is also unlikely to help those it is designed to help.

From a policy perspective, such a match defeats what I see as the best purpose of the bill – to force candidates to focus their communications efforts on Montgomery County voters. It is enough for the law to allow unmatched $150 contributions from outside the County – that way, if a candidate has a deep network of contributors who live outside Montgomery County, she or he can still tap that resource and participate in the system. But candidates’ main focus should be communicating with voters squarely within our borders.

My concerns as a County taxpayer are equally serious. Say a candidate raises most of her funds from contributors in DC and Virginia. Why should my tax dollars be working to vastly amplify the voices of these outsiders, whose interests may not align well with the County’s?

Aside from these concerns, the outside-the-County match would be ineffective in the stated purpose of the amendment: Helping launch the campaign of a candidate whose family and friend network lies outside Montgomery County. A candidate can tap her out-of-County network as hard as she likes, but because matching funds are paid to candidates only after they have qualified for the program with sufficient local contributions, a match of outside-the-County contributions would come far too late to help a candidate get her campaign off the ground. Once you’ve raised enough local dollars to qualify for matching funds, your campaign is pretty-well launched, whether or not you have outside money as well. At that point, the matching funds paid on outside-the-County contributions just serve to dilute the contributions of Montgomery County residents.

I appreciate your attention to the devils that lie in the details of this bill, and urge you to pay close attention to this one. Matching contributions from outside Montgomery County undermines the purpose of the law, it uses Montgomery County taxpayer money to dilute the influence of Montgomery County voters, and it doesn’t actually help a candidate with an outside-the-County fundraising network get his or her campaign off the ground. Limiting the total out-of-County match to 10% of public funds makes this bad idea better, but just slightly. The idea of matching outside-the-County contributions should be scrapped altogether.

Thank you.

All the best,

Tom Moore
Councilmember
City of Rockville

Slate’s Matt Yglesias responds!

I’ll give Matt Yglesias this: He responds to his e-mail extremely quickly.  He got back to me in just over half an hour this afternoon with a gracious note:

This “externalities” analysis is a common but fundamentally wrongheaded misconception.

Suppose some brilliant Chinese chef wants to open up a restaurant in Rockville and the owner of Sichuan Jin River gets worried that the new establishment will poach his customers and cost him business. The city council wouldn’t step in and say “hey wait a minute, your proposal for a new restaurant has too many externalities we won’t let you open.” It’s true that it would be more convenient for incumbent businesses to not face competition, but that’s not a public policy problem.

By the same token, some incumbent business owners may be deriving benefit from existing availability of street parking (or other municipally owned parking) and may not want to share that parking with new people. But this isn’t externalities in the sense of pollution.

At any rate, I apologize if you feel that I was picking on Rockville. This is actually something I’ve written about with reference to quite a few cities all across America in a whole variety of contexts and isn’t any particular knock on [you] or on Rockville. If you’re at all interested in a real expert analysis of parking regulations, I’d strongly recommend UCLA professor Donald Shoup and his book The High Cost of Free Parking.

Best,
Matthew Yglesias

I responded tonight:
Mr. Yglesias,
 
Thank you for your thoughtful and extremely quick response!   The high cost of free parking has been on my mind since I’ve been in office, and I’ve been trying to move Rockville in the right direction on it.  I’ll nab the book and let it illuminate my further movements on this.
 
I’m going to have to disagree with your Sichuan Jin River analogy. I would totally step in to crush that other guy.  The free market goes out the window when a local treasure like Jin River’s garlic eggplant is endangered.  
 
Pollution’s not the only kind of externality — with parking in urban areas, we have a “tragedy of the commons” variety when cars spill over into other types of neighborhoods that can’t absorb them.  It’s not quite as tragic as cities used to think it was, and modern public policy has changed to reflect this.  But urban parking is certainly not an area where regulating it is tantamount to Stalinism.
 
Thank you as well for your gracious apology; it did indeed feel like you were picking on us, even if it did delight my parents.  
 
Your good taste in Chinese restaurants has partially restored my faith in your analytical powers. (You live nearby, do you?)
 
All the best,
 
Tom Moore

Ouch!

Rockville’s Mayor and Council were body-slammed – by name – in Slate for having the temerity to discuss the City’s development laws regarding parking during a recent meeting:

Are members of the Rockville, Md., town council experts in real-estate development? In parking management? Are they putting their own money on the line in the success or failure of projects in the center of their town? Of course not!

As a friend wrote on Facebook, “This reads like 25% of an article. And not the 25% with a point.” The entire thread of comments is quite witty and worth a look.

I wrote back to the author, Matt Yglesias, a writer I’ve admired for some time:

Mr. Yglesias,

Greetings! I’m not sure how we on the Rockville City Council so irritated you with our entirely routine discussion of the parking element of our development laws with a developer who came before us to ask whether it could add a significant number of residential units to its long-approved building.

You’re right — none of us on the Council are experts in real-estate development or parking management. But we have a staff of urban planners who are, and we were elected to, with the help of our expert staffs, make policy choices and apply the laws of the government we’re running.

You’re also right — no member of the City Council has personal money invested in downtown projects. But that’s a good thing, because those who did have such a conflict of interest would have to recuse themselves from discussions of and decisions on such matters.

I was surprised that your analysis of the parking market failed to recognize that there are serious externality problems with urban parking — if you don’t build sufficient parking with a building, whether office or residential, the users of that building are not limited to the number of cars that match the parking spaces. They will park their cars on the street elsewhere, affecting neighboring businesses and residential areas.

I happen to believe that with transit-oriented development, as we were discussing, the number of spaces actually required by the buildings users is fairly low, but there’s no question that a given building requires a certain number of spaces. The trend in regulation used to be to set parking-space minimums for projects; it has shifted to setting maximums. Rockville has been progressive in this, though we can do better, IMHO.

I recommend to you the recording of the Council’s full discussion, found here:

http://rockvillemd.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?clip_id=3037

It’s item 12 on the agenda.

You likely don’t have the time to do so — you’re a prolific guy. But the full recording might give you a better understanding of the business we were engaged in. It might also better inform you about my own role in the discussion, which was to ask the staff for more information about how well the parking market had operated elsewhere in the City.

It might also, hopefully, cause you to pause a sec before you call a bunch of hardworking public officials Communists, basically. C’mon, man!

I’ll note that my parents liked the article: “Comrade: We are so proud of you. Nobody else has children who have been slammed by national media.” But most of my friends wondered if I’d kicked your dog sometime in the past. (I didn’t, did I?)

I will continue to look forward to reading your work. I’ll admit that this experience will make me pause before I accept your sources and analysis at face value, which is probably for the best.

If you’re interested in corrections, we serve on the Rockville *City* Council, not “town council,” though I can see why referring to us in that manner better fit your narrative.

Take care.

Tom Moore
Councilmember
City of Rockville
tmoore@rockvillemd.gov

 

Charter changes could be next Council’s most important task

In the flurry of activity surrounding the election of the next Mayor and Council, the advisory questions concerning changes to our charter that are up for a vote are getting lost in the shuffle.  I wanted to take a few minutes to discuss them.

Rockville’s Mayor and Council created a Charter Review Commission last year to recommend possible changes to the City’s governing document.  The Commission returned with three strong recommendations, all of which are going to be on the ballot this fall as advisory questions.  The next Mayor and Council will consider the citizen input on these questions, but it is not meant to be the last word.

Changing from odd-year voting to presidential-year voting

 City of Rockville elections are currently held every two years, in odd numbered years. Do you favor moving the City elections to be held every four years to coincide with the Presidential Election?

I think this may be the next Mayor and Council’s most important decision.  Moving our elections would give a large, immediate, and permanent boost to our low voter turnout, a problem that has vexed Rockville for years.  Rockville’s Charter Review Commission strongly recommended this shift, and I do also.

If this fall’s City election is like the last few, about 17 percent of Rockville’s registered voters will show up.  That is far too low.  We’ve been trying to raise our turnout rate for years, without success.

Moving to the Presidential year, when no county or state races crowd the ballot, would dramatically increase Rockville’s voter turnout.  Seventy percent – 70 percent! – of Rockville voters turned out to vote in 2012.  These are people who are our neighbors.  They’re already voters in other races.  We should hear their voices when it comes to City elections.  We’re not doing so now when only 17 percent of us show up.

The group of Rockville voters who show up during the Presidential year is a far more diverse group than those who now show up for City elections.  Shifting our elections to the Presidential year will get us closer to the ideal that Rockville be governed by the consent of the governed.  With 17% turnout in City elections, we are too far from that ideal.

The shift will allow the City to provide early voting, which costs the County hundreds of thousands of dollars and which Rockville could never afford to provide on its own.  The challenges of creating individual ballots given differing City, County, and State political boundaries has already been solved, as County and State boundaries already differ.

Some of my good friends around the City are concerned that the change would mean more partisanship in our elections, and that these new voters would not be as high-quality as the voters we have now.

We do prize our non-partisan elections. But what keeps our non-partisan tradition strong is not the timing of our elections, but the commitment of candidates over the decades to resist the pressures of partisanship.  I see no reason why that commitment would fade if we changed election schedules.

The concern over partisanship stems partially from the federal Hatch Act, which forbids most federal employees from participating in partisan elections.  No one wants our federal workforce to be barred from participating in our elections.

I have looked into this carefully, and do not believe it is a concern.  (Details here.) One candidate picking up partisan endorsements or saying they are running as a Democrat, for example, absolutely does not convert Rockville’s election into a partisan election.   A political party has to nominate or designate a person as its candidate.  The candidate has to work with the party and formally represent the party.  And the Rockville City Code explicitly forbids those representing a political party from running for office in Rockville.

I keep listening, and I am not hearing the mechanism where moving to the Presidential year would increase partisanship in Rockville elections.  Any small risk of increased partisan pressure would be squashed by the Rockville City Code, which explicitly forbids candidates representing political parties from running for office in Rockville.  I am comfortable with the protection that Rockville’s laws provide us here.

As to worries that our new voters wouldn’t be good-enough voters – all I can say is this: By definition, you can’t have higher voter turnout without more voters. Holding City elections on a day when a lot of Rockville voters are already showing up to vote strikes me as a great idea.

I am utterly unpersuaded by the argument that it would cost too much money to campaign if we shifted our elections – for instance, we would have to send out 15,000 postcards rather than 5,000. This is not an argument against moving the elections, it’s an argument against higher voter turnout itself.  Having to raise and spend more money because so many voters are participating in the process is a problem we should dream of having.

The nonpartisan group FairVote studied our charter questions and took a strong stand in favor of moving Rockville’s elections to the presidential year.  (Full report here)

Why do we work so hard to increase voter turnout?  It’s a good thing in and of itself, but it’s really a proxy for increased civic participation – that’s the real goal.  Higher civic participation drives higher voter turnout, but the reverse is also true: If you put a ballot before people to vote in City elections, it will drive them to become more involved civically because they become invested in the life of their community. “I voted for that idiot Moore,” they will say. “I feel responsible. What’s he been doing?”

It’s time to put our money where our mouth is.  Do we want higher voter turnout in this City, or not?  I do.

Changing from 2- to 4-year terms

In the City of Rockville, the term of office for the Mayor and the Councilmembers is currently two years. Do you favor increasing the term from two years to four years?

Moving to a four-year term is essential if we move the elections to the Presidential years. On the other even-year ballot (2014, 2018, etc.), we elect every single state and county office – that ballot is packed, and City races would have trouble standing out.

If the issue is taken on its own, there are good arguments for both four-year terms and two-year terms.  It absolutely would be nice to master the job before having to run for it again.  But I respect the idea that it’s also good to be able to throw the bums out and not have to wait forever to do so.

Personally, though, I am not a big fan of the argument that it turns out that it’s just too hard for officeholders to run every two years.  It’s a fact that tends to be “discovered” by incumbents right around election time.  Two years is the term we signed up for, and we don’t really have the right to complain about it once we’re in the middle of it (and have the advantage of incumbency).

If we do move to four-year terms, and do move to the Presidential election schedule, it doesn’t make any candidate’s life easier for quite some time.  This election in 2013 is for a two-year term, from 2013 to 2015. In order to get us on track for an election in 2016, we would need to elect the following Mayor and Council to a one-year term, from 2015 to 2016.   That’s three elections in four years.   Anyone who votes to support the schedule change and wants to remain in office is voting for a tremendous amount of disruption in their personal lives over the next few years.  Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy knocking on doors and meeting voters.  But I also like seeing my kids.

Increasing from four to six Councilmembers

The City of Rockville is currently governed by a Mayor and four Councilmembers. Do you favor increasing the membership of the Rockville Mayor and Council to a Mayor and six Councilmembers?

I don’t have any particular objection to this proposal, but it seems like a solution in search of a problem.   The Mayor and the four members of the Council are not overwhelmed with constituent matters, or ceremonial duties, or shared legislative duties.

What burns up most of my time on the Council is mastering the issues before us, reading the meeting materials, and working to advance my own legislative proposals.  None of these would be aided by adding more members to the Council.

Other objections to the proposal are that it would cost the City another $40,000 or so a year in councilmember stipends, and that our meetings would go even longer if there were more of us on hand with the desire to flap our gums all night long.   Both are true as far as they go, but they don’t go very far in my opinion.  I believe the City gets pretty good value for its money in Mayor and Council stipends, and the City could easily absorb the extra expense of two more councilmembers.  I also think a Mayor who runs a meeting well could keep a lid on the deliberations of a larger number of members.

The addition of two councilmembers would make it easier to spread out some of our shared duties: serving as liaisons to City Boards and Commissions and serving on regional bodies such as the Council of Governments.  None of us is ever going to do everything everyone would like us to do – I could fill every night of every week with one meeting or another, and I’m confident I could do the same if two members were added to the Council.  I find that the challenges to my ability to attend such meetings do not stem from my having one-fifth of the duties versus one-seventh; they have much more to do with the circumstances of the rest of my life.

If I am fortunate enough to serve on the Council next term, I will watch the advisory vote closely on this issue.  If there is overwhelming sentiment to increase from four to six councilmembers, I will reconsider my lack of enthusiasm for this proposal.

 

Why can’t the Mayor and Council read the Saul Ewing report?

Recently, a subscriber to the Twinbrook Neighbors listserv asked why the Mayor and Council haven’t seen the report compiled by Saul Ewing, the law firm the City hired to investigate allegations of improper personnel activity in the City of Rockville government.  I decided to write a thorough and, hopefully, helpful response to the question, and I thought it was worth sharing here:

Thank you for bringing this up.  There is a fair amount of misinformation out there on this matter, and I appreciate the opportunity to clear it up as best as I can.

A lot of this issue has to do with the defined roles of the Mayor and Council and the City Manager under our City Charter. The Mayor and Council hire, supervise, and fire only three people: The City Manager, the City Attorney, and the City Clerk.

The City Manager ultimately hires and fires everyone else.  That responsibility stops with the City Manager; it doesn’t flow up to the Mayor and Council.  It seems like it should; it doesn’t.  This is where I believe a lot of the misunderstanding comes from.
If the Mayor and Council wanted to fire the police chief, for example (an example I am picking because I think Chief Treschuk is absolutely first-class), we would be legally unable to do so.  Only the City Manager can do that.  We would have to fire the City Manager and then find and hire a new City Manager who would agree to fire the Chief.

Just as the Mayor and Council doesn’t have the power to hire and fire most City staff, we don’t have the right to look at their personnel files.  We are not in their chain of command. The Mayor and Council have access to just three personnel files: the City Manager’s, the City Attorney’s, and the City Clerk’s.

The Mayor and Council’s role in the Saul Ewing investigation was to write the check and let everyone else do their job. We authorized the City Manager to spend a total of $190,000 to hire Saul Ewing to conduct an investigation into the allegations and report back to her and the City Attorney.

This is not entirely unlike our authorizing the Department of Public Works to spend money to repave Rockville’s streets.  We write the check; they do their job.  I don’t expect tons of asphalt to be delivered to my driveway.

Saul Ewing was hired specifically because they do this sort of work regularly.  They had no interest in the outcome, and had nothing to gain by whitewashing the situation. If anything, their incentive was the reverse – had they reported lots of bad acts that needed to be investigated further, they could have increased their billings substantially.

Saul Ewing conducted a thorough review of the allegations out there, and wrote a thick report for the City Manager.  This report was chock-full of sensitive personnel information.   It was crystal-clear from the start that the Mayor and Council would never have access to this information.  Anyone who says otherwise was not paying attention; I don’t know how else to put it.

The City Manager, who is allowed to see the report, is likewise forbidden from disclosing its contents to the public, or even discussing them in much detail, because the discussion would be about nothing but personnel information.

The Mayor and Council did receive an executive summary and a briefing on the report, which answered the questions I needed answered: Was there any unlawful conduct?  No. And was the City Attorney at fault for anything that went on? No.  (Our new City Manager, Barb Matthews, having just arrived, was obviously in the clear.)

The third question I needed an answer to was: What can the Mayor and Council do to prevent the type of perceived and real inconsistencies that are being reported by some City staff? The answer was: 1. Fix the personnel manual to make sure everyone knows the rules and help them be applied consistently, and 2. Provide funds to modernize the City’s personnel systems.  We are well on our way to accomplishing the first and I believe the next Mayor and Council will write the check for the second next year.

I have been disappointed by colleagues, candidates, and former City elected officials who are running around telling newspapers that the Mayor and Council have a right to this information.  They are wrong.  I will repeat what I told the Sentinel:

Moore said the mayor and council are not allowed to view the report, and doing so would be a gross violation of people’s privacy.

“It is against the law and I do not want to break the law,” Moore said. “Anyone who says the mayor and council have the right to look at those personnel details is wrong on the law. Period.”

I have not had anyone challenge the accuracy of my statement. It’s not a close call: The personnel records of employees of all sorts, including government employees, are protected very carefully under the law, as they should be.

If the Mayor and Council were to receive a redacted report, so much would have to be blacked out that we could be staring at little more than pages of conjunctions and punctuation.  It would be a gross waste of time and taxpayers’ dollars, and would shed no light on the matter.

I hope I have answered the questions that are out there on this.  I am happy to answer any others.