A tension-filled two years on the City of Rockville council could lead to a rough-and-tumble election this fall, though one of the main players in some of the city’s biggest recent political fights isn’t sure he’s going to take part.
Tom Moore, the two-term council member who spearheaded the effort to loosen the city’s moratorium on development, said last week he’s “100 percent undecided” on whether he’ll run for reelection.
Moore and Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton, who’s also a member of the five-person council, sparred on the development issue and others over the past two years.
At perhaps no time was the divide more apparent than last week, after Newton sent Montgomery County officials a letter advising of the city’s official views on the fate of the Confederate statue near the Red Brick Courthouse.
“Rockville Mayor Bridget Newton was bound and determined that the City wouldn’t take a position on removing the Confederate statue from the courthouse grounds, even though the Council had decided to tell the County it should go,” Moore wrote on his Facebook page. “So she ignored the letter the Council directed to be sent, and instead sent out her own very different letter on the City’s behalf without showing it to the whole Council.
“I’ve seen a fair amount of lawless and unprofessional behavior from this Mayor,” Moore continued, “but this takes the cake.”
Newton, who’s running for reelection as mayor this fall, said there was more communication between council members regarding the letter than Moore alleged.
Newton is so far the only certified candidate for mayor. Council member Julie Palakovich Carr, a frequent ally of Moore, and Council member Beryl Feinberg, a frequent ally of Newton, are also certified to run in the Nov. 3 election.
The fifth council member, Virginia Onley, has yet to get certified to run for reelection and didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Brigitta Mullican and Rich Gottfried, who have both run before and who are active in city political and civic issues, are also certified to run for council.
New election rules approved this year will make the two-year mayor and council terms four years, set up early voting on Oct. 24 and Oct. 25, and allow for same-day voter registration.
Mullican said one of the reasons she’s running is because “we have a dysfunctional council.”
The former federal government budget officer said Moore isn’t “a good team player,” but also criticized the entire council for “not spending enough time scrutinizing how our tax dollars are spent.”
The city of 64,000 residents serves as Montgomery County’s government seat and has a $123 million operating budget this fiscal year.
While Mullican said she’d likely agree with Newton on many issues, she agreed with Moore’s stance on the city’s development moratorium, which became one of the most divisive issues in the city over the past two years.
In June, Moore, Palakovich Carr and Onley voted to loosen the city’s Adequate Public Facility Standards (APFS) ordinance for schools.
The city had been placing a moratorium on new residential development if any public school in that project’s area was more than 110 percent over capacity.
Moore argued the standard wasn’t working, as county public schools in Rockville were overcapacity even with the development moratorium in place, some thanks to student populations that came partially from outside the city limits.
He also argued the city’s moratorium was unfairly stopping the development of affordable housing near Metro stations and in areas that already have higher-density buildings.
More than 90 people testified in two public hearings in January. Those against changing the standard argued that development was hurting the city’s quality of life and housing shouldn’t be built until enough school space is built.
Those for changing the standard argued that most of the increase in student enrollment is coming from turnover in existing single-family neighborhoods and that the moratorium was hurting the city’s economy.
Newton and Feinberg voted against loosening the APFS ordinance.
“There are big swaths of this city where people believe things should stay the same. I’m not convinced that it’s best for the city altogether,” Moore said. “Everybody has their role to play and Rockville’s is not to be a small town. It’s to be a bustling city on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., the seat of Montgomery County – a million-person jurisdiction with an agricultural reserve. The whole idea is to concentrate development down here and that’s the responsible path forward.”
Gottfried, who is president of the Twinbrook Civic Association, said one of his first priorities on the council would be to reverse the Moore-led changes to the city’s APFS ordinance.
He also alleged that Onley, seen by many as the swing vote on the issue, was “gotten to by some fat cat developer.”
“We need right-sized growth in Rockville to protect our neighborhoods and put our families first,” Gottfried said. “These issues are not getting resolved to the satisfaction of the citizens of Rockville. There’s a different agenda influenced by the developers and not what the citizens want.”
Newton said she doesn’t want Rockville “to just be skyscrapers and the majority want managed growth to maintain the quality of life that Rockville citizens enjoy.”
Moore said he’s consistently sided with Newton on issues such as the budget, and Palakovich Carr said the close-fought 3-2 votes on the council often shift according to the issue.
But there has been an undeniable tension dating back to the 2013 election.
Moore ran on a slate with Feinberg, Palakovich Carr Onley and Newton’s opponent for mayor.
Newton said Moore made it clear from the beginning of the term that he was going to use his slate’s apparent advantage.
At the council’s first retreat of the term, Newton said Moore announced that she “was going to be at the bottom of a lot of 4-1 votes.”
While Onley helped Moore and Palakovich Carr approve changes to the APFS ordinance and to allow backyard chickens (another highly controversial issue), Feinberg sided with the mayor instead.
“I’m very pleased to say that I have been in the majority more times than not,” Newton said. “The difference is that some members of the body are open to discussion and exploring all the ideas and others are just rigid in their positions.”
Council members said it’s unlikely the same slate that ran in the 2013 election will get back together for this year’s race.
“I’m not afraid of a difficult conversation,” Newton said. “What saddens me is the rhetoric and the negativity that some have chosen to bring forth.”
Moore, who last year came in second during the Democratic primary for the District 3 County Council seat, said he’s definitely not going to run for Newton’s mayoral seat. But he is going to take the first few weeks of August to decide whether to run for his third council term.
“If all you do is things that everybody can agree to, then you’re leaving a lot on the table here. If you end up with a lot of 3-2 votes, then in some ways you’re actively pushing forward,” Moore said. “I see it as a measure of us being active and engaged, not dysfunctional. If we never disagreed on anything, we wouldn’t be doing our jobs.”