Now the Work Begins

I officially took office at a swearing-ceremony Monday, May 10.

Getting Organized

The swearing-in also included a Council organizational meeting – commission/committee assignments, approving our work session and business meetings schedule, received Town Hall keys, iPad and the required paperwork for pay, taxes and other deductions.

We provided our commission choices, so I was assigned to the Town Center Corporation (TCC) (I helped to establish in 2013) and the Parks and Recreation Commission. These were my choices and align with my interests and experience.

What I’m doing

I was disappointed that we didn’t have a better transition as new members, given the significant and complex issues we face. We did have an hour long virtual meeting prior to our swearing-in.

I (and several Council members) met individually with the Town Manager, Town Treasurer, Police Chief and Public Works Director to hear their respective concerns, issues and needs.

No time to reflect on the election, with our first Council work session, Tuesday night, May 11. This was followed by my first Parks/Recreation Commission meeting 7:30 AM the following morning.

After this initial flurry, I’m getting organized as well. Completed all the paperwork, set-up my IPad, received a town email address, accessed our Office 365 enterprise account, ordered apparel with the Town logo, and updated my election Facebook page to a public official page. I’ve haven’t used Apple products for many years, so this is another learning process to maximize its use for Town business.

Using the Town’s Office 365 account let’s me separate business versus personal use. This is important for practical and legal reasons (See the issues list below).

Rather than have another cell phone forTown business, I and several other Council members will use an app – RingCentral. This has a separate phone number and can be used for texting as well. Use and costs can then be tracked, again separating personal versus town business.

We posed for official Town photos, now posted on the Town’s website. It turned out pretty good – I actually smiled!

I’m using Harvest to track my Council hours. I’m getting paid, so I need to put in the work to justify my pay. I didn’t know the salary until the prior council approved a pay increase in April to $15,000! I didn’t want to vote on that and would have voted NO.

The Real Work

I’ve already engaged in the real work of an elected official – constituent services. I’ve received many emails (through my town email) and phone calls from residents asking specific questions about possible zoning violations, the proposed FY 22 budget, building permit inspections and process, and police service, retirement concerns. My goal is to respond within 24 hours, even if only to acknowledge their inquiry and then follow-up with a response or referral.

Creator: Brian A. Jackson Doral, Florida

My knowledge and experience in planning and zoning has already helped. When walking my dog in my neighborhood, there was a construction crew installing internet cable, within a 15 foot wide utility easement along the front yards of homes. The contractors were working for Comcast. After my walk, I emailed to Town Manager and Planning Director, copying the Mayor ( chain of command, all on the same sheet) and asked if a building permit had been filed. Within 10 minutes, they responded that no permit was on hand. Code Enforcement and Public Works personnel shut the job down. They resumed their work a week later after filing the required permit.

The Issues

It’s easy to be critical when looking in from the outside, not necessarily knowing the “the rest of the story”. I suspected this was the case, later confirmed from our issues brief on the afternoon we took office.

Our key issues:

  • Town Council operating procedures: As new members, we are struggling to understand how we must work together, how to place items on meeting agendas and meet to candidly discuss these and other sensitive issues, while complying with the Maryland’s Open Meeting Law and requirements.
  • FY 22 budget: review and approve by June 8 ( effective July 1); the budget process started in January 2021 by the previous Council; the tax rate has already been set, any opportunity for amendments is very limited.
  • Potential law suite: An attorney for a developer, and owner of a +-200 acre tract, annexed in 2000, has submitted a letter that all records and documents for this project and an adjacent project under construction, be preserved. This is likely in advance of a law suite they will file about the project review process by the prior council.
  • Police benefits: The Police ( 25 total staff)want to switch to the state retirement system; there is a retention and recruitment concerns if the change in not made now; there is an equity issue – what about other Town staff, cost ($4-6 million to switch, $400-600K annual cost). Note – the proposed budget includes $75K for a salary/benefits study), previously delayed but needed now to provide factual data and context.
  • Is the Town organized and staffed for projected growth? This is related to the previous item; Town population is +-10,000 and expected to grow significantly based on projects in the pipeline; Do we need more staff? Do we need a full time Human Resources ( HR) staff or consultant (73 Town employees)? Do we need full time Town Attorney?
  • Infrastructure: We operate a water and sewer treatment facility, provide trash/recycling (paid by enterprise funds – users pay for it in fees),police and park/recreation, services primarily funded by property taxes).The fees are set each FY and will increase by 3% in the FY 22 budget. An immediate issue – water. The State will not grant additional groundwater aquifer withdrawal, so we may have to buy water from a regional water authority, at a significantly higher cost. Are we prepared for cyber attacks?
  • Public Participation/Engagement: The May 4 election turnout was dismal (<5% of eligible voters!). Actions needed – a new Town website, use other social media channels, change how and where the Council meets, start Town Hall meetings, meet with Homeowners Associations (HOA) and other groups. We have been meeting with the town business association. We have a PR consultant, but need to fully utilize them for more effective engagement.

So we have a lot to do!

Source: KGD Architecture

What’s Next

The Goals and Objectives for my 4-year term.

I Won! What’s Next?!

So I won my Town Council seat by 27 votes!

Election Day

It was a long day, starting at 6:00 AM. Candidates could verify the ballot boxes were empty, and the ballots were correct, including directions to vote for one candidate for each ward.

The polls opened at 7:00 AM. I voted and the set up my sign, table/chair to meet and greet voters. The weather was sunny and hot (88 degrees). I took a break mid-morning to change clothes, and apply sunscreen. (my house is 10 minutes from Town Hall). I took another break mid-afternoon, walking to Burger King for lunch.

Late afternoon there was a severe thunderstorm and lightening. I retreated to my car, while the other candidates remain outside under their umbrellas!

Voting surged during lunch (12:00 PM) and then later (5:00 PM), voters returning from work . Some voting during the thunderstorm!

The polls closed at 8:00 PM and the candidates or their designated representatives, could observe the vote count. Unlike the primary, I chose not to watch. I was just too tired to sit for several more hours while the votes were counted.

I then collected several nearby lawn signs and went home, not worrying about fraud.

The results would be posted on the Town’s Election Page. I thought the tally would be completed by 10:00 PM.

The Results

The race was far closer than I initially imagined – 241 to 214! But greeting and seeing voters throughout the day, I saw and felt a much different vibe from the March primary.

First, voter turnout was lower than expected.

There was only a two week primary campaign versus the nine weeks for the general election.

The status of the Town police became a dominant issue, because of recent national events, and Town officer’s emotional and persistent advocacy to fund a shift to the state retirement system (estimated $1.6 million entry cost, $400K annual cost).

My opponent’s husband is a Town cop, while another candidate (another ward) father is a retired County cop. Many police , (on duty and retired) and their supporters gravitated to them. We all clustered together in front of the Town Hall, to see and greet voters (beyond the electioneering distance), so I overheard many interesting conversations and comments. Some were very critical of the current mayor, and the Town was not supporting them.

I understand the desire for improved benefits and appreciate what they do. But I was very disappointed by their sense of entitlement, demeaning of town staff, who work from home, while they are “out there and exposed to COVID”.

One town officer in particular and in uniform, standing adjacent to my table, talked to another candidate, openly criticized the Mayor. He has a right to express his opinion, but not in public, in uniform and on the job. For me, this violates the basic tenants of leadership I learned in the US Army. I served with many officers that I didn’t like, but never openly criticized them in public!

My opponent was banking on full support from this “blue wall”, their friends and families. I wasn’t sure there were votes for me to overcome this, particularly with a low turnout. So my confidence dropped throughout the day.

I kept refreshing the election page website after 10:00 PM for the results. At 11:15, I received two texts at the same time saying congratulations, one from a friend and the other from the mayor. I was surprised and asked for the actual numbers. Then the website posted the results, confirming I has won! I was excited and relieved , but then reality took hold – now the real work begins! I am now accountable!

The Candidate, 1972

The Next Days

Wednesday :

  • Picked up all lawn signs; including thanking the property owners
  • Thanked by email, and FB Messenger supporters
  • Emailed thanks to family, friends who supported me
  • Attended virtually a joint Planning Commission and Town Council meeting to review long delayed but now active large residential project
  • Congratulated the other council winners
  • Updated by FB page

Friday:

  • Set meeting appointments for Monday, May 10 with the Police Chief and Director of Public Works, to get up to speed about pressing issues and concerns. NOTE: I purposely copied the mayor and town manager, to set the example to use the chain of command, sorely lacking in previous town councils
  • Reached out to my opponent asking for her ideas and issues. We will talk after she takes some time off

Taking Office

I take office 7:00 PM, Monday, May 10, in person, but with appropriate COVID protocols. It will also be live streamed through Facebook Live and YouTube. We will all receive an iPad, Office 365 account and FOB key to Town Hall . We can also register for the Maryland Municipal League (non-profit support organization for town elected officials) summer conference, in-person and virtual, in June.

Each council member is assigned to a board or commission. We provided the mayor our with three choices. My choice is the downtown developed corporation ( I helped established in 2012) and the Parks/Recreation Commission.

We then have our first council work session Tuesday night. I just now (Sunday night, 9:00 PM) received an email from the Assistant Town Manger about a Parks/Recreation Commission meeting 7:30 AM Wednesday morning.

So we are off and running!

Key issues:

  • Review and pass draft FY 22 budget
    • switch police retirement system? Include all town staff?
    • Tax increase? Non in 20 years
  • Review developer’s agreement for long delayed residential project, attempted this month, by lame duck council member
  • Review two previously submitted annexation requests; several others waiting to submit

My goals:

  • Improve outreach to citizens
    • New town website
    • Outreach to homeowners associations
    • return calls/emails within 24 hours.
    • Maximize Town’s GIS (Geographic Information System)
  • Revive downtown development corporation
  • An advocate for a walkable, pedestrian, bike friendly community

It’s been an adventure and learning experience getting here!

The real work starts now!

Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Final Countdown

I’m writing this on Sunday, May 2, two days before the Town Council election on Tuesday.

Activities

I had one final Zoom candidate forum Thursday, April 29, sponsored by the County NAACP. All candidates were invited, but my opponent declined due to a “prior engagement” as stated by the forum host. That was a surprise, and helped relax me.

The rules were straight forward – the two minute rule – for opening statement, answering questions and closing remarks. Interaction with other candidates was discouraged.

We logged into Zoom 15 minutes prior to the start of the forum, to insure no audio and video problems. The forum was also a live Facebook event and recorded.

Two funny things when I connected – first, an incumbent candidate in another ward, quickly changed from a tee-shirt to a coat and tie, after the other candidates were dressed appropriately for the occasion. This reinforced my mistake of wearing a hooded sweatshirt ( the hood was down!) during my Facebook Live event in late March!

The other humorous thing was when the NAACP President asked another candidate from a different ward (not my opponent) if he was old enough to vote! He is 21, but looks much younger. He had tried to run four years ago when he was 17!

This is not to bash younger folks, but it was funny and an ice-breaker. Note – I hope his opponent wins. He is more mature and experienced that the Council will need.

We answered 11 questions from the participants (22) during the two hour forum, fielded by the moderator. I had anticipated two of the questions – our position or thoughts about defunding the police and if we supported switching to the state retirement program for the town police.

One other question ( two parts) was unexpected, and hard – how we would help a poorer neighborhood in town and support expansion of an adjacent (and new) community center.

Photo by Werner Pfennig on Pexels.com

It was a long forum, but well organized. The video was viewed by over 500, with 77 comments. My performance was ok, but disappointed I didn’t provide better answers to several questions.

I read the comments and there were no specific negative comments about me. They were numerous comments about the younger candidate referenced earlier. He was called out for not looking at the camera when not answering questions. He seemed to typing notes but still not a good look.

After the event, the current mayor (running unopposed) and the retiring council member both texted, saying I did a good job. They want me to win, so while appreciated, I take them with a grain of salt.

Final Things to Do

So now I’m on a FB election page posting blitz now until Tuesday, emphasizing vote on May 4, between 7:00 AM and 8:00 PM (a long day!). In response to many questions, a follow-up post added that residents can vote for one (1) candidate for Mayor and the four Wards. I want to avoid what happened in the primary – six ballots were thrown out for marking two candidates, not one. I lost at least one vote, critical when only 200 voted.

I will also re-post Why I am Running and Future Issues narratives.

As of today, campaign expenses for lawn signs (21) and election postcard handouts (500) total $581.00. I used Canva (free version) to design the lawn sign and postcard. I have not accepted any campaign contributions.

I’ve checked on my signs after Friday’s wind storm (>50 MPH!) and all ok.

I am planning to set up my last sign outside the electioneering limit from town hall on election day to greet and say hi to voters. A sunny warm day is predicted! I will take strategic breaks during the day. Results should be known Tuesday night, but haven’t decided to stay for the vote count. There is little chance of fraud and it could still take several hours to complete the vote tally. It comes after a long day!

My Thoughts

So now is the hard part – waiting. I am really ok win or lose. If I lose, life moves on, I’ve learned a lot about myself and I have a list of what’s next.

If I win – what have I done! There will be significant challenges, some long neglected and others from growth pressures. There is always the unexpected, so the hope is the new council will coalesce into a team! We will have to make tough and controversial decisions. This is where my Army experience will help.

It’s been a good experience and glad I took the challenge!

I’ll post the results as soon as I know.

Photo by Element5 Digital on Pexels.com

Sprint to the Finish!

It’s April 25 – 9 days to the May 4 General Election!

What I’m Doing

Supporters wanted more signs to post, so I purchased additional ones, for a total of 21. All have been posted at strategic and visible locations for maximum exposure. I’ve keep track of their location and costs. I shorten the metal sign holders so they don’t get blown over by the wind. I also check the signs and if necessary reset them.

There was another Homeowners Association (HOA) Zoom candidate forum earlier this week. It was the same format, a five-minute introduction, but reversed, so I was the second candidate, after my opponent. I noticed all the candidates improved their introductions., except my opponent.

Q & A followed, but was different than the earlier candidate forum. First, the youngest candidate (not my opponent) attempted politicize the forum by demanding his opponent state his support to change the town police retirement program and support raises. Note, this is a non-partisan election. No party affiliation is asked when filing for election. The moderator shut down this attack and admonished him for not following directions. It was not a good moment for him!

This was needed. We have local, bread and butter issues – services, growth, and taxes. We need to work together to reach consensus for the health, welfare and safety of residents.

Photo by RODNAE Productions on Pexels.com

The other oddity was my opponent, after her five-minute introduction, never said another word, never added comments even when we all were asked to add our thoughts.

I attended Celebrate La Plata Day, Saturday, April 24. Note: no campaigning was allowed, but I attended with a name tag to be seen, talk to current Council members, Town staff and residents. I also talked to three other candidates (not my opponent, who was not there).

I was called earlier this week the Council member I seek to replace (she is retiring). She asked I review draft legislation on the April 26 Business Meeting agenda, the last meeting before the election. I returned her call, but expressed my hesitancy to provide comments. I am not elected and didn’t want to interfere. She understood this, but values my opinion, and was looking for an outside perspective. Her comments were consistent with my review.

Received a text from the Mayor, who is unopposed. She was going to organize a candidate forum, not knowing about the April 29 forum. I let her know and asked if there has been any feedback from the two earlier forums. Her response was positive about me and several other candidates and advised me to keep up what I am doing.

All candidates were notified about important dates for the winners after the election:

  • May 10 – swearing ceremony, Council organization – committee assignment, issue FOB key to Town Hall, issue iPads
  • May 13 – official photos
  • June conference dates to attend (virtual or in-person) Maryland Municipal League, non-profit, non- partisan support/ research organization for Maryland towns

Because I am superstitious and take nothing for granted, these dates are not on my calendar.

Last Push

  • Continue daily posts on my FB election page
  • Virtually attend last monthly Council business meeting (April 26) before the election
  • Respond to email inquires from residents/voters, within 24 hours
  • Prepare for the April 29 and final candidate forum – County NAACP – police and related issues will be top questions.
  • Plan my activities on election day; voting starts 7:00 AM (hope for good weather!), ending 8:00 PM; results should be known that night!
Photo by Sora Shimazaki on Pexels.com

So I am hopeful, but have accepted that win or lose, this has been learning experience and life moves on.

Moving On – The General Election!

I finished in the top two (out of three) at the March 15 primary. So now it’s on to the May 4 general election.

Observations so far

The primary was a double-edge sword – only two weeks to campaign, but there was an end – votes were counted.

Now there is a nine week gap between March 15 and May 4. With three weeks left, I’ll be glad when it’s over, win or lose.

This is a positive learning experience – the need to listen, putting myself out there, subject to criticism and failure, meeting new people, trying new things and getting to know my community.

The Issues so far

Concern about traffic from new development, need for sidewalks have been the bread and butter issues so far.

But recent national events and last week’s town’s council meetings have interjected a new dynamic – policing. We’ve had no shooting incidents here, but this is on our collective minds. Calls for defunding police adds to the stress.

The local business association at a Town Council meeting last week urged the town to switch to the state ‘s law enforcement retirement system. If not, the town will lose officers (25 total staff) due to higher pay and retirement benefits in neighboring counties. They will also have difficulty hiring new officers. The Police Chief made this same request at next council meeting, when reviewing his FY 22 budget. I’ve known him since 2016 and never heard this level of frustration before.

My campaign activities

Prepared using Canva

Social media : after the initial launch of my Facebook (FB) election page, I’ve made steady improvements. My Likes have increased to 55.

I post relevant articles every day – best practices and case studies that could apply to our town. I also post weekly my responses to a Strong Towns article “10 Questions to Ask Someone Running for Local Office”.

I scheduled (and recorded) a FB Live Event, introducing myself and listening to voter feedback. There were eight views. There were positive comments, so I plan another one, about the status of a large (3,100 homes) project now started after annexation in 1990 and an overview of the annexation process.

Outreach: I’ve responded to five voter emails, requesting information about me, why I am running, and my plans if elected. I responded within a day, with positive responses and surprise I answered at all .

At the suggestion of a local business owner and past president of the business association, I contacted my primary opponent who finished in third place. My intent was to thank her for running and if she could share her concerns and issues about the town. She called, saying she was voting for me. I was surprised and responded I had not reached out for her vote. She acknowledged that and shared some great ideas. I will continue to reach out for her insights.

A local reporter requested we provide a brief (75 words or less) Why Should I Be Elected narrative, late last week for publication in the local newspaper.

I have posted 14 lawn signs in Town. Additional signs have been ordered in response to requests from friends. I always ask for permission and visit each site, asking where to place a sign, to minimize disruption to the property owner.

Events: I’ve attended three events – the Town’s Sustainable Committee spring clean-up (trash pick-up) and native tree planting, and a ribbon-cutting for a new business opening. Photos were then posted on my FB Election page.

Participated on April 14 in a Zoom candidate forum organized by a Home Owners Association (HOA). The format included a five minute opening introduction by each candidate (by ward and alphabetically). I was second to last to speak, giving me time to listen and calm my nerves. This was followed by a thirty-five minute Q&A session.

A second Zoom candidate forum with another HOA is scheduled on April 21.

An unexpected candidate forum, sponsored by the County NAACP chapter, is scheduled for April 29. I am apprehensive, given recent national events. This is and will be a major issue that requires us to listen, learn and have a honest dialogue. I will prepare by researching and attending (virtually) their public meeting on April 20.

Photo by Sora Shimazaki on Pexels.com

What’s Next

I will continue the following:

  • Daily postings on my FB election page
  • Schedule another FB Live Event (Note: good practice for candidate forums and podcasting)
  • Place eight new lawn signs, hand out campaign postcards
  • Prepare for the next two Zoom candidate forums
  • Be responsive to email inquires
  • Attend Town events
  • Look for other opportunities to get the vote out!
  • Plan my election day activities and hope for good weather!

The Primary

So I filed to run for the council. This required completion of a 6 page form, with questions focused on potential financial conflicts – doing business or any investments associated with the town.

I was initially intimidated by the questions, believing I may have conflicts. But after obtaining clarification and guidance from the Town Clerk, there were none and completion was straightforward.

The filing package also included signatures and addresses from five town residents, then signed by me and notarized.

The paper work was filed on February 23, a week prior to the March 1 deadline. I wanted some time to insure time to make revisions if needed.

So I filed! What’s next?!

I was naïvely thought there wouldn’t be any opponents. It would a cakewalk.

I was brought back to reality after checking the Town’s election website after the 5:00 PM filing deadline . Two others had also filed to the vacant Council seat! My bubble was burst, my ego deflated.

Town residents who are who are registered can then vote, selecting one candidate from three on the ballot. Two with the highest votes then move on the May 4 general election.

I experienced anxiety – what if I lose, why did I file, what have I done?! I’m a failure if I lose! I also freaked out over what my opponents were doing.

After stewing several days, I realized the need to focus and take action for my campaign, not worrying about others and things I can’t control. There is acceptance that if I loose or win life moves on.

A primary is then required if two or more candidates file for a seat, The primary election vote was then scheduled for Monday, March 15, a two week campaign!

The Primary Campaign

Source: Street Fight, August 19, 2015 by Patrick Kitano

A two week campaign for a newbie like me, during a pandemic is a challenge! I did several things. First, I Googled “political campaign” looking for ideas, Second, I called the current Mayor and Council member who retiring, asking how they ran their campaigns and associated costs.

Other actions:

  • Reviewed my contact list, then called and emailed them, announcing my candidacy, t and the primary voting date
  • Drafted a Why I am running narrative and candidate bio
  • Developed a Facebook (FB) political candidate page; Note: goal – post relevant material every day
  • Follow up message to my contact list, attaching why I am running narrative, bio and FB election page link, requesting they Like and Follow
  • Used Canva to create candidate post card ,, using Fed Ex to print 250 and a local printing company for six lawn signs
  • Posted my candidacy on Nextdoor App; later posted Primary Day (March 15) as an event

It was easy to write the why I am running narrative. It’s an extension of my passion, knowledge and work/life experiences.

After the Town issued a press release of the candidates and the primary voting date, all the candidates were contacted by email by a reporter from the local paper ( published on Fridays, and online version on Wednesday), requested a bio, a recent photo and why I an running document (100 words) .

The local business association also reached out to the primary candidates, requesting a response to an online questionnaire.

Once the lawn signs were ready, they were placed at strategic locations around town after receiving permission from property owners.

In anticipation of possible contributions, I picked a Campaign Treasurer. I am tracking all campaign expenses, currently limited to the post cards and lawn signs.

The Town has no campaign funding limits or filing requirements.

I was contacted by a lobbying firm, currently representing the County, and the new owner of a large residential project (3,100 homes) currently under review by the Town. He asked if I needed funding. I didn’t accept any contributions if offered. This would be a conflict and wrong thing to do,

Primary Election Day!

The polls at the Town Hall, opened at 12: 00 PM, and closed at 8:00 M,

I could designate poll watchers and alternatives during the election. Prior to the polls opening, I was allowed to access to the polling area inside Town Hall to see the ballots and confirm the ballot boxes were empty when opened.

No electioneering can happen within 100 feet of the Town Hall entrance. I set up a lawn sign beyond this boundary to greet voters as they arrived and left. Some voters stopped and asked questions before voting. I thanked voters for voting,

It was a long eight hours, and fortunately no rain and not too cold!

After the polls closed, I could observe the opening of the ballot boxes and vote counting by the Town Election Board. While anxious to know the results, it was nerve wracking as the candidates names were called out as ballots were opened, tallied, and confirmed.

Six ballots were discarded because voter intent couldn’t be determined. Two candidates were marked, when the voter directions at the top of the ballot stated vote for only one candidate. I lost a t least one vote. This could have been critical, given the low turnout. (200) There were 11 absentee ballots and one provisional ballot were counted.

Within an hour, the results were official :

I had no sense of how many would vote, because this was a primary during a pandemic.

As one of two with the highest votes, I am now eligible to run against the other candidate in the May 4 general election.

I am gratified by the vote total, but now must shift to a six week campaign.

Up next – The General Election campaign.

A Politician? – Taking the Plunge!

This and following posts chronicle my journey running for a seat on my Town Council.

This first post is background that led to my filing for the seat on March 1.

My Town

La Plata, Maryland, is located 30 miles south of Washington, DC, with a population of 8,753 (2010 Census). I suspect this will increase to 10,000 after the 2020 Census is released. It is also the county seat for Charles County, one of three Southern Maryland counites.

The town was incorporated in 1888 as the Pennsylvania Rail Road was granted a right of way to build a track and station. The track runs north/south through the downtown, initially for passenger service, then later to haul coal south to a power plant. There is limited use with the impending closing of the power plant.

The Town has police and zoning powers as an incorporated government. It is governed by a Town Council, consisting of a Mayor and four council members, each representing four wards. They serve 4 year terms.There is no party affiliation.

We have the usual public services funded from property taxes, with a annual differential for county taxes. Town services include police (16 officers, coordination with the Count’s Sherriff), water/sewer, trash collection (Department of Public Works), parks and recreation (no formal department) and planning/zoning (Department of Planning & Zoning). Other professional staff includes a treasurer and outside /contract attorney.

Source: Southern Maryland Independent

The Town has 72 employees.

Budget History:

Source: Town of La Plata

My Background

I moved to La Plata from Baltimore County (it wraps around Baltimore City) in 1986, to take a job as a planner with a local engineering company (perhaps an oxymoron, but that’s another whole story!). This was a homecoming, as my grandparents were born in La Plata.

After a number of job changes in Southern Maryland, I know La Plata and the larger community, and have a large network of friends, professionals, and elected officials (town, county and state). I am active in the community, serving on County boards and committees.

One job included working for the Town, from 2008 to 2014, culminating as Planning Director. So I know how the town works.

After retirement in 2019, I still have a passion for planning, and community/economic development issues. I looked for opportunities to stay engaged and contribute my experiences.

One opportunity was a part-time Community Grant writer position (20 hours/week) with the Town . This later changed to supporting the re-start of the downtown development corporation (which I help to start in 2010). This position has not been filled, delayed until after the May election, because there could be three new council members.

The Catalyst

I ‘ve maintained contact with the town (Council and staff), attending their virtual Council meetings, providing relevant information, and testimony at public hearings (Comprehensive Plan adoption, annexations and Zoning Ordinance amendments).

In early February, a council member called, asking if I had considered filing for her Council seat, since she was not running . I had considered running four years ago, but my former employer didn’t support it. So I just moved on.

I was surprised and somewhat intrigued. At her suggestion, the mayor and I talked several times. he provided her thoughts and I asked many questions – who else would run, the cost and time of a campaign, town issues, her concerns and goals for the next term.

I talked to my wife and spend a couple of weeks researching and weighing the pros and cons, prior to the March 1 filing deadline.

The Pros

  • I know the Town and how it runs; know current Town Council and staff
  • A 35 year La Plata resident
  • Experience in planning, community/economic development issues and policies
  • Experience and extensive network in the Town and County; worked with elected leadership at Town, County and State (State Senators/Delegates to the Maryland General Assembly).
  • Good reputation
  • Opportunity to give back, contribute to my community, consistent with my history of community engagement and service (US Army, Army National Guard)

The Cons:

  • Feeding my ego? Wow, I’m a Councilman! Look at me!
  • I know it all, have all the answers.
  • Do I really understand what I am signing up for? It won’t always be easy. Confronted at the grocery store by residents?!
  • Do I have a thick skin ? There will be criticism. My vote will irritate someone.
  • Can I still maintain my values and integrity?

My Decision

After weighing all this , I filed the required paperwork on February 22.

The Why

This is my elevator pitch, still a work in progress:

I am running for Town Council because as a city planner, by education and working in the profession, I know and understand the impact of growth and development.


La Plata is at the confluence of COVID-19 and the long-term implications from a flurry of recent development activity – several residential annexation requests and the start of Heritage Green (annexed in 1990) that will have significant impacts on the community.

The new Comprehensive Plan (Comp Plan) was adopted in September 2020. To be effective, the plan needs implementation. This must be THE policy document, and strategic framework, guiding all decisions, not gathering dust on the shelf.


The Town has a Capital Improvement (CIP), an effective implementation tool, using the Town’s fiscal budget to fund needed projects identified in the Comp Plan – road improvements, water/sewer, sidewalks, parks/recreation, and downtown reinvestment ( become a full Main Street member).


Another implementation tool is the Zoning Ordinance. Major changes have been made and are still underway. But additional changes are needed, given the adoption of the new Comp Plan, significant changes in the community, new planning techniques, and thinking about how places grow and develop. This is urgently needed in response to development pressures and COVID-19.


I then want to bring my experiences, perspectives, and passion to this discussion and decision-making process to continue La Plata’s progress.


This is also an opportunity to serve and give back to La Plata, my home since 1986.

Next Post – The Results of the March 15th Primary

Source: DCist/WAMU / Dominique Maria Bonessi

It’s More Than School Seats

Recent changes to how my county’s allocates school seats for residential projects has stirred up much controversary. This highlights that development impact is complex and more than just about schools. It’s about the larger issue of development – its pace, location, required infrastructure, economic development , affordable housing, and how to pay for it all.

In totality what does this mean? What are facts/information about growth/development and it’s impact on the County? There is never a clear and simple answer.

Source: WilliamsonSource, July 2015

Background

The County Commissioners, after meeting with the elected School Board approved major changes to the School Allocation policy. This review was initiated by the County’s Economic Development Department (EDD) at the request of a developer of a mixed-use project (residential and commercial uses). The suggested changes would allow more school seats so residential development can move forward quicker rather than wait in line longer.

The County’s school allocation policy has been in place for over ten years, dividing the community, with little discussion and opportunity for compromise.

The Arguments

School board members, the staff, and parents argue that relaxing the allocation allowing more houses, will overburden already crowded schools. The is not unexpected, since good schools ( i.e. – no portable classrooms/trailers) is a major factor when buying a home. With more homes, there is more traffic, adding to road congestion and longer work commuting times.

Several County Commissioners echoed the same opposing points, but went further stating “we don’t need more houses”.

The development and real estate community, supported the revised allocation policy, allowing more housing and shortening wait times to obtain school allocation approvals, needed before building permit approval. This could then fill the ongoing demand for affordable housing. Jobs will be created and tax revenues will increase, needed to support required infrastructure – roads, water/sewer and more schools.

It’s Not What it Seems

These illustrate a lack of real understanding about the complexity of growth, how they are interconnected, and the need for better dialogue to reach fact-based decisions.

An example helps. The County just recently and proudly announced that Kaiser Permanente will build a new medical campus, generating+-100 jobs. This is a good thing. This could perhaps help to reduce out commuting (65% of the County workforce), while generating a positive fiscal impact – more revenue than the cost of providing services, because non-residential uses don’t generate kids. School construction accounts for over 50 % of the County’s budget.

Image result for Kaiser Permanente Medical office buildings charles county
Source: Kaiser Permanente

Opposition to relaxing the school seat allocation policy, allowing for more housing is really no growth for the sake of preserving school quality and capacity. This is a not necessarily a surprise since quality public education is the function of the county board of education and expected by residents.

THE DILEMMA

Is this the classic NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) versus YIMBY (Yes in My Backyard) dilemma? For me – no!

It’s about balancing competing interests, using facts and existing policies to have informed discussions to reach a consensus on this important issue but difficult decision.

AP Photo/Noah Berger

It is about looking beyond just the schools and looking at the larger picture -the unintended consequence’s. Yes, we might have better schools, but at what price if people can’t buy afford to buy a house, rent an apartment, and reduces housing choice.

This is probably a pipe dream, given the current state of our civic discourse. But quality schools, and development impacts has and is a significant issue for my and many other places. The pandemic has exposed this and our ability to fix problems.

We need to come together and get on with fixing stuff, sooner than later!

The 15 Minute Neighborhood – Back Again

The 15-minute neighborhood is not necessarily a new concept. It has been around for quite a while, with different names or definitions.

What is it?

It is really nothing more than being able to do daily tasks within your neighborhood by either walking or riding a bike. Instead of driving to food shop, 15-minute neighborhoods support the idea of walking, riding a bike or if accessible and easy, use transit. In a more perfect world, we could perhaps walk or ride a bike to work versus getting in our cars and commuting long distances. But we have long history of planned for cars versus people.

Source: C40 Cities httpshttps://www.c40.org/about:

This is not a new idea,  based on previous work by American planner Clarence Perry –  the 1900’s – the “neighborhood unit”. A later, but perhaps a more well-known advocate was Jane Jacobs and her landmark book – The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

A more recent advocate is Carlos Moreno, Scientific Director, Pantheon Sorbonne University, Paris. A recent TED Talk summarizes his thoughts.

Below is how Paris envisions their 15 minute neighborhood.

Source: The Alternative UK

So why now?

The pandemic has accelerated the desire for functional and human scale cities, towns and neighborhoods., This is evidenced by the significant increases in the designation of open/car free streets, and increases in biking and use of parks/recreation areas.

Where is this done?

Other places pursuing this include:

Melbourne, which adopted a long-term strategic plan for 20-minute neighborhoods

Detroit, which organized a 20-minute-city concept around its defunct streetcar grid

Portland, whose Complete Neighborhood concept plans for 90% of the city to have “safe and convenient access to the goods and services needed in daily life”

Ottawa, which launched a 15-minute-neighbourhood plan to have residents take half their trips by foot, bicycle, public transit or by carpooling.

C40 Cities, a city-led coalition focused on fighting climate change, elevated the 15-minute city idea as a blueprint for post-Covid economic recovery

Source: What is a 15 Minute City? City Monitor, September 21, 2020

Source: Place Northwest , December 2020

Can it Work in Smaller Places?!

Cities with higher density (those referred above and others) have a built in advantage for this concept . These also may have robust transit options as well. But still the challenge will be to overcome car centric planning, with its attendant sprawl and low density , particularly in the US.

There is a new app Do You Live in a “15 Minute City? that “lets you check whether an address meets the criteria for such a city. Input an address, and see whether you can access medical care, grocery stores, cultural attractions, transit stops, education facilities and leisure spots within 15 or 20 minutes of walking. In its current iteration, the map is focused on the United States. ”

I first used the app, with my home address, a single family neighborhood, with 1+ acre lots. The results – “Not quite there yet” . There is limited opportunity to walk 15 minutes to the grocery store, medical office and cultural facilities , medical, education or leisure activities. Expansion to a 20 minute walk does provide access to a neighborhood park. This is contrasted by driving 15 minutes that provides easy access to all necessary places for daily living.

I then tried my Town, La Plata, Maryland and easy meet the criteria for a 15 minute city – walking to all places needed for daily living.

Residential units in downtown La Plata is somewhat limited, but this is encouraging by demonstrating that additional residential housing are needed and could be accommodated with more mixed use projects (first floor commercial office/ upper floors residential) and increases densities, consistent with the town.

What’s Next?!

Here is a list of “rules to create a 15- minute neighborhood that could be applied to your community:

Bring back the neighborhood school.

Make sure food and basic necessities are available locally.

Third Places come in all shapes and sizes

House enough people, and all kinds of people

Density isn’t enough

Sweat the small stuff for true walkability

Know when to get out of the way

Source: Strong Towns

The Ask

  1. Apply the 15-Minute Neighborhood app to your place
  2. What are the results and what does it mean?
  3. Research your zoning and development rules to determine how can you change your neighborhood
  4. Actively engage in your community – talk to your local elected officials, participate in their meetings, work sessions; participate in planning commission and related meetings and hearings.

Further Reading:


The 15-Minute City—No Cars Required—Is Urban Planning’s New Utopia

Can This App Tell You If You Live in a ’15 Minute Neighborhood’?

7 Rules for Creating “15-Minute Neighborhoods”

How to build back better with a 15-minute city

Fiscal Sustainability

Introduction

My May 17, 2020 blog post ( Paying for Stuff We Use) talked about how communities pay for the services provided to their citizens, primarily through property taxes – the assessed value of different land uses. There was further discussion and references to different processe that may generate more revenue, not by land uses, but by calculating the value per acre.

Value per Acre Analysis

This analysis is detailed in Value Per Acre Analysis: A How-To For Beginners, using property information – size, ownership, zoning, assessed value, and taxes paid. This information is usually available from the local (town or county) tax assessment office.

This information can then be mapped, using Geographic Information System (GIS) or Googele Earth.

Source: Strong Towns https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2018/10/19/value-per-acre-analysis-a-how-to-for-beginners

To illustrate the the impact of this method, the following example compared two existing commercial properties – a large “big box” store versus a smaller “mixed use “use site ( commercial uses on the first floor, with residential above).

In addition to calculating value per acre, there are two other key findings – taxes paid by each property owner and employees for each use.

Refer to the following chart to really see the major implications of this new analysis and the impact on a commuity’s budget and fiscal sustainabilty :

Source: Urban3 and Strong Towns

Source: https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2017/5/10/highest-return-on-investment-city-not-where-you-think

So What!

This clearly puunches holes in the long held belief that large commercial uses generate more tax revenues than smaller parcels. Communites have then continually engaged in attracting larger commercial uses, not fully understanding the real fiscal implications.

Large commercial boxes, malls and shopping centers (bricks and mortor) have been in decline for many years, now accelerating due to the pandemic and the resulting shift to online shopping.

The Transformation of the American Shopping Mall | Innovation | Smithsonian  Magazine
Source: Smithsonian Magazine

This also wastes valuable land, with their huge and unneeded paved parking lots. As a result, malls are undergoing a rapid transformation to other productive uses – affordable housing, recreation centers, medical facilities and other mixed uses.

When stores close (i.e. JC Penny, Sears!) then malls decline and become eyesores.

A vlaue per acres analysis provides an opportunity to

“…to make sure that its land use is productive: that is, that the activity taking place on that city’s land is creating enough wealth to support the infrastructure and services needed for that place to continue to exist and thrive.”

Source: Strong Towns

This really a Return on Investment (ROI) anaylsis for communities to understand the long term fiscall impacts from proposed development projects, annexations and re-zoning. Do they actually provide revenues, now and in the future? Will the community be fiscal sustainable?

Examples:

Here are examples how some communities have analyzed their current and future land uses, comp plan polcies to determine the impact on curernt and future revenues and budgets and how they align with their development policies:

  1. Bastrop, Texas – Establish fiscal sustainability as a critical metric for growth management, development character and budgeting
  2. Brownsville,Texas – Develop fiscal baseline for the city, understand how and where to invest resources to close their funding gap, and prioritize economic development incentive (TIRZ) opportunities that support the City’s goal to revitalize the core downtown
  3. Pflugerville, Texas – Build alignment within Council, expand the conversation around density and mixed-use development, plan for future infrastructure obligations, and maximize value capture of key development sites in a fast growth suburb.

The key takeaway from this analyis:

“…a city can help close its funding gap through adjusting its development pattern, potentially without raising taxes. Our objective is to provide information and new perspective so that city leaders can align their development and service model with what citizens are willing and able to pay for – now and in the future.”

Source: Kevin Shepherd, Verdunity CEO & Project Principal

So What’s Next

While I believe more communities need to do this kind of analysis, my concern is twofold. – why isn’t this being done by other places and how to start and move past the entrenched status quo and try this?

The key issue – if this is needed and provides a path to fiscal sustainability, how can a community actually implement this?