Candidates for mayor and city council in Gaithersburg debated the redevelopment of Lakeforest Mall, economic development, how to combat crime and other issues on Thursday night.
The debate, hosted by the Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber of Commerce, lasted roughly 90 minutes and was held virtually through Zoom.
Incumbent Mayor Jud Ashman faces challenger Stephen Escobar, a sergeant in the Maryland Army National Guard and Realtor.
Five candidates are running for two City Council seats:
- Yamil Hernández, the chief business officer of the biotechnology company ExeGi Pharma
- Dave Belgard, the senior financial compliance officer at the aerospace company General Dynamics Information Technology
- Jim McNulty, who chairs the Olde Town Advisory Committee, a subcommittee of the city’s Economic Development Committee
- Philip Cook, a data auditor at Vanda Pharmaceuticals
- Lisa Henderson, an information technology specialist with Montgomery County government
Throughout much of the debate, candidates agreed that the city was headed in the right direction. They said they are running to continue providing excellent local government service to residents.
All of the candidates listed the redevelopment of Lakeforest Mall as one of the city’s top issues. They all supported the city’s master plan for the 102-acre site, which the City Council adopted in August.
Escobar said that as a part-time Realtor, he understands the challenges of working with the five separate property owners at the site. He proposed a solution: The city should step in and try to buy the property, obtaining a loan with a bank or other organization.
“For somebody who’s in real estate, it’s already difficult with two or three owners. … If the city does not step in to buy Lakeforest Mall in some capacity, it will sit there for years and years and years. Look at what’s happening in White Flint,” Escobar said.
Later, candidates were asked another question related to economic development: Were the mayor and City Council’s concerns about a proposed Amazon “last-mile” distribution center correct?
All candidates agreed that Ashman and the City Council were right to have concerns about the proposal, whether it was increased traffic, not enough uses on the site or other issues.
Ashman on Thursday compared the project and its location to a curio: a cabinet with a glass front, meant to display china and other valuable items. The fulfillment center was in a good location, but not the right proposal for that spot, he said.
“Putting a last-mile delivery facility, a sea of white vans and Amazon Prime trucks to get us a bunch of gig-economy jobs, not permanent well-paying jobs, not full-time jobs … is the equivalent of putting your used paper plates in your curio. … it was not the right thing for that area,” Ashman said.
Candidates also fielded questions about how the city should consider allowing 5G small cell tower technology to increase internet access.
Most candidates were not completely opposed, but strongly against allowing them in residential neighborhoods. McNulty said other municipalities have learned from Gaithersburg’s office of the city attorney, which helped protect some aspects of local rule in legal proceedings.
Cook, however, took a stronger stance. He believes that because of the harmful health effects, no 5G cell towers should be allowed within city limits, and that officials should pursue fiber broadband instead.
There also was a question involving crime, including whether more closed-circuit TV systems should be installed citywide to deter incidents such as car thefts.
Candidates mostly opposed this, except for Cook, who said he heard from a business owner in the city’s Olde Towne neighborhood, where one employee was assaulted. A camera could have helped police, he said.
Henderson said that no matter what solution is reached, data must be part of it. She described an example of a police force that was investigating car thefts in an area.
Police realized that city officials were also getting calls for street lights being broken. In the areas where those street lights were broken, crime was rising.
Henderson called on Gaithersburg Police Chief Mark Sroka to continue abiding by a “data-driven” approach to policing.
Belgard, a member of the city’s police advisory committee, agreed.
He added that even though there is a perception of crime rising, the pandemic might have contributed in some cases, like car thefts. But instead of closed-circuit cameras, it’s important to involve police officers and the community while looking at any relevant data, Belgard said.
Election Day is Nov. 2. Early voting will be held on Oct. 23 and 24. Voting also will be done through mail-in ballots.
More information about the candidates, how to vote, and when to vote can be found in Bethesda Beat’s voters guide.
Steve Bohnel can be reached at email@example.com