Rockville Council Seat Will Remain Vacant for Another Eight Months

Rockville Council Seat Will Remain Vacant for Another Eight Months

Members unable to pick a candidate for open position; impasse raises prospect of a deadlock on issues

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Rockville City Council

via screen capture from Rockville city government

After three rounds of interviews with 21 candidates over nearly a month, the Rockville City Council could not agree Wednesday night on a replacement to fill a vacant seat.

The impasse means the five-person nonpartisan council could have votes ending in a 2-2 tie on a variety of issues, including adoption of a $138 million budget and broader planning and development policies affecting Maryland’s fourth largest city.

The mayor and council interviewed finalists Robert Wright, Monique Ashton and James Hedrick at a special meeting Wednesday night. Twenty-two candidates had applied by a Feb. 22 deadline to fill the seat left vacant when Julie Palakovich Carr was elected to the state legislature.

Following the hourlong interview session, the chamber’s four members voted by secret ballot, with Hedrick receiving two votes and Ashton and Wright each receiving one.

Because no candidate received a majority, a winner could not be declared under the city’s charter. At that point Council member Beryl Feinberg suggested that the council stop looking for a candidate to fill the seat.

“This is our third session of interviews. At this point, I think we should not go another round and impose an additional set of interviews on these three folks who have come forward,” Feinberg said.

Feinberg encouraged the applicants to remain civically engaged in Rockville city issues, and said she hoped they would participate in future elections. The next citywide election is Nov. 5 and it will be the first allowing voting by mail.

Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton said the lack of a tie-breaking vote won’t be a big deal, as long as the council is able to agree on a $138.5 million budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

“We need to work together on that,” Newton said of the budget. “So I have concerns but look, I’m a positive person. My glass is always half full. I’ll work to make it right,” she said.

If there is a split on the budget, it could mean a lack of funding for various programs such as aid to small businesses downtown and funding for recommended upgrades at the city-owned RedGate Golf Course. But that thought didn’t seem to faze Newton.

“I don’t think that [2-2 tie] will happen, but obviously the budget wouldn’t pass. And we have to have a passed budget.”

Newton added that she also didn’t believe the future of RedGate would ultimately be decided before November’s elections anyway. And she said even if a fifth member had been selected, she was still worried about 3-2 votes on the council due to the political divisions within the council — something to which she attributes Wednesday’s inaction on the vacancy.

“I think it’s politics unfortunately. I think it’s one thing to have a difference of opinion, I think it’s another to be wedded to not working together,” she said of her colleagues.

Council member Mark Pierzchala said he was disappointed in the result but was happy with the diverse group applicants. His colleague, council member Virginia Onley agreed.

“We just did not come to a consensus. I think it came down to a matter of what the final applicants had as a vision for Rockville. It’s very unfortunate that we are here,” she said.

The mayor echoed the praise of the candidates but said it was time for the council to “get back to business.”

Before the special appointment process, the mayor and council had updated its charter with policies for handling special appointments in order to address the council’s first vacancy since 1984. Newton said the council will need to revisit the special appointment process in the wake of Wednesday’s voting

“I hope that when the next council takes a look at this, that candidates are interviewed by council behind the door, and then come forward with the council looking like a unified body,” the mayor said.

“I think that serves the people and the candidates better. And then, whoever was selected to fulfill the remaining seat would feel they had the support of everyone. There’s no reason for people to feel that one person or two people voted against them,” she said.

Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com

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