Rockville City Council candidates faced off Wednesday during the first debate of election season.
The debate was hosted by the Rockville Community Coalition. The moderator, former lawmaker Cheryl Kagan, allowed each candidate one minute to respond to questions generated by the RCC and members of the community.
Rockville’s City elections are Nov. 5. Eight candidates are in the race.
Six have filed for council seats—Claire Marcuccio Whitaker, Virginia Onley, Donald Hadley, and Tom Moore, Julie Palakovich Carr and Beryl Feinberg.
Council members Mark Pierzchala and Bridget Donnell Newton are running for mayor. Their debate took place after the council debate.
Feinberg was unable to attend because she was recuperating from a hospital stay. Her husband, Ed Feinberg, read prepared opening and closing statements on her behalf.
Here are City Council candidate Whitaker’s responses:
1. What do you think are the three most pressing issues currently facing the mayor and council and how do you believe that these issues should be resolved?
The three things I'm most concerned about—first the APFS, the Rockville Pike Plan, and fees and taxes, keeping individuals with fixed incomes in the city. I combine those together.
I think that the APFS is on track now. It's gone back to the Planning Commission. There are recommendations—Julie was involved in them—I think the planning commission will no doubt come out with a plan that will meet the needs of the schools.
The Rockville Pike plan that's a 2-mile stretch. There's going to be community town centers and multiple housing. I think that we have to work with the community.
2. In your opinion, are there places in the Rockville city budget where changes could be made? And that could be either in cut of services or in cut of personnel, cut of fees, cut of anything … . Just speak broadly, if you would, about fiscal savings.
I think Virginia’s got a good idea, there. Perhaps one of the ways the government could save some money is to reduce the number of contractors. I know we had three contracts that I could think of right now—the logo, which cost us $75,000, the personnel study, which cost $200,000, and the pike plan study, another $500,000.
Contracts like that can upward of a million dollars. If we do them in-house, perhaps that’s a better way than spending the money through contracting. We might also consider saving the money through attrition of staff. You know, it’s pretty easy leaving a position empty for a period of time. That’s another way of saving, perhaps, as much as a million dollars.
I think we should look at initiatives for long term environmental grants and initiatives to take advantage of federal funds if government ever goes back to work. There are grant funds available for the environment. We have already taken advantage of the Stewart McKinney act when we go the post office. That didn’t cost us any money—I know the renovations cost us money—but we got that through a program the federal government has. We ought to look into that, as well, see if there are any other empty government buildings we could pick up.
Also, the Karma Academy, we ought to get that from Montgomery County.
3. What do you see as the long-term vision for the ultimate development of Rockville’s Town Center?
I see the Rockville Town Center—the second phase—as a compliment to the first phase. I think that we can make that an alive-after-five place. I’m not opposed to mixed use at all. I think that that’s actually a good idea if people are actually going to buy or rent the properties. I know we had a hard time doing that before.
I’d like to see some water… I think we should have something like they have up the road, like Rio has. I think that’s attractive. Maybe that’s not enough space.
4. Which aspects of the Rockville Pike Plan do you support and why? And the other part, is with development around Rockville, what do you think the mayor and council should do, if anything, to make sure the city has adequate green space?
It’s hard to visualize a really positive idea about Rockville Pike just because I know how many people that are going to be brought in. Rockville will probably be doubled and will have many, many more cars and all kinds of problems. But I think that one of the points of having rapid transit is important and the trees there. The most important thing is that I think people are actually committed to having a coordinated planning process for the pike that takes into consideration the county and the state and Rockville’s needs. And that’s what I’m hopeful for.
As far as green space, one of the things I think would be a good idea for, perhaps, the planning commission to look at—I don’t know exactly where it fits in; I’ll find out—and that is taking trees down that are 100 years old and putting saplings in its place. I think we ought to change that a little bit.
5. In addition to our candidates for mayor and council, there are going to be some charter questions. We’d like each of the candidates to speak to not only their views on the charter questions, but also the weight to which they would offer our views as voters once we speak out … We’d love to hear whether they’d … defer to the voters or what they think mayor and council should be informed by.
I think changing the term of office to four years is absolutely critical. I have seen people get into office then they have to turn around and start campaigning if they want to run again. I think four years makes much more sense. I do think they can make inroads to working with the staff better. I think the staff sometimes may not be able to come back to them within a two-year period with recommendations, so that’s important.
I think that expanding the membership from what it is now is really important. I see all the problems that we have—a 3 to 2 vote, I think that’s absolutely critical.
And as far as changing it to the presidential elections, I would hate to see Rockville become a partisan jurisdiction. I do think there should be more people out to vote, but would there be more people out to vote for Rockville just because they’re voting in the presidential election—[response was cut off by moderator for going over time].
6. What can you do for independent small businesses in Rockville?
I think that we can patronize them. I think that’s an important thing. We have a lot of small businesses right around town center, but not in the town center itself, like Al Carbon, which is a Latino restaurant just on the other side of the Metro. We have Ruth’s Animal Exchange. We have Giusseppe’s and Frames by James. I think we should try to use the small businesses as much as possible.
I think we should also get those signs up for those small businesses. They really need to have somebody know where they are. And I think the sign ordinance ought to be looked at.
7. How can we engage populations that are not engaged now? How can we make people feel really welcome and support increasing diversity in the city? What sort of changes or enhancements should we offer?
Certainly there isn’t a problem at the Senior Center. The Senior Center has Hispanics and Asians and they enjoy it and the swim center—I don’t think there’s any issue where people don’t feel they an use city facilities and they do take advantage of them, and I think that’s great.
I think people of different cultures and societies really want to assimilate into Rockville and don’t want to be in a separate environment. Yes, we do provide Spanish translations, but maybe we could do more of that so that people would understand. In the long run I think that the Asian community, for instance, wants to be part of the regular community. Nobody wants to be an enclave by themselves and that’s what I’ve found.