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.

 

Virginia’s abuse of license-plate readers

Interesting story from the ACLU on the Virginia State Police’s use of their license-plate readers:

Virginia State Police Used License Plate Readers At Political Rallies, Built Huge Database

This is exactly the kind of misuse of license-plate reader data the Mayor and Council were concerned about when we acted to limit the retention of this data back in April.

I have great faith that someone would have to torture Rockville’s Chief of Police, Terry Treschuk, half to death before he would even begin to think about starting to consider even coming anywhere close to such a course of action, but apparently that’s not true of all police agencies.

The Pumphrey’s Appeal

It may surprise some folks to learn that I fully support the City’s efforts to appeal the ruling against it in the Pumphrey’s matter.

Why?  The issue before the court was not whether the Mayor and Council made a bad decision to reverse the permission given to Pumphrey’s to build a parking lot.  The issue before the court was whether the Mayor and Council had the power to reverse the permission given to Pumphrey’s to build a parking lot.  That’s an entirely different matter.

Make no mistake:  I still believe – strongly – that it was a deeply unwise decision to yank the approval away from Pumphrey’s when no legal or procedural error occurred last term in the granting of the approval.  It was grossly unfair to a valued Rockville business, and it was a blow against pedestrian safety.  But I’m even more certain that the Mayor and Council had the power to make this deeply unwise decision.

Just as the last Mayor and Council had the power to grant Pumphrey’s permission to build their parking lot, this Mayor and Council had the power to revoke that permission.  The text amendment giving the approval and the one yanking it away are simply two legislative actions by a legislative body.  It is generally recognized that legislative bodies are free to make unwise legislative decisions.  Rockville’s Mayor and Council is no exception, and this particular unwise legislative decision should be no exception.

I really wish I had won this vote last year. The way it turned out, it sent a terrible message to Rockville’s residents and businesses that they cannot count on the word of their City.  But I lost this vote, fair and square, and that should be where the story ends.  Courts should not overturn any validly made legislative decision – even a chowderheaded one.

I did not support Pumphrey’s suit against the City in this matter, even though I deeply sympathized with what had happened to them, and I do not support Pumphrey’s in its defense of the City’s appeal.  I strongly support the City’s appeal of this decision, and I will do everything I can to make sure the City wins it.

Rockville acts to limit license-plate reader data retention

Rockville’s Mayor and Council voted unanimously last night to limit the retention of data from automatic license-plate readers, a big win for the privacy of Rockville residents.

Automatic license-plate readers are cameras (usually mounted to police cars) that scan, translate, and record license plate numbers, along with the time and location of the scan.  The City of Rockville owns three of these cameras.  They are a terrific police tool, but what to do with the data once it is collected has been a thorny issue.  The data is quite useful at the moment it is scanned (is the car that just passed by wanted?), but the usefulness of the data to police drops off drastically over time.  The City of Rockville had been sending the data to the Montgomery County Police Department, which has a policy of keeping it online for a year and archiving it permanently.

I raised concerns about this practice, noting that Montgomery County is an outlier – most police departments in the state keep their data for a year at most, and it is almost unheard of to keep this sort of data forever.  There is no similar data that police departments collect on people who are under no suspicion whatsoever.  A growing archive of this data, along with an expanding fleet of cameras, would over time amount to a permanent, lifelong detailed record of everyone’s activities.  There is no reason for a government to have that kind of information on its people.

Rockville Police Chief Terry Treschuk recommended that the City of Rockville change its policy and send our ALPR data directly to the State of Maryland’s fusion center, which keeps the data for a year and then deletes it.  The Montgomery County Police Department still has full access to the data when it needs it.  This strikes an excellent balance between the legitimate police use of this terrific tool and the legitimate right that ordinary people have in the privacy of their whereabouts.

Thanks very much to Chief Treschuk, who took my concerns seriously (even though he and I agreed that we were coming at this issue from two different directions) and crafted this change in policy.  Thanks to City Manager Barb Matthews, who coordinated the staff’s response. Thanks also to those who so ably illuminated the issues for the worksession we held on this: Cpl. Ken Matney of the Rockville City Police Department; Russ Hamill, assistant chief of the Montgomery County Police Department; Ginger McCall, open government director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center; and David Rocah, staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.

And thank you, of course, to my colleagues for listening and acting.

It is not often that local government can act to protect the privacy of its people; usually, all the relevant policies are being decided at other levels of government.  But the City of Rockville did what it could last night.  It is a small but significant step in the right direction.

Town Hall Meeting to Discuss License-Plate Privacy

To follow up on the terrific worksession the Mayor and Council held this past Monday night on the privacy issues surrounding automatic license-plate reader data retention, I am convening a town-hall meeting for members of the public to discuss the issue.  The meeting is on Wednesday, March 20, at 7 p.m. in City Hall’s Black-Eyed Susan Room.

Please join me and your fellow citizens as we discuss what the City’s policy should be on retaining the data from these cameras.  Should we continue to keep it forever, building up a vast store of data on the comings and goings of every Rockville resident?  Or should we keep it for a limited amount of time?

Click here to see the video of the worksession.  Click here for the Mayor and Council briefing sheet. Here are terrific rundowns on the issue in The Gazette and Patch, and another nicely informative piece on Patch.

 

Help Protect Maryland’s Public Ethics!

So, would you like to know more about your elected officials’ conflicts of interest, or less? If some people get what they want in Annapolis this year, you’ll be knowing a whole lot less. You can help stop this from happening.

After political scandals rocked Baltimore and Prince George’s County, the state of Maryland took a big step forward toward better ethics for its elected officials in 2010 when the General Assembly unanimously passed reforms that required elected county and municipal officials to start disclosing the same amount of information that state officials have had to for years. It amounts to more information about things owned outside the officials’ immediate area, and more about what their family members own.

But that progress is in danger this year. There are efforts underway in Annapolis to exempt virtually every city, town, and village in the state from the rules. If it passes, municipal officials will have to disclose only a small fraction of what they’re now required to disclose.

This doesn’t sit well with me. I believe that we should be disclosing far more, not less. In Rockville, we have more folks than eight of Maryland’s 23 counties, and a bigger operating budget than four of them. The Mayor and Council control all development and zoning within our borders. We have plenty of opportunities for conflicts of interest. I was amazed to discover when I first filled out Rockville’s financial-disclosure forms that if my lovely wife owned all the land underneath our new downtown area, I wouldn’t have to disclose it (full disclosure: sadly, she does not).

I am doing what I can to keep our ethical standards from being gutted. I have written a letter to every municipal official in the state that I could find an e-mail address for, and have asked them to sign a letter to General Assembly members asking them to keep their hands off Maryland’s ethical protections. You can see these letters here.

What can you do? Two big things:

• Write to your state legislators and let them know that you don’t want them to weaken the financial-disclosure rules for city and town officials. Find out who your legislators are, and get contact information, here: http://mdelect.net/

• If you live in a village, town, or city, write to your elected officials and ask them if they plan on signing the letter I have sent them. And if they’re not, why not?

The heart of my letter to Maryland’s municipal leaders was this:

We are not at a moment when our residents are crying out for less accountability and lower ethical standards from their elected officeholders. We are not at a moment where confidence in elected officials’ integrity is so high that we can burn off a little surplus good will by relaxing reporting requirements.

On the contrary, we live in an era where residents expect more transparency, higher standards, and more rigorous disclosures from their elected officials. Maryland’s 2010 ethics law was a solid step in the right direction, one that should not be reversed. Maryland’s citizens have the right to know that we are acting in the public’s interest and not our own.

Please consider taking a few moments to let your lawmakers know that you support Maryland’s ethics law as it stands and do not want to see it weakened.

Thank you very much for your time and your consideration. If you have any questions, thoughts, or concerns, please get in touch with me at tmoore@rockvillemd.gov.