A message from City Manager Suzanne Ludlow to the Community!
Dear Takoma Park Residents,
July is the first month of Fiscal Year 2021 and the City of Takoma Park is in a place it has never been, as is the rest of the country and world. Please read my message about what is happening right now, and what is expected in the coming year.
Topics to be covered here are:
- Our Situation at this Time
- Transition of the City Manager
- Major Initiatives
- Development and Planning Projects
- Policing and Public Safety
- Summer Storms
Our situation at this time
At the moment, the number of cases of COVID-19 are lower than they have been for some time in the Washington, D.C. area, but there are still many deaths per day in the region from the pandemic. Montgomery County has lost more than 700 residents to the disease so far, and the larger DC area has lost more than 3,000 people.
Other regions have a skyrocketing number of cases and I have no doubt the numbers will rise again in this area. We have learned some ways to be safe, including the very simple step of just wearing a mask. We have learned ways to cope, to get by – it shows how resourceful we are and how caring we are in helping others who are having a harder time.
But it is horrible. We can just say it.
And then we must move to making things better, to getting through the next day, to making the world a better place.
As Manager of the City of Takoma Park, I have a great responsibility to implement the goals of the City Council for the community and to direct and care for our wonderful City employees. As is everyone, we are challenged by the impacts of the pandemic and the calls for confronting institutional racism. At a time when communication and dialog is more important than ever, we can’t easily have the face to face discussions that would be helpful. What I do hear from the staff, though, is a real commitment to overcoming the constraints of the pandemic so that we may help build a better world. We are not all at the same place in this, but we are talking, challenging each other, and proposing ways forward. I am very honored to work with the staff of the City of Takoma Park.
Doing the regular work of the City is very difficult right now. We have many fewer staff available and a larger workplan than ever.
Several staff are doing pandemic emergency management work. Our Emergency Preparedness Manager Ron Hardy coordinates our City’s pandemic response and our submissions to Federal and County agencies for COVID-19 expense reimbursement. And, as the Chair of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments Chief Administrative Officers Committee, I am actively involved in the regional efforts to monitor and respond to the pandemic in the D.C. area.
Those staff who were non-permanent part-time employees (mostly Recreation and CityTV staff who provided afterschool, front desk or event coverage) have been laid off for now, starting July 1. We are not using seasonal temporary help for garden maintenance. There are several critical vacant positions we are trying to hire for, and there are several other vacant positions that are on a “hold” list while we evaluate economic impacts and priorities through the course of the year.
In addition to having fewer staff, many City staff are working remotely to the extent possible, which means that work conversations have to be scheduled, rather than just dropping by a cubicle or yelling a quick question down the hall. This means that even rather simple activities (such as preparing an agenda packet item for Council or getting a contract reviewed and signed) can take longer or use unfamiliar systems.
Still, I have to say that what the City staff is doing is absolutely AWESOME! We are getting regular work done AND we are doing amazing helping residents and businesses that have been really hurt by the pandemic. We were able to help people much earlier than the County or the State governments. The amounts we had to give were small, but our early and timely response was critical to so many – tiding them over until the other assistance became available.
The Year Ahead
This year is an election year. The Mayor and each Councilmember representing a ward will be up for election in November. Due to the pandemic, the City elections will be a VOTE BY MAIL election, and so it will be very different than past City elections. Please make sure you are registered to vote. Even Takoma Park residents who are 16 or 17 years old or not U.S. citizens can vote in City elections.
And, if you are interested in doing so, you may wish to run for office in Takoma Park. As a professional City Manager adhering to the ethics provisions of the International City County Management Association (ICMA), I give no preference to incumbents or other candidates for office. I look forward to meeting with all who might be interested in running for office in Takoma Park.
Transition of City Manager
Perhaps the most important responsibility of the incoming City Council is hiring a new city manager to run the City upon my retirement on July 1, 2021. Hiring a city manager is a time-consuming effort, and may be much more challenging during this pandemic. While the new Council will determine how they will proceed, a standard process is for the Council to agree to goals for the hiring process (including the role of community input), hire a recruiting firm, establish the position specifications, undertake a nationwide recruitment, narrow the number of applicants, hold interviews, then negotiate the hiring of the preferred applicant. For an executive-level position such as this, there is usually about two months between the hiring of an applicant and their first day on the job. This means that the City Council will be heavily involved in this work from December through July. Note that during this time, in addition to its normal policy work, the Council will also be considering the FY22 budget and advocating for matters before the Maryland General Assembly and Montgomery County Council.
For my part, I have been working to ensure a smooth transition to the next city manager. Step One was the hiring of an excellent Deputy City Manager – Jessica Clarke. Step Two is making sure our internal processes are clearly documented and cross-training and succession planning are done to the extent possible. Working on the transition is a little more difficult during the pandemic, but I feel it is one of my most important responsibilities to the City as a whole and to City staff.
Within the last six months, the City Council has adopted the Housing and Economic Development Strategic Plan, the Climate Emergency Response Framework, and is working on the Tree Ordinance and Tree Canopy Resolution. Also during this time, there is interest in looking at how public safety and policing is done in Takoma Park. All work is done within a race equity framework. Each of these initiatives has a large impact on staff work in preparing implementation plans, carrying out work items, and thinking of staffing in different ways. Suffice it to say that it is a lot of work to be done by or overseen by just a few key senior staff.
It is exciting, challenging work, but has the added challenge of pandemic-related staff and budget constraints.
Development and Planning Projects
Several planning and development projects are underway despite being in a pandemic.
Planning for a renovated Takoma Park Library is one that is well underway. The architect is working on the plans (and looking forward to direction on the desired exterior appearance) so that cost estimates can be obtained for consideration by the Council at a later point. The library will still be small and friendly, but it will be ADA accessible, more environmentally efficient, have some space for Young Adult books and a separate room for programs. As has been shared multiple times, the money is set aside for the library and not easily usable for other City activities. The current library building is on its last legs and in a flood zone, so could not remain with just minor modifications. I am very excited about the plans for the library and the ways it will serve those most in need in Takoma Park.
The Montgomery County Planning Department will be beginning a Minor Master Plan planning process for the site of the Washington Adventist Hospital / Washington Adventist University campus and Maple Avenue down to the Community Center. Gwen Wright, the Montgomery County Planning Director, is tentatively scheduled to come to Council on July 22 to share with us how that process will be undertaken. It is a major step in rethinking ways to meet critical needs for education, housing and community health services in Takoma Park. I appreciate that the calls for such a planning process by the City were heard by Montgomery County and put into their FY21 work plan.
The Takoma Junction Redevelopment project remains in the Montgomery County Development Review process and will be there for some time. Recent messages to the City Council regarding the project have included references to other uses and site plan arrangements that may be preferred by some residents. Unfortunately, a number of these are either not physically possible due to the space, would be very expensive for the taxpayers, or would be difficult to undertake. Most of the suggestions are not new ones and information regarding them has been compiled in several FAQ and project documents on the City’s website for resident review.
It is always appropriate to rethink priorities in times of crises such as these. I am very excited about the approaches being taken to not just survive the pandemic, but have a more equitable and environmentally-sustainable society on the other side. That means working on improving bus, bicycle, pedestrian accessibility, and building our Library. It means planning for enough school space for when our children can all go back to school, and thinking about how we really prioritize community mental health care so it is not left up to a person’s beleaguered family or the police.
Affordable housing is and will remain a huge issue for the D. C. area. Takoma Park has the most affordable rental housing of Montgomery County because we have rent stabilization, but the buildings are older.
I understand calls for new low-cost housing in Takoma Park, but no such units can be built without large subsidies. That was true long before the pandemic and is more the case now. And, the units need to look different – they may need to be for purchase and/or designed for multi-generational families. Frankly, there needs to be federal money either directly for this type of housing or indirectly through State and local governments. We will continue to press for these types of units in Takoma Park and identifying the appropriate locations for them. This is likely to be part of the conversation involved in the Minor Master Plan discussion.
The Takoma Park Recreation Center on New Hampshire Avenue is beginning its community planning process with the folks who live around it. Given the pandemic, the community engagement process will take longer, but needs to be focused foremost on the interests of people who live nearby, primarily people of color. We anticipate a new facility that combines a recreation center with housing, but the specifics of that are to come.
General planning work that is going on includes a public space management plan (particularly with a race equity focus), New Hampshire Ave Bikeway planning, bus stop enhancement plans, and work in areas near the Purple Line to promote accessibility while reducing negative impacts. There is also always work reviewing development applications and providing “municipality letters” to residents who wish to apply for permits through Montgomery County.
Small development projects
Despite the pandemic, several small construction or renovation projects are underway in Takoma Park. Many of these are being done “as of right,” meaning that providing they meet the building and zoning codes, there is no role for action by the City Council or Montgomery County Planning Board. While it can be unnerving for neighbors to see construction in their neighborhoods, the building and zoning codes are in place to ensure appropriate development. Development as of right allows applicants to save money and time, which is particularly needed in the expensive D.C. market. I am grateful that there are several businesses and new home developers interested in building in Takoma Park. I have found that most are interested in working with the community to be good neighbors and attract new customers and employees. Please let them know you are glad they want to call Takoma Park home.
Policing and public safety in Takoma Park
The City of Takoma Park is fortunate to have an excellent Police Department led by an excellent Police Chief, Tony DeVaul. That doesn’t mean our staff does everything correctly and it doesn’t mean that there aren’t structural issues to address. In particular, the issues of institutional racism and how to care for and respond to persons with mental illnesses are critical here as well as elsewhere.
The City Council, the Police Chief and I are all interested in working through these issues. The Chief is assembling a good amount of information regarding the Department and how it meets policing and training standards that are being looked at across the country. An example is this review of the use of force provisions given the interest in the #8CANTWAIT recommendations. Please be attuned to the information being shared over the next weeks and consider participating in the discussions. Note that this is a discussion that primarily needs to be with Black people and other people of color in our community.
Mental illness is at a crisis in our country at this time. Community mental health has been underfunded for a very long time, and the pressure of the pandemic is making things much more difficult. The Takoma Park Police Department welcomes a community mental health approach to working with members of our community in need. Chief DeVaul is looking into options for this that would be appropriate for Takoma Park. For discussions on what would work best, we look to hear from residents with direct experience in this area, particularly those with a family member who has been affected by mental illness.
I know in the middle of a pandemic and the discussion of critical issues it is hard to focus on other things, but please take a few minutes to plan for summer storms. Check your emergency supplies and discuss your emergency plans with your family. With the constraints of the pandemic, it may require a bit more advance planning to have all of the supplies you need, including masks and cleaning supplies, so take the time now to be prepared.
I want to say a large “thank you” to the residents who reach out to me with their comments, to my staff for working so hard in such a difficult time, and to the City Council, which has also found the way to work on major issues remotely and effectively. It is an honor to be associated with Takoma Park.