On the Issues

Racial justice, climate-friendliness, and affordability: these values must shape every action we take as a City.

Roger Schlegel

The Pandemic.  Lives, jobs, housing, education, childcare, savings, infrastructure, the arts — we are grieving many losses. Going forward, we find ourselves in a “new normal.” No sector of the economy, and no part of our personal lives, will be immune from the effects. City staff have worked tirelessly to connect residents, landlords, and businesses with resources to help them stay safe and financially solvent in this crisis. 

Still, we must establish a comprehensive system for tracking threats to health and financial well-being so that we are not simply responding to those who are aware of how to seek help. We must revamp how we reach people and provide information to include civic organizations and social networks, so that we are sure that every resident, regardless of language, income, age, ability, or legal status, is getting assistance when they need it. 

And, we must make it our commitment that no resident of Takoma Park gets evicted or foreclosed on because of the pandemic or its economic impacts. This is a moral imperative — it’s what true communities do. For City information on how to seek assistance if you are threatened by eviction and foreclosure, click here. For County information on staying safe and ensuring proper protective measures in multifamily buildings, click here.

Climate Response.  The current strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions is too focused on changes to buildings, and it doesn’t push for transit, biking, walkability, and other measures that can help more people live car-free and closer to home. We need to make it possible to “live local” in 20-minute neighborhoods, where you don’t need a car to carry out your daily routines.  We must take advantage of local, small-scale opportunities for generating power, growing food, and storing carbon in trees and in the soil itself.  With houses, apartments, and businesses, we need to facilitate the kinds of creative financing options that can allow improvements to pay for themselves over time. We need to make our streets, parking lots, and public rooftops available for the kinds of small-scale geothermal, solar, and wind projects that residents are ready to take on. We need to incentivize the wise use of sunlight by property owners — for supporting the tree canopy and the ecosystem, for generating power, or for growing food. 

And we need to enlist Montgomery College, Washington Adventist University, the University of Maryland, unions, community banks, and homegrown know-how to support local entrepreneurship in the “green economy” that will build wealth for Black residents and community members of color. A rapid climate response doesn’t have to be expensive and painful — in fact, we can do it in ways that produce savings and enable us to live more enjoyable, more “local” lives. If you’re interested in checking out some of the influences on my thinking, check out drawdown.org and What-is-a-20-Minute-Neighborhood. We have scores of opportunities right under our noses for making a great transition to being a green and more vibrant community.

Roger’s letter on the City’s current Climate Action Plan here.

Link to Climate Mayoral Forum here.

The Cost of Housing. As a basic principle, anyone who grows up in Takoma Park ought to be able to live here, securely and comfortably, for their entire life. We’re the only City in Maryland with rent-stabilization, and we need to protect that low-income housing and make sure it’s steady, safe, and inviting. Beyond that, we need to grow our supply of housing, particularly the kinds of simple, attractive, and efficient homes that can open the door to ownership. But right now, there is no plan for getting there, beyond a small Housing Reserve Fund that isn’t being used much. The current Council’s strategic plan sets us up for failure: it vaguely calls for housing that’s affordable for people at all income levels. We must focus on the real crunch — the shortage of housing for people of low and modest means.

The City committed itself to align with regional new-housing targets for 2030 but never set an actual goal. We need to have a real conversation about how to accommodate new home units — new neighbors! — in a way that enhances what people love about this special place. Then we need to set numerical targets and identify where and how these units can be created over time, whether through accessory dwelling units, “tiny” and small houses, repurposing of underused or vacant institutional property, or right-sized mixed-use development. We can use policy changes as well as easements and land trust arrangements to leverage the generation of new, eco-friendly housing units. And we have to stop increasing local property taxes. We must exercise fiscal discipline with our budget and taxes, to protect those who already live here as well as those who would like to move here. Yes, this requires partnerships with the County and State. But we have to set clear goals to start making progress. For more thinking on keeping housing costs in check, click here.

Systemic Racism.  The City’s three-year-old commitment to racial equity has led to little meaningful progress. In fact the City has backed away from assessing racial equity impacts of City actions. The Black Lives Matter movement is right in demanding a full reckoning with the racial history of our community.

BLM activists and allies are calling for complete rethinking of City policies and programs —  not just to become more “inclusive,” but to take down structural racism. Our work must begin with redesigning a police service from the ground up. Doing this requires that we reimagine what public safety means in the fullest sense, including mental and physical health as well as economic security. This means totally reviewing the size and funding of our current police department, minimizing its weaponry (including eliminating the K9 and tactical units), and getting officers out of cars to the fullest extent possible. We need an independent panel for resident oversight of the police, not a group that reports to the police chief. We can have a leaner and friendlier police service without compromising safety. As we reduce the department’s size and ability to intimidate, we also need to assert our residents’ right to easy access to County social services. And we need to get those County service providers located right here in town. 

Hiring a city “Racial Equity Officer” checks off a box but doesn’t create organic community change. We don’t need to create another top level job and another department–we need the Mayor, every Councilmember, and every City staff member to be on board in advancing equity, all of the time. We can’t simply go on saying (as our economic and housing strategy says) that we will “consider every action through a racial equity lens.” This is just paying lip service. We must radically revisit how we manage our taxes, change patterns of homeownership, and foster new opportunities that advance wealth creation for Black residents and other residents of color. Starting immediately, we must choose the right indicators to measure how we are making progress. For more on this approach, click here. For ideas on supporting businesses run by Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) click here.

More on Policing

City leadership has had to continually distance themselves from the behavior of our own police department. This is a pattern that has persisted through the past five years, despite increased training and reform attempts. I hear from residents all over town, and of all races and income levels, who want to know that police are readily available to respond in dangerous situations. But I will not ignore the frequent experiences of residents (particularly residents of color) who continue to be harassed, profiled, and disrespected by City employees in the police department. It is time for structural uprooting of the racism, militarization and brutality inherent in our policing system. As Mayor, I plan to lead the creation of true public safety with these goals:

1) Zero tolerance for traumatizing our residents.
2) Zero tolerance for disrespect, intimidation, racial profiling, and random stops of residents who “look suspicious.”
3) An end to police over-response with multiple cars pulling up on unarmed residents.
4) Shifting all functions that could be done by non-police into non-police staffing.
5) Comprehensive review of all City staffing, including all police staffing, to shift our tax dollars into care for and well-being of all community members.

The Budget.  For most residents, Takoma Park is unreasonably expensive to live in because of the extra-high property tax burden.  This includes homeowners as well as renters, who have tax bills passed on to them in their leases. Some of the people who would have been complaining about this the loudest are already gone. They couldn’t afford to stay here. This is unacceptable. As I said above, anyone who grows up in Takoma Park ought to be able to live here, securely and comfortably, for their entire life. Our budget keeps growing faster than the rate of inflation year after year. And our City seems unable to explain why this is the case, let alone rein in the costs. 

There is a better way to manage our fiscal affairs! For more than a decade, I’ve been advocating, along with many other residents, for what is called an “outcomes-based” budget. With this approach, we would take in revenue and spend money to achieve specific objectives, not simply to pay a certain number of employees. Programs would be built around objectives and could draw upon personnel from across departments. Employees would track their time and register which programs their time is going toward.

With regular data collection, we can evaluate how well programs are meeting their goals, then make smart adjustments. Cities and towns that budget in this way can justify where the dollars are going. Their spending is clearly tied to strategic objectives. And they update their strategies every year as part of their budget process. 

In our own area, Gaithersburg is one example of a place that already does this, and we can do it too. Once we have our house in order, we can be clear in telling the County how much they should be rebating us for the services we provide for ourselves. If they insist on continuing to double-tax us, there’s little point in continuing to “ask politely” — we must file a lawsuit. For more on outcome-based budgeting, click here.

Young People.  For many kids in Takoma Park, this is an amazing place to grow up.  My own children, ages 12 and 14, have loved the many unique playgrounds (those renewed and those still neglected) and the feeling of freedom to walk or bike to the library or to stop in and get a snack somewhere. However, not all kids in town have equal access to parks and playgrounds, or equal safety in making their way along or across big streets. Cut-through traffic (on the rise with the prevalence of navigation apps), and fast-moving delivery trucks are making local streets more hazardous for very young children. 

For teenagers, there aren’t enough fun and free (or cheap) places to hang out. And 15 years after the completion of the Community Center, we still don’t have the new gymnasium that was promised as part of that project. Teens need more places and opportunities to spend time with each other and with older people. And they need to feel confident that if they choose to live and start their careers in Takoma Park in their 20s, they won’t have to live with their parents! 

We need to create welcoming public space for young people in all parts of town, prevent police harassment of anyone who is simply “being” in public, and foster new independent businesses that can cater to those looking to connect socially while on a budget. And let’s look seriously at our publicly owned land — including at the Junction–to make sure it is providing great opportunities for people to be festive, play, create, and innovate together. 

As a high school teacher, I respect the intelligence, interests and perspectives of young people, and I believe communities are better off when they take young people’s desires seriously. For more thinking on youth and public space, click here. For ideas on the particular importance of public space for Black youth and other youth of color, click here and here.

Development, and the Junction.  Takoma Junction, at the intersection of Carroll Avenue and Route 410, is just one of many places that are being considered for development or redevelopment, after decades in which there has been virtually no new major construction in town. 

The Takoma Junction process has been a failure to this point because the City Council, for the past seven years, has not seriously addressed the question of how this small, centrally located piece of public land can best advance the community’s values. It has held lots of listening sessions but has avoided the hard conversations and instead outsourced the problem-solving to a developer. It’s important to understand this failure not simply as a design problem, but as a failure to listen and respond. The development process continues to roll along and deepen divisions in the community. This is because it hasn’t responded to what expert residents, professional studies, and rational analysis are saying about what this site can and should accommodate.

The lesson here is that when our community faces tough decisions, the Mayor and City Council must have the courage to lead in listening to everyone and uniting the community around a common vision. We have to get this process right, so that the outcome is beautiful not only in terms of what it provides but also in terms of how it unites us. Our success in this relatively small but critical space will prepare us to effectively influence development across the City — including at Takoma-Langley Crossroads, along New Hampshire Avenue, in northern Ward 5, at the Washington Adventist Hospital campus, and at the former John Nevins Andrews School campus. 

It is foolish, wrong, and destructive to let an outside corporation call the shots here in a community with such deep progressive roots. As Mayor, I would lead the Council to conduct a thorough and timely assessment of the site’s design constraints, so that we finally determine what the site can accommodate without doing harm to our urban forest, neighborhoods, or existing Junction businesses. These businesses include the Coop, the anchor business for the Junction commercial district, which ought to play a leading role in helping Takoma Park transition toward a greener, healthier, and more accessible local food economy.

As Mayor, I would insist that the Junction project fully conform with our City commitments to climate response, environmental protection, racial equity, safety, local business protection, and use of public space.  If NDC as the current development partner cannot find a way to help make this happen, we must find a new partner or an alternative model for community-oriented development.

I believe that every tough challenge has a great opportunity as its flip side. It’s hard to do, but we must reset and learn from this troubled Junction process. Then, going forward, we can ensure that the Recreation Center redevelopment on New Hampshire Avenue has robust community involvement and that it has a design that meets our big strategic objectives while staying within our budget.  We can apply similar approaches to the Library project, which has tripled in projected cost before the design is even complete (see more on the Library below).

With other developments where we don’t control the land, we must use every tool at our disposal to ensure that anything that gets renovated or built new harmonizes with our big goals of accessibility, affordability, climate-friendliness, and racial justice. And the residents and enterprises that occupy these new spaces should feel completely integrated and harmoniously tied in with the surrounding neighborhoods. There are plenty of good developers out there who know it’s in their best interests to do right by the community and who will respond to a positive vision and clear direction from our City. To get up to speed on various City projects in progress, click here.  For good ideas on preventing gentrification, click here.

The Library Project

I support the Library project and want to see it achieve all of its objectives. I love the Library, and my family visits it regularly. As a high school teacher, I know how crucial public libraries are as centers of dialogue and discovery that bring people together across difference.

I’m very firm in saying that we need our own library as an essential part of our community identity; that we still need to provide ample physical books on site to encourage browsing and exploration; and that the basic paradigm of a central library location remains sound for the size of our community. This project must fulfill important objectives, including ADA-compliant restrooms and aisles, amply-sized reading spaces as well as programmable spaces, and dignified staff areas. I shared all of these views with the Friends of the Library in a September 22 Zoom meeting and a follow-up letter that same day.

With a background in public administration, it’s in my nature to raise questions and seek optimal solutions — in terms of design, functionality, and fiscal prudence. If elected, I will seek to work with the Council, staff, residents, and the architects to address these five questions:

1. Can the City Manager guarantee that funds intended for the Library project will in fact be spent on Library-related work and not on unrelated changes elsewhere in the Community Center complex?

2. Can the architects assure the City that engineers have fully investigated the possibility of not raising the building elevation and instead constructing a channel to direct stormwater from large rain events around the rear or front of the building?

3. If the building does NOT have to be raised, can its design maintain a “front porch” facing the green space at Philadelphia and Maple Avenues rather than moving the main entrance to the opposite rear corner, off the parking lot? (I love seeing kids play there.)

4. Can the architects propose design changes that are sill attractive but that reduce construction and operating costs associated with very large amounts of glass windows?

5. Can this project align with the new-construction goals of the Sustainability and Climate Action Plan? (Up until a few weeks ago, the architects had never been apprised of the City’s climate action framework and its implications for new construction.)

My intent in asking these questions is to make sure that the project can go forward without opposition or divisiveness on the basis of residents’ questioning either its cost (during a tough fiscal period) or its consistency with our City response to the climate emergency. Yes, we’ve waited a long time for this project, but in my view it’s wise to make a short pause to resolve the questions above. After all, architects have said that not until this winter are they due to develop “50% drawings.”

To reemphasize: I’m a strong Library supporter who wants the City to continue exercising due diligence in terms of making sure the objectives we seek are going to be met efficiently and effectively — without sacrificing functionality or beauty.

A Dysfunctional Relationship.  Our City Council’s primary functions are setting priorities, giving clear direction to the City Manager, and providing effective oversight. Right now, the working relationship of the Council and the Manager is dysfunctional. Council members (and the rest of our residents) can’t access the information they need to provide good oversight and to hold the Manager accountable for achieving objectives. Residents who are frustrated by the lack of information about what is going on turn to their Council members to solve problems that ought to be taken care of automatically by staff.  Bogged down in dealing with these kinds of issues, Council members don’t have the time or energy to deliberate on and review important policy and budget-making matters. They then get defensive when residents express surprise or dismay at the way new policies and initiatives are rolled out. 

We need to flip the script in terms of how the Council does its work.  Talking with and listening to residents means applying new methods to systematically facilitate much broader public participation among residents of all income levels, wards, ages, and races. Some meetings should focus exclusively on information-gathering, including conversations with residents and other experts as well as staff. Other meetings should focus on robust discussions of policy or strategies, with each member being strongly encouraged to be an independent thinker and questioner. Finally, the Council should devote structured time to comprehensive oversight of City programs and services, with a focus on how well those activities are meeting strategic objectives. A crucial early step in restoring our Council-Manager government to be reliable and results-oriented will be when the new Council begins the search for a new City Manager in late 2020. For a good short description of the Council-Manager form of government, click here.

Health and Safety.  Beyond the pandemic, we have other issues of health and safety that need to be addressed. We must ensure that cell transmitters mounted on our tall buildings do not put residents of these multifamily buildings at risk of exposure to dangerous levels of radiation. We need to assert our rights and responsibilities to protect residents in the face of regulatory processes that favor the telcommunications industry. We must apply a growing body of scientific research and an extremely cautious approach to the emerging question of how, or whether, to allow 5G tower installations close to houses, along our neighborhood streets. The health of our local community and ecosystem must come first at all times.

On those same streets, we need to look further at reducing the speeds of cars and trucks, not so much through more and more speed humps but through more creative passive measures that slow vehicle speeds and — let’s talk about this — possibly through the adoption of a citywide “Twenty Is Plenty” 20-mile-per-hour speed limit. And on all of our streets, we need to protect human health and encourage walking and transit use by planting and nurturing shade trees — and providing bus shelters and shade structures wherever trees can’t grow. 

Finally, safety extends to the animals that we share our community with. We need to protect and expand the migratory corridors for wildlife moving between stream valleys in town, and we need to plant more native species of trees and other plants so as to support native birds and insects, including pollinators. For information on the “Twenty Is Plenty” movement, click here. For more on urban habitat corridors, click here.

Artists, Makers, Crafters, and Musicians. Moving toward a sustainable way of life that treats all people fairly is not just about making legal and technical changes. It’s about culture change. For that reason we need to continue to support artists, musicians, and poets who help us reconnect with our common humanity while envisioning new ways of living. We need to support those who can help us re-learn how to grow and preserve food, how to mend things that are broken, how to alter clothes, how to make things that will last instead of winding up on the curb or in the dumpster. We do this by ensuring that good work spaces and affordable homes are available to those who work with their hands. The more we engage in these so-called “traditional” activities, the more we draw closer together across difference, in a way that is natural and not forced, welcoming and not exclusive. And while we’re at it: if we really mean to come together as “One Takoma,” we need a great place not just to listen to music, but to get up and dance. (You can’t dance on a listserv!)

Our Neighbors.  Our lives don’t begin and end at Takoma Park’s boundaries. None of us live far from the “edge of town” (think of Boundary Avenue, Mississippi Avenue, and Erskine Street). We share our daily routines, our dining and shopping, our traffic and transit, our creeks and our culture with the communities all around us. Fort Totten. Lamond-Riggs. Brightwood. Takoma DC. East Silver Spring. Long Branch. Rolling Terrace. Langley Park. Carole Highlands. Chillum and Hyattsville. These are all special places that are experiencing the same trends and pressures that we are. 

It’s time to start convening (and celebrating) regularly with our neighbors to understand our common hopes and objectives, to support each other, and to make our boundaries places of connection rather than separation. As just one example, consider the long-proposed idea of a Takoma Park circulator shuttle to get residents out of their cars.  If we had enough demand right in town to support this kind of a service, we’d probably already have it. By collaborating with neighboring communities and jurisdictions, we can establish a local transit network that gets people from their homes to all of the nearby places that they actually want to reach. Think: “Greater Takoma!”  To explore a Google map of Takoma Park and its neighboring communities, click here.

Making the Right Moves Doesn’t Mean Spending More.  My proposals do not involve expanding the size of our local government.  They involve using our existing resources creatively and wisely — not only in terms of spending money but also in terms of using our public land effectively, creating incentives for positive change, being good stewards of our environment, building effective partnerships, and drawing upon our own local expertise. (The pandemic is of course a big exception — we must identify and allocate whatever resources we need to ensure that everyone in our community comes through this crisis safe, healthy, and financially stable.) 

As a theater director, I learned that to tell the story well, we have to set the stage carefully and value the contributions of every single person in the ensemble and crew. My vision for Takoma Park is similar. Our success isn’t related to how much we spend — it follows from how thoughtfully we reimagine the space we share together, how lovingly we attend to the details, and how supportively we collaborate to “tell our story.”

Find Out More — and Vote!  You can learn more about me and my ideas as this website expands, and you can follow me on social media.  Meet me through upcoming Zoom events, backyard conversations, and neighborhood walks. I’ll also be knocking on doors — if you answer, I promise to step wa-a-ay back and be careful about social distancing. If you’d like to put up a sign, be listed as a supporter, or make a donation, click on “Join Us!.” And please, invite your neighbors and friends to find out more about me, and join the movement.

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