Tuesday, February 28, 2006

What Are Your Priorities For Laurel?

In a previous post, I argued that council members have a limited amount time to devote to new initiatives.

Laurel has lots of important issues, difficult problems and good ideas for council candidates to work on when they are elected. Most of us can easily rattle off a top ten list of our most important at the drop of a campaign contribution check.

We have over 20,000 people in Laurel. Over 12,000 are registered to vote. There are countless opinions about council priorities. This is what makes city elections so interesting. If we all thought the same thing, we might as well not have elections at all. Just let everyone serve until they get tired and then find another like mind to replace them. Efficient but darn boring.

But thankfully we don't all think alike and I believe we are the better for it.

So in the spirit of helping our brave municipal campaigners learn what we the citizens think, I offer you my 1st Laurel City Issues Survey.

Please take a moment to take the survey. It should take you less than three minutes. You can only vote once from each computer. You will not be asked any personally identifying information.

I came up with 30 or so issues for your consideration but you will have an opportunity to write in your own as well. I'll leave the survey open until the weekend before the election.

Click here to complete the survey. I'll be posting the results periodically.

Thanks for participating and please remember to vote on Monday, March 20th at the Phelps Center on Montgomery Street.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Museum Row Comments

For those new to blogs, I want to draw your attention to the great response in the comments section of my previous post on Museum Row. Let me first thank everyone who took the time to comment, either via the comment section or to me personally via email.

Let me take a moment here to try to answer some of the direct questions.

1. Karen takes me to task for (among other things) short shrifting the width of the project in my overhead shot. I agree, but no spin was intended. My picture was liberated from Microsoft's live local bird's eye view for the site. I just could not move far enough west to take in the entire property. I'm sorry if anyone got the wrong impression.

UPDATE 27 Feb, 5:57pm: New photo looking S. New Photo looking SE.

2. Dawn asks about the role of the HDC on revitalization cases. It was my understanding that the revitalization overlay zone approval is ultimately a decision of the council. But upon further review of ordinance 1423 signed by me as Council President in March 2004, I find that the HDC can uncategorically deny the application in the following in section 20.32.1(n):

"Revitalization overlays are not permitted by right, but reflect a negotiated development agreement that is unique to a specific proposal, or development that reflects the applicant's ability to achieve the goals and objectives of this alternative form of development. The Mayor & City Council is not obligated to approve any form of optional development is it concludes that the proposal does not meet with the purpose and intent of these regulations. Approvals within any overlay does not usurp or diminish the jurisdiction of the City's Historic District Commission, if the overlay is located within their jurisdiction.

Dawn, I got it dead wrong in my post. I apologize for my error.

3. I don't know how to answer Joe Wall's interesting and well thought out comments concerning squandered opportunities for appropriate development Laurel. Other than to ask; Joe, if the current design is so wrong, what do you think will work on the site? I also want to give Joe's life in Laurel website a plug.

4. Mike Sarich took me to task in a private email for saying "most of the speakers" were opposed to the design. He said that ALL of the speakers were opposed to the design. He is correct. I did not mean to mislead anyone, I was only allowing for Bob DiPietro's comments. Bob was one of the speakers in my mind. But all of the speakers other than Bob were indeed opposed. Thanks for the correction, Mike.

5. Jim McCeney, always a gentlemen, also wrote to me privately to tell me that he thought I was wrong. But even though we disagree on the design of Museum Row, we can still agree that we both want what we think is best for Laurel.

That is all any of us can do. To move forward on this case, we've got to respect the opinions and motivations of each other. Even if you think my architectural tastes and wrong-headed opinions are all wet, I hope everyone understands that I want the best for Laurel. I don't believe that insinuations that the developer is greedy or that there is some sort of improper good old boy network at work in this case is the best way to make progress.

Thanks to everyone, readers and commenters alike. Please feel free to comment here or via other channels. We need to keep the light of honest dialogue burning brightly in Laurel. -grw

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Museum Row Fireworks

A friend asked me today what I thought about the antics at last Tuesday's Historic District Commission's 3-2 vote in favor of the Museum Row Project. I don't know about antics, but it was not a quiet meeting that I attended on February 21.

See the Gwendolyn Glenn's excellent coverage of the meeting and her previous 12/22 , 12/29 stories in the Laurel Leader.

The key point for me to remember is that the HDC is not the final arbitrator of the project. They are only an advisor to the council on revitalization overlay cases. So all of the passionate and reasoned debate at the meeting could not impact a final decision, but only influence the HDC's recommendation to the council. Even an HDC vote against the project could have still gone forward to the council for consideration in their final decision.

I like the current design. It is going to be big, and the lot is small, but I don't believe that it will detract from the neighborhood. Here is an overhead view of the property. And here is a bird's eye view looking south. Here is the plan view of the project. The west end of Main Street will benefit from high-quality, single family homes. The current design is very interesting and it seems to be a good engineering compromise for the site. (But I'm only an engineer and not an historical preservation architect, your actual mileage may vary.)

I'm also torn between the property owner's right to develop their property within the law, and the community's desire to preserve a sense of our history. Jim McCeney said it best when he suggested that the current design is significantly better now than as originally proposed by the developer. The HDC process is the reason it's better.

Jim still felt that the mass of the project was too large for the site and voted against the project as it is currently designed. Most of the speakers at the meeting agreed with Jim.

I also enjoyed the exceptionally well-said comments at the meeting that the "English Village" design of the project was too suburban for Laurel. I'm not sure about that line of reasoning. Laurel doesn't have the urban density of Alexandria or Annapolis. We are a small town with an eclectic mix of architectural styles and neighborhood types. Most of old town Laurel looks suburban...at least to my admittedly untrained eyes.

I guess at the end of the day, I'm willing to trust the process of the planning commission informing the HDC, who informs the council. Call me Pollyanna, but I believe that everyone wants the best for Laurel. There are no enemies, just well-meaning people with different perspectives.

Mike Collins wants to build a high-quality product that he can sell for a reasonable return. He has a track record of projects for which to be justifiably proud. The HDC wants to encourage historical sensitivity to a previous time and place. The community wants to make sure that the HDC hears and considers their views.

The City Council has a responsibility to improve the tax base and obey the law. They must weigh all of these needs and find a way forward within the specifics of the situation.

I'm not sitting up there anymore. But if I was, I believe that I would vote for the project as currently designed.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Dirty Little Secrets About Laurel City Council Members

Full disclosure; I served on the Laurel City Council from November of 2002 until March of 2004. I was only a one term wonder, but I was honored to have the opportunity. Along the way, I learned a few secrets about being a council member.

The first dirty little secret is TIME. No matter how much a council member wants to do or even promises to do if elected, they only have so much time to do things. The life of a council member is driven by their personal clock.

The second dirty little secret is CONTROL. Laurel City government is responsible for a specific set of services. No matter what a council member may say they want to do to fix, start or change things around our town, they can only directly impact city services.

There is another aspect of control that I had to learn the hard way as a council member. That is there are two branches of city government, legislative and executive.

Council members do not do.

They cannot, and in my opinion, should never try to implement or manage. This is best left to the executive. A city councilman has one role, to vote. They write law and vote it into existence. But they cannot control anything directly.

Back to the secret of time. The council is a part time job. Most members have full time jobs, families and hobbies. Everyone is different, but I found that my part-time council work fell into four categories; representational, legislative, constituent care and new initiatives.

Representational tasks included all the dinners, club meetings and even funerals that a conscientious member is obligated to attend. For the most part, they were fun and interesting. While not fun, even the funerals and hospital calls were satisfying for me. Most people appreciated having someone representing the city at their loved one's funeral or to stop in to see them for a moment at the hospital. Of course my favorite events were the many celebrations of our great organizations around town. Award banquets and board meetings were always worthwhile and fun.

Legislative work was my most time consuming task. It included authorizing, appropriating and coordinating.

Authorizing purchases, reviewing plans, and writing/researching ordinances took up a significant amount of time. Reviewing the recommendations of our city's very capable staff often felt silly to me. City employees are the real professionals. I rarely felt qualified to question their work. But in our two-branch form of municipal government, oversight is every member's duty. So you pick up all the reports, memos and drawings and spend a few late nights every week trying to wade through them all.

Working with citizen groups was another pleasant duty for me. Every council member is assigned as a member to a few of the dozen or so standing and ad hoc citizen advisory committees or commissions.

Of course the most important job of any council member is found in the appropriations process. I read once that a budget is the only honest statement of strategy. No matter what you say, it is how you spend your money that defines your true priorities.

Laurel's operating budget will creep over $18 million dollars this coming year. Creating the budget is a massive and time consuming job for every member. I love spreadsheets. I love wallowing in data of any sort and learning about the budget process and digging around in it were the best part of being a council member for me.

Constituent care did not take up too much of my time. Not that I avoided it. But I simply did not get too many calls. Maybe it was because I was relatively new and unknown. Or maybe it was because the Mayor was running things so well, that nobody had any complaints. I can honestly say I had less than 50 constituent calls during my 2 years as a member.

After a week of meetings, dinners, home reading, and maybe a few calls and emails to make, there is precious little time or energy left for new initiatives. But almost every council candidate runs on a platform of new ideas. Sweeping changes that are intended to fix all the city's current woes.

I found that the best I could muster for new initiatives was a couple of modest ideas. It took all of my energy and spare time over two years to champion them through the process and into law.

Each of Laurel's city council seats will be contested in this upcoming election. The last time we had all five seats up for grabs was in 1996. I applaud everyone that has decided to run. It takes courage and confidence to run for any elected office. I wish them all much success.

I hope you remember to ask them about their priorities when you hear their great ideas. Make sure they will have time to do all they suggest. Also make sure that their good idea is within the city's span of control. Then please vote on Monday March 20th.

Beware of secrets.

Coming Soon:

Laurel City Issue Survey
Council Candidate Interviews

Thanks for reading and please stay tuned.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

City Races Set

The candidates for the upcoming Laurel City Election were certified last night. Here is how the ballot should look. The incumbents are indicated in bold.

Mayor (select only 1)

Craig A. Moe (unopposed)

Councilmember At Large (select only 1)

Monique Holland
Michael R. Leszcz

Councilmember Ward 1 (select only 2)

Jhanna E. Levin
Janis L. Robison
Gayle W. Snyder

Councilmember Ward 2 (select only 2)

Michael B. Sarich
Frederick Smalls
Dennis Whitley, III


Should the salary of the Mayor be increased from Ten Thousand Dollars ($10,000.00) per annum to Twenty Thousand Dollars ($20,000.00) per annum in accordance with the recommendation of the Citizen's Salary Review Committee?

Select Yes or No

Should the salary of the City Councilmembers be increased from Four Thousand Dollars ($4,000.00) per annum to Seven Thousand Five Hundred Dollars ($7, 500.00) per annum in accordance with the recommendation of the citizen's Salary Review Committee?

Select Yes or No

It is wonderful that we have contested elections in the council races. I hope to conduct interviews with the candidates and post their comments here. If you have questions for the candidates please leave them in the comments section and I'll try to get answers.

The Laurel municipal election will by held on MONDAY March 20th, 2006 at the Phelps Center, 701 Montgomery Street from 7am to 8pm.

See the city election page for voter information.

"Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn't mean politics won't take an interest in you." -Pericles

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Three Cheers for Laurel's Public Works Department

I measured between 10 and 12 inches of snowfall at my house on Laurel Avenue depending on where I poked the ruler. Our major snow emergency routes are almost down to clear pavement. The secondary roads are quite passable. I took a ride and the City's parking lots are being worked now.

The best Public Works Department in the state came through again for us with flying colors. Ted Dulaney's team worked all night and it shows. I bet there is not another place in the I95 corridor that is ready for work, worship or shopping as fast as we are. Thanks to all! If you want to thank them yourself send them an email at dpw@laurel.md.us They will certainly appreciate it.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Way to Go Laurel Leader!

Glad to see the Laurel Leader move to real-time community journalism. I loved seeing the breaking news story about Dave Moore on their website when I got home this evening.

My Google_Alert Laurel news scraper grabbed the story off the Rochester TV site at about 10 minutes after the City’s press release hit my email in-box.

When a person wants to know, they just gotta know. News junkies can’t wait a week. I know it’s a new model and I don’t have the foggiest how to make it pay. But I love it. I hope they keep doing it. We sure don’t want to rely on amateurs like me between Thursdays. Our community is evolving. It is great to see Laurel’s oldest and best news and information source evolving as well.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006


(Please click on images to enlarge.)

A mugger jumps off of a speeding bicycle and brutally attacks a woman walking down Main Street before running off with her purse.

Crime is everywhere, but I guess here in Laurel, we need to import it. This crime scene is supposed to be in Boston, not Laurel and there is a full blown television crew and a dozen of Laurel's finest watching. What is going on?

According to the City of Laurel Press Release:

"America's Most Wanted (AMW) is filming in the Cityof Laurel on this week. Specific Laurel sites were chosen because they look like crime scenes from other places. More filming will occur on Main Streetin front of Oliver's Town Tavern, and on Post Office Avenue, Fetty Alley, and Laurel Avenue. Mayor Moe noted that scenes will also be filmed inside of Oliver's. MayorMoe shared that the home of former Laurel City Councilmember Eddie Ricks was also chosen for filming. "

[Eddie's place looks like a crime scene? I thought my place was a wreck!]

"Four different crimes will be re-enacted. Firearms will be used in at least two of the reenactments. Real ammunition will not be used. Mayor Moe wants the public to know that the production company, CooperProductions, has worked very closely with the City of Laurel and has obtained all required permits. Mayor Moe also advised that Cooper Productions has requested assistance from the Laurel Police Department and from PublicWorks. Both departments will assist with road and sidewalk closure. The Police Department will also monitor firearm use. "

"Mayor Moe said the public may watch the filming from a safe distance. Interruptions to daily routines are expected to be minimal. Mayor Moe said he was pleased to have Laurel chosen as a site for filming."

"Anticipating that this will go well, Mayor Moe said he looked forward to other television and movie filming occurring in Laurel in the future. Mayor Moe noted that at least one of the re-enactments will be shown on America's Most Wanted, on Saturday, February 11, 2006."

[Bad Boy, bad boy. What ya gonna do? What ya gonna do when they come for you?]

Monday, February 06, 2006

Laurel Wikipedia Article

I discovered an article about Laurel in Wikipedia, the very popular and free web encyclopedia. Wikipedia is a collaborative information tool. Anyone can add or change information to a wiki. So added a little bit of information I had about our local city elections, and uploaded the results of all city elections back to 1974. I thought it might be interesting for Laurel old timers to see all the names and voting results.

I also added the weather for each polling day. A few years ago I thought the weather might be the cause of our typically poor turnout. Unfortunately the weather does not correlate. The only factor that seems to impact turnout is the number of candidates running for office.

Speaking of city elections, the next one will be on Monday, March 20th 2006 at the Phelps Center.

Now is the time for all you city experts out there to dig in and add your own encyclopedic knowledge and make changes to the Wikipedia pages.

More about Wikipedia from their FAQ - Neilson/NetRatings reports that Wikipedia's unique audience for September 2005 was 12.8 million visitors, up from 3.3 million last September. It is not only the largest but also the fastest-growing educational reference Web site. As of January 2006, the English Wikipedia alone had over 930,000 articles of any length, and the combined Wikipedias for all other languages greatly exceeded the English Wikipedia in size, giving a combined total of more than 856 million words in 3.1 million articles in over 200 languages. The English Wikipedia alone has over 340 million words, more than six times the largest English-language encyclopedia.