Rockville City Council Member Beryl Feinberg is speaking out in the face of allegations of racial bias that have been made against her.
Feinberg and Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton voted against the appointment of Sara Taylor-Ferrell to the permanent position of city clerk/director of council operations at the council’s meeting on Oct. 8. Taylor-Ferrell was ultimately appointed by a 3-2 vote, with council members Virginia Onley, Julie Palakovich Carr and Mark Pierzchala voting yes.
In a letter to Newton, Montgomery County NAACP President Linda Plummer stated that she was “disappointed with the public argument that was raised by a member of the Rockville City Council” during the meeting.
“Despite the Council member’s attempt to characterize her statements opposing the appointment as “not personal,” I found them to be laden with implicit racial bias,” Plummer wrote.
Taylor-Ferrell, who is African American, has served in the city clerk’s office since 1996 in multiple roles, including as deputy city clerk and, most recently, as acting city clerk. Plummer noted Taylor-Ferrell’s long record of service in the letter.
“While Ms. Taylor-Ferrell performed the duties of City Clerk on a temporary basis, her professional credentials were not questioned, at least not publicly. But when the position became permanent, it was only then that her credentials were questioned,” Plummer wrote.
Feinberg said during the Oct. 8 meeting that her vote was “not personal” and that her “no” vote was simply to note that there had not been a traditional recruitment process.
In an interview Tuesday with Bethesda Beat, Feinberg explained that the council normally conducts a formal recruitment process for positions that the city council appoints, including the city clerk/director of council operations. Taylor-Ferrell had been named acting clerk at the council’s Sept. 24 after Kathleen Conway, the previous clerk, was terminated on Sept. 18.
Feinberg said at that same meeting Pierzchala had asked that the council better define the responsibilities of the city clerk/director of operations position. One such new responsibility, she noted, could include voter certification training due to Rockville’s new option to vote by mail, which residents will have in next year’s municipal election.
Feinberg said heading into a closed session on Sept. 24, she expected to discuss the responsibilities of the position, as well as the strategy for conducting a recruitment. But instead, a fellow council member, who she declined to name, made a motion that Taylor-Ferrell be appointed to the position permanently.
“It was a stealth-like move,” Feinberg said.
Feinberg said city staff and the public were then notified of the appointment.
“Despite protestations by the mayor and myself, a press release was sent,” she said.
Feinberg said she has been involved in government recruitment efforts for 30 years and that it is “human resources 101” to first make sure the qualifications for a city staff position are well-defined, and then create a job recruitment ad.
Feinberg reiterated that she thinks Taylor-Ferrell is qualified for the job and has promised to work with her. She thinks the NAACP misunderstood her “no” vote.
“What I think was construed, was that they took that and construed that vote of no, they construed that as alleged racism, and lack of confidence,” she said.
Newton said in an interview that she also voted against the appointment of Taylor-Ferrell because there was no public search process. She said she made other comments in closed session that she does not want to make public, but denied allegations of racism.
“Absolutely there is no racial bias. This had absolutely nothing to do with that,” she said.
But at Monday night’s city council meeting, four residents sharply criticized Feinberg’s decision during the public comment portion of the meeting.
“The attempted public shaming and high-tech lynching by council member Feinberg and Mayor Newton portrayed for all to see during the previous mayor and council meeting is an affront to the citizens of Rockville, the city and especially those who vote,” Theo Anderson said.
Feinberg responded by again explaining that her vote wasn’t racially motivated.
“I wanted it [my vote] to be transparent, and for those of you who’ve known me the last five years, that is exactly what I have done on major policy questions. I have explained my vote,” she said. ““You may shake your head in the back. It is nothing racial, there is absolutely not one bone in my body that directed those comments in a racial way.”
Feinberg’s three council colleagues were critical of her, with Carr pointing out an occasion in which Feinberg used the term “lynching” in closed session.
Pierzchala was more mild in his rebuke, but said Feinberg could have handled the situation better by not discussing the behind-the-scenes aspect of the appointment process.
“I personally felt that it was the wrong time and the wrong venue, the wrong vote to express that,” he said.
Feinberg told Bethesda Beat that she plans to meet with the NAACP leader and a member of the Montgomery County Council next week, once “tempers have died down.”
Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.firstname.lastname@example.org