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.

The Council Passes the Fireside Plan

Thank you to my council colleagues Mark Pierzchala and John Hall, who joined with me last night to enable Rockville Housing Enterprises to preserve the Fireside Park Apartments as a good, solid, affordable neighborhood.   The deal we ended up protects taxpayers and strikes a real blow toward keeping this City fair, accessible, and economically strong.

Come out to Monday’s Public Hearing on Affordable Housing!

Rockville’s Mayor and Council are holding a public hearing on Monday night on a plan to preserve a big chunk of affordable housing in the City.  We’ve heard plenty from opponents of the project; I’d like us to hear from those who believe that we are a stronger and better City when we support affordable housing and the hardworking people who live in it.  Click here to find out how you can participate; thanks!

The Coolest Part of the Gude Drive Facility…

…with the possible exception of the big tank of beet juice, is the name of its conference room.

City Hall’s conference rooms have fancy Maryland-themed names like “Black-Eyed Susan,” or “Diamondback Terrapin,” or “Blue Crab,” but the guys out on Gude Drive are more direct about what they like about Maryland:

 

 

Our Terrific New Gude Drive Facility

I was delighted to get the opportunity today to tour the City’s newly expanded Gude Drive maintenance facility and show it off for the City’s cable station, Channel 11.

Gude Drive is where several hundred Public Works and Recreation and Parks folks report to work every day — about half the City’s workforce.  It’s where all City vehicles get their maintenance, their repairs, and their gas, and it’s where we park them when we’re not using them.  It’s where we store the salt, rocks, dirt, sand and, oddly, beet juice that keep this City running.  It’s where all our street signs are made.

Pat Stroud, Public Works Fleet Manager, was kind enough to take me around and demonstrate what $10 million in taxpayer money buys.  The highlight is a great new vehicle maintenance facility that will allow for much more efficient maintenance and repair of the City’s surprisingly large fleet of vehicles.

Some of the City’s larger vehicles — think cherry-pickers — couldn’t even fit in the old building, let alone go up on the lifts.  The new building can handle any vehicle the City owns or is likely to own in the foreseeable future.

By moving the vehicle maintenance shop out of the old buildings they had been in, the other divisions that have a home on Gude Drive will also be able to rearrange themselves and work more efficiently.

Rockville will be a more efficient, safer, and better city with this project completed.

The segment on Channel 11 starts airing October 1.

Tanned, Rested, and Ready.

My colleagues and I return from our summer break tomorrow night to a new chamber.

I liked the old one a lot — I was used to it:

…but the new one is beautifully put together and looks great.  This is my photo of it from a few weeks ago:

A tremendous amount of thought, care, and planning went into this transition.  Kudos to Rockville public information chief Marylou Berg and her staff for getting this done so well and so quickly!

UPDATE:  Here’s the new chamber on Opening Night:

And the view from my seat:

Lovely.

Gaithersburg’s Destructive Drive Toward Annexing Sears

Tomorrow night, Gaithersburg’s elected officials – Mayor Sidney Katz, Vice President Ryan Spiegel, and Councilmembers Jud Ashman, Cathy Drzyzgula, Henry Marraffa, and Mike Sesma – are preparing to to wreak serious, unnecessary, and perhaps permanent damage upon the relationship between their city and the City of Rockville.

They are voting Monday night, Aug. 6, on whether to annex to Gaithersburg 28 acres of property on the Rockville side of Shady Grove Road. The City of Rockville has attempted to block this move in a variety of ways without success.

Maryland gives unusually strong powers to municipalities that want to annex property. There is nothing the City of Rockville, Montgomery County, or the State of Maryland can do to stop this process, and time is short.

All that can be done at this point is to appeal to the propriety of Gaithersburg’s leaders and to make sure that Sid, Ryan, Jud, Cathy, Henry, and Mike understand just how much their proposed action has disappointed and angered Rockville’s leadership – and just how much it will damage the relationship between their city and the City of Rockville. Not might damage, or could damage, but will damage the relationship.  Those of us on the Rockville side who thought we had solid personal relationships with members of Gaithersburg’s Mayor and Council feel quite personally burned.

To put it simply, Gaithersburg is betraying its friend and neighbor. Rockville’s leaders consider this proposed annexation to be a deeply threatening move against our vitally important long-term interests. The City of Rockville will have to think long and hard about how and whether it can work with the City of Gaithersburg in the future. I find it difficult to believe that the taxes Gaithersburg will gain from this parcel will be worth it.

To annex this property, Gaithersburg is violating the formal agreement it has had in place with the City of Rockville for over twenty years, and violating the informal understanding that has been in place for far longer than that. Shady Grove Road has always been considered the natural boundary between the two municipalities – a line reinforced by the relatively recent addition of Interstate 370 snaking between them. Perhaps the best indication of where everyone understood the border to be is the sign that adorns the south side of the I-370 bridge as it crosses Rockville Pike:

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For a city to annex a parcel, it has to be contiguous to the city in some way. The Sears property doesn’t come close to touching Gaithersburg at the moment. Gaithersburg aims to connect to the parcel by annexing right of way down Rockville Pike, right past this sign, hanging a turn onto Shady Grove Road, and proceeding until it touches the Sears property on the Rockville side of the road. It’s a perfectly legal maneuver, but it’s exactly the kind of thing that friends do not do to each other.

That Gaithersburg’s path to this property runs right past the city’s own welcome sign is a telling sign that this property should be Rockville’s.

Rockville’s leadership responded too slowly to this threat, and I take full responsibility for my part in that. Looking back, I think that we were slow to recognize this threat for what it was because we simply couldn’t believe that Gaithersburg would strike against Rockville’s interests so brazenly.

Gaithersburg Mayor Sidney Katz told Gaithersburg Patch something amazing, and, I think, very revealing the other day. The two cities have had a “memorandum of understanding” (MOU) (found here) in place since 1992 that governs how the cities will confer with each other when approaching issues like this.

Gaithersburg appears to believe all its obligations to behave honorably toward its neighboring city expired with the agreement late last month:

“By not voting to annex the property until after its expiration, Gaithersburg did not violate the memorandum, Katz said.”

This is absolutely outrageous. All of this was timed to happen two weeks after Gaithersburg believed a 20-year agreement expired?  Who does that?  No one I want to do business with.  Does Gaithersburg intend to stab its neighbors in the back the very first moment they think they can get away with it in every instance, or just this one?  What else should Rockville be preparing for?

Plus, Gaithersburg did indeed violate the memorandum. Provision 5 reads:

5. The City Councils, the County Council, the Executive, and the Montgomery County Planning Board agree to work on a cooperative basis in the development of plans and programs, including development districts, that affect parcels within the urban growth areas. Changes in land use, staging, or zoning proposals for parcels within the urban growth area will only be undertaken after the participation and consultation of the other parties. Any land annexed by Gaithersburg or Rockville should include a staging component in the annexation agreement.

Needless to say, when Gaithersburg embarked upon its plan to annex this land (and change its zoning), it utterly failed to consult or participate with the other parties to the MOU. A final vote on an annexation is not when the matter is “undertaken” – this has been in the works for months if not longer.

Moreover, the memorandum of understanding simply did not expire on July 23, 2012, as Gaithersburg seems to believe. While Provision 1 of the MOU mentions a “twenty-year planning horizon” with which the parties to the agreement were working, and the agreement was indeed signed on July 23, 1992, it does not suggest that the “planning horizon” is an expiration date.  The MOU is not limited to twenty years. Provision 9 makes this crystal-clear:

9. The principles contained within this Memorandum are meant to apply to all future actions pertaining to land in the Cities or on or near the Cities’ borders.

All future actions. All of them, until the parties to the Agreement together agree to do something else, which we have not done.

Since Rockville belatedly sprang into action on this, we have pursued four paths simultaneously:

1. Change Sears’ mind on applying to Gaithersburg. We met with Sears’ attorneys and put our best case forward, but Sears decided to stay the course it started when Gaithersburg approached the company and offered annexation.

2. Look to Montgomery County to change the zoning. Sears was not interested in this option, which would have taken too long.

3. Block Gaithersburg’s annexation via our own annexation of Shady Grove Road itself. We made a valiant attempt to draw a line between the cities here, but we have not been able to catch up to Gaithersburg’s procedural schedule.

That leaves us one last chance at this stage:

4. See if we can persuade Gaithersburg’s leaders to change their minds.

Rockville’s Mayor and Council have been in touch with Gaithersburg’s leaders formally and informally, asking them to change course. So far, they have declined to do so.

I cannot emphasize enough how aggressive Rockville considers Gaithersburg’s move to be, and how much it shatters the trust the cities have built for decades. Gaithersburg’s proposed annexation endangers the long-term future and shape of the City of Rockville. Threats to a city do not get more elemental than this.

Sid, Ryan, Jud, Cathy, Henry, and Mike: You still have the opportunity to avoid making this mistake. Please consider your actions very carefully here. Our cities have worked exceptionally well together at times over the years, and competed honorably for residents and businesses at other times. Please do not bring this productive period to an ugly close. Both cities deserve better.

Until you vote Monday night, you still have time to do the right thing. I urge you to do so.

Tom Moore
Rockville City Council