In November I was privileged to be chosen by Ward One voters as their representative on the Takoma Park City Council. I’m grateful that the voters of PEN, North Takoma and Hodges Heights have entrusted me with this responsibility, and I look forward to continuing to work with Ward One residents and the entire City to improve our community, consistent with our ethos and history. With the Council on break from formal meetings this month, I thought it would make sense to offer some perspectives and an overview on my first nine months.
My experience as a Councilmember has reinforced my already strong view that we live in a remarkable community. The level of knowledge and engagement about local concerns shown by our residents, and the commitment to improving Takoma Park demonstrated by City government staff, continue to impress me. Working as your Councilmember has been fulfilling and meaningful, whether participating in Council meetings and decision-making about key municipal matters, attending community meetings, or talking one on one with residents.
No one reading this needs to be told that our residents are passionate about their City. Yet that passion shows itself not as intractable ideological disagreements, but rather through vibrant debates on community problem solving. And I see my job on the Council as actively seeking solutions (with an orientation toward Ward One, but with the interests of the entire City in mind); plus helping residents deal with issues that may affect their neighborhood, street or block; and stepping back to consider what our vision for the future of Takoma Park should look like.
KEY COUNCIL ISSUES. Residents expressed a lot of concern about our tax rates, so during the recent work on our 2016-2017 budget I sought a lower rate by pushing for several key spending cuts. While we didn’t get as low a rate as I wanted, I’m glad it’s below last year’s rate, especially with most home assessments rising. And I’m pleased that, even with the lower rate, we are devoting new funding to affordable housing. We’re still in the early stages of determining how best to use those funds, and I look forward to further discussions on that question.
We recently approved the Development Agreement (DA) for Takoma Junction between the City and developer NDC, an action which will move the project forward. The key issues that had to be resolved before finalizing the DA related to the role of the Co-op. I was one of the Councilmembers who worked with residents to argue successfully for the inclusion of additional language in the DA that will facilitate the reaching of an agreement between the Co-op and NDC by strengthening the City’s ability to terminate the DA if NDC and the Co-op can’t agree.
With regard to other development issues, I joined with like-minded Councilmembers in pushing successfully for a more expansive Library renovation design, given the support for that position within Ward One; I have led the fight-- in coordination with the Mayor and Council, County elected officials, Historic Takoma, and concerned residents -- to press for a more balanced Montgomery College construction plan in North Takoma; and I testified in Annapolis on behalf of the City in favor of legislation to make it easier to keep a full-scale emergency room at the Washington Adventist Hospital site when the hospital relocates in three years.
IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD. On quality of life issues, based on conversations with residents and community leaders, I helped ensure the City ordinance to ban most commercial uses of plastic bags protects the Farmers Market; I added language clarifying that the new Streetscape Manual should include more details on residential and historic areas; and I amended our revised Noise Ordinance to give Police the flexibility to properly use their new “shut-down” power.
My Council work has also included working with City and State Highway staff to address potholes and other street surface issues; helping ensure that Ward One streets and sidewalks got proper attention following this winter’s huge snowstorm; providing updates on the repair of the recent broken water main at Boston and Philadelphia Avenues; and meeting with our County and State representatives and going to Rockville and Annapolis to advocate for Takoma Park.
I also organized neighborhood meetings on crime prevention and parking policies; participated in the Community Conversations on affordable housing and youth success; and joined in activities like the Old Town Clean-up, Takoma Park Play Days, and the weeding “parties” at the Berm behind the Community Center and at Kelly Park. In addition, I walked with my wife Paula in the July 4th parade, where I learned that if you march next to a red 1966 Corvette convertible and behind the Middle School Principal, a Councilmember won’t be the main attraction.
LOOKING AHEAD. One of the most crucial challenges we face – it’s something I heard often when I was campaigning -- is promoting a more inclusive community that involves and respects all residents. So, I was pleased that, when we developed our Council priorities document this year, my colleagues shared my support for more focus on lower income and under-served residents, including children, immigrants and those with developmental disabilities. Our budget reflects that, as do the new criteria for City grants, where I supported a larger focus on lower income residents. Making progress in these areas will remain a top priority for me.
I’m pleased we’re advancing on synchronizing our local elections with State and Federal elections (i.e. holding them in “even" years), an idea which was approved overwhelmingly last year in a non-binding referendum. I believe this shift will substantially boost turnout in a way that engages more people in our civic life, and I’m hopeful we’ll be able to find solutions to the remaining logistical challenges so we can implement this change.
In the future, I’d like to see us take steps to improve digital connections for all our residents; expand our translation efforts for official documents (about half our residents speak a language other than English at home); explore moving the City toward carbon neutrality; promote improved community policing; and develop closer collaboration with Washington, DC.
CONCLUSION. I’ve been sending out emails prior to Council sessions with my views on the agendas. I’ll continue that, but it’s important to find other ways to interact with residents. So, I’ll be exploring holding small neighborhood meetings for that purpose, and trying out office hours in the Community Center. I’ll be providing more details on these initiatives.
Finally -- a big thank you to Ward One for welcoming me as your Councilmember, letting me know your views on local matters, and playing such an active part in our governing process.
Peter Kovar, Takoma Park City Council (Ward One)