Published on: Monday, December 16, 2019 City Council & Mayor Blog

Happy Holidays! A Year-End Message from Mayor Kate Stewart


“You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.”                                                                     -Angela Davis


As we look forward to the year ahead in 2020 and the opportunities and challenges we will encounter, we must take Angela Davis’s advice and face each day “as if it were possible to radically transform the world.”

Takoma Park, as a community, has put these words into action throughout 2019 and will continue to do so in 2020.

We did a great deal in 2019. Here are my top 10 highlights for the year.

  1. Adoption of Housing and Economic Development Strategic Plan: Building a Livable Community for All
  2. Declaration of Climate Change Emergency and Working Toward 100% Reduction by 2035
  3. Advancement of Racial Equity Work
  4. Reaffirmation of our Commitment to Being a Sanctuary City and Welcoming Immigrants in our Community
  5. Moving Forward with Plans on New Hampshire Ave and the Recreation Center
  6. Increased Tenant Outreach and Support to Improve Living Conditions for Residents
  7. Plastic Straw Ban
  8. Increased Community Engagement
  9. Our Amazing City Committees and Commissions
  10. Award-Winning, Smart, Skilled, Hard Working City Staff
1. Adoption of Housing and Economic Development Strategic Plan: Building a Livable Community for All

When we have stable, high-quality housing available for all, families thrive, and our community succeeds. Right now, our region is facing a housing crisis. This fall, the City took the critical and necessary steps to work toward the realization of the human right to safe, high-quality, and affordable housing and the interrelated right to an adequate standard of living. As the City looks to meet its critical housing needs, housing initiatives are interlaced with the City’s economic development initiatives, particularly in light of the positive and negative challenges of the coming Purple Line light rail line, the recent closing of the hospital in the heart of the City, and changing regional market forces.

Adoption of the Housing and Economic Strategic Strategic Plan: Building a Livable Community for All is a culmination of four years of community conversation, research, Council and staff work, and more. The themes of the Strategic Plan are:

  • Preserve existing businesses and affordable housing in Takoma Park, including in revitalizing areas.
  • Produce more housing and opportunities for businesses to start and grow across the income spectrum and in neighborhoods across the City to meet the diverse housing and economic needs.
  • Protect renters, homeowners, and local businesses from discrimination and displacement; and protect our environment from destruction.

The Plan is guided by our race equity and environmental sustainability goals. You can read the full Plan here and more background information on how we got here.

The City staff have already begun working on implementation steps, such as our Home Stretch down payment assistance program that has already helped move three Takoma Park families from renting to homeownership and each year the Council continues to fund the Affordable Housing Reserve, which we established in 2016 knowing that we need resources to address housing affordability and ensure stable, quality housing for people across income and wealth levels.

This year, we also continued to provide assistance to residents in need of help. In the budget we passed this spring, we included:

  • $174,500 for our Tax Rebate Program for nearly 150 low-income homeowners who qualify to receive assistance on paying their property taxes. The Council also included an additional $22,500 for new rebate programs for those eligible based on income and will be discussing the next steps on these before the next budget.
  • Assistance for residents in need: $55,000 is in the budget for income-based emergency assistance, which provides families with assistance for things such as rent, health care costs, and other expenses in emergency situations.

As we move into 2020, continuing to implement the strategies in the Strategic Plan will be a top priority for the City.

2. Declaration of Climate Change Emergency: Working Toward 100% Reduction by 2035

Building on the work we have already been doing on climate change, this spring the City declared a climate emergency, establishing a goal to reduce the City’s greenhouse gas emissions 100% by the year 2035. Over the last year, under the direction of our Sustainability Manager, Gina Mathias, we have been working to update our Sustainability Plan from 2014 to put in place the needed strategies to take aggressive action on climate change in the City. I want to thank Councilwoman Dyballa for her continued work in this area and representing the City at numerous regional and national meetings on this issue.

In November, we received the final report by the Cadmus Groupwhich provides guidance on how we can greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions while increasing resiliency to climate change. When we return in January, the Council, working with our Sustainability Manager and Committee on the Environment, will be focusing on how we can implement some of the suggested strategies. For more information on the report from Cadmus and the work over the last year, please, see the project page: Sustainability and Climate Action Plan (2019).

In addition, this year:

  • We focused efforts to work with multi-family and commercial businesses, including connecting them to State and other grant funds they can use on energy efficiency efforts.
  • Under the direction of and with a lot of hard work by our Public Works Director, Daryl Braithwaite, has now converted all the streetlights in the City to LED. In addition to improving the lighting of the streets and reducing light pollution, the move will reduce the City’s annual electricity use from 850,000 kWh to 340,000 kWh and will reduce annual expenditures by up to approximately $100,000.
  • We also continue to expand electric vehicle infrastructure throughout the City and have combined this with a public art project. And, this year our staff helped connect a local business, RS Automotive, to the opportunity to establish the nation’s first conversion of a gas station to an EV station. We are so proud to have business owners like Doley in our community and thank him and his whole family for taking on this project.
  • The Council is also advocating at the county and state level for Delegate Charkoudian’s Community Choice Energy bill. Community Choice Energy is a powerful tool that lets local governments bargain for cleaner, more affordable energy on behalf of residents and businesses. At the moment, it is not allowed in Maryland, and we hope that will change in 2020.
3. Advancement of Racial Equity Work
  • We continue to deepen our work on racial equity:  We started this year with our Council priorities retreat. Thanks to Councilmember Smith, we worked with consultants on racial equity to facilitate the retreat and help inform our discussions.
  • Most of the Councilmembers and Department heads have now completed racial equity training through the Government Alliance for Racial Equity (GARE). And this year, four members of higher-level staff are participating in the Metropolitan Washington Council of Government’s regional cohort on race equity, with the goal to bring back information and training skills to other staff.
  • I had the honor to continue as the Co-Chair of the Racial Equity And Leadership (REAL) Council for the National League of Cities, which enables us to learn from what other cities around the country are doing to implement a racial equity framework. At the recent NLC conference, I represented the City on a panel with a researcher from the Brookings Institute and members of the Dallas and Peoria City Councils to talk about our work in the City around housing and racial equity.
  • The City continued to provide workshops on racial equity and a group of 17 residents, including members of the City’s resident committees, took part in the “What’s My Bias?” training. Councilwomen Kostiuk and Dyballa were part of the cohort.
  • In addition, as we look at racial disparities in the City, we see gaps in homeownership, as well as in income levels and unemployment rates. As noted above, we have put in place the Home Stretch down payment program to start to help to address the homeownership disparities. We also hold First Time Homebuyers Classes in Partnership with the Latin Economic Development Center (LEDC). Participants receive a Certificate of Completion allowing them access to low-interest loans through the State and County, as well as the City’s Home Stretch grant. Thank you to the work of our Housing staff for coordinating these programs.
  • Our Economic Development Manager, Samira Cook Gaines, who came to the City in January, has helped the City focus more on workforce development. We are partnering with WorkSource Montgomery and the Ethiopian Community Center to provide resume writing and other career assistance for residents. She has organized a Success Fair and is working on a number of projects for next year to assist business owners, tech startups, and entrepreneurs.
  • And our recreation staff – including Javonte McDonald, Youth Success Program Coordinator, and Leicia Monfort, Teen Programs Manager – have greatly increased our programs for young people. These programs have particularly attracted girls of color to programs they previously had not participated in, such as E-gaming. For example, teaming up with Samira this summer they arranged for 15 preteens to receive scholarships to a summer coding class. Housing Manager Grayce Wiggins helped identify young people from several multi-family buildings for the class. Other Recreation Department programs also help support young people and seniors, a majority of whom are people of color. These programs include an afterschool homework club at Hampshire Towers Apartments (serving about 25 young people and with adult volunteers from the building), the Youth Summer Employment program run by Leicia Monfort (serving 10-12 young people), and the remarkably popular Senior Summer Camp for Takoma Park seniors.
4. Reaffirmation of Our Commitment to Being a Sanctuary City and Welcoming Immigrants in Our Community

We continue to defend our status as a Sanctuary City and work towards making sure we are a welcoming and inclusive community. This year, we stood with Mayor Bowser in her opposition to a proposed detention center for children in D.C. and we were featured on CNN responding to the President’s threats of sending immigrants being detained to Sanctuary cities. Kiyoko Merolli’s protest Birthday Party at the White House, which stressed the need to be kind and welcoming, was also a highlight of the year!

5. Moving Forward with Plans on New Hampshire Ave and the Recreation Center

Over the last few years and particularly this year, the City Council and staff have been focusing on advocacy for improvements along New Hampshire Avenue. Councilwoman Searcy has been a fierce advocate and successful at engaging with Maryland representatives, specifically in the area around New Hampshire Avenue and University Blvd.

  • A major step forward this year was the City becoming the property owner of the Takoma Park Recreation Center which we have operated on New Hampshire since 1997. In the next year, we will be contracting for a public process to determine how to redevelop the property to ensure that City goals are met for recreation, as well as for housing or other economic development needs. I want to thank the residents who are part of the Friends of the Takoma Park Recreation Center who have long advocated for improvements.
  •  In addition, the staff has been hard at work applying for and receiving grants to improve the area. One example is the New Ave Bikeway Grant which the City received $235,000 in grant funding from the Maryland Bikeways Program. The grant moves forward design work for the conversion of the southbound service lane on New Hampshire Avenue into a two-way separated bike lane. The realization of the bikeway will help to support multi-modal transportation on New Hampshire Avenue and will connect to the future Purple Line station. Another example that benefits us city-wide is a $50,000 grant from the Council of Governments for a bus stop accessibility inventory that is now underway.
  • The City has also been granted a Neighborhood Revitalization Award from the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development. The grant will be used for targeted facade and signage improvements for businesses along the New Hampshire Avenue corridor. The $100,000 two year grant will be managed by the Economic Development Manager and will include opportunities for collaboration with local artists and signage companies to help revitalize the commercial district. The City of Takoma Park is the only Montgomery County city to receive an award from the Strategic Economic Development Fund this year.
  • The City’s work on New Hampshire Avenue was the focus of a presentation at the last national conference of the American Planning Association.
  • In addition, as we look on New Hampshire Avenue and across the City to improve transportation and improve the walkability of our community, Councilwoman Kostiuk has done a phenomenal job of advocating on behalf of the City and bringing new ideas for us to consider. I look forward to seeing what she has in store for us in 2020.
6. Increased Tenant Outreach and Support to Improve Living Conditions for Residents

As we work on the Housing and Economic Development Plan, we also see the incredible need in the City to assist tenants and residents who live in condos to ensure residents of varying incomes and all races and ethnicities have quality, affordable housing options.

To begin to address this need:

  • We increased the half-time Landlord-Tenant Mediator position to fulltime, which, when filled, will greatly enhance our ability to advocate on behalf of renters and housing associations.
  • Staff and Council, especially Councilwoman Searcy, have done outstanding new work with residents who live in condominiums this year and that work has been met with deep appreciation from the condominium communities.
  • A great amount of onsite outreach has occurred with tenants, as have some very interesting discussions with landlords. Residents who have never reached out to City staff before are coming into the City offices for assistance. Housing Manager Grayce Wiggins has been working long hours because the need for assistance is so great right now. As the residents come in for housing assistance, we also connect them to job assistance and other resources.
  • We have also increased both housing and recreation services to more people in vulnerable situations, such as those with disabilities or mental health challenges. In addition, we help residents with undocumented family members who have fewer options for assistance. Some assistance has also been provided to a group of women from Ethiopia who have formed a mutual support organization and held a successful picnic (with City assistance) in Opal Daniels Park.
  •  Last year, we advocated for Delegate Wilkin’s Stable Homes (Just Cause Eviction) bill which promotes stable housing by requiring a landlord to state a justifiable reason before evicting and displacing residents in the county. We will be in Annapolis again this year advocating for passage of the bill.
7. Plastic Straw Ban

Shout out to the young people in our community from Piney Branch Elementary School who started The Last Plastic Straw Takoma Park campaign and continued the tradition of advocacy from our young people. In the spring, the Council passed a ban on the commercial use of plastic beverage straws and stirrers. Because of the hard work of the students and residents who did the research and outreach to local businesses, we were able to move quickly in passing the ban, which becomes effective in January. Thank you to everyone who worked on this effort. Along with our ban on plastic bags, Safe Grow ordinance, composting program and many other initiatives, Takoma Park continues to be at the forefront of environmental efforts.

8. Increased Community Engagement

The Council and City staff are always looking for ways to increase our engagement with the community and make sure we are a responsive and service-oriented government.

Some changes we have made this year include:

  • We started to hold meetings prior to formal Council meetings to facilitate greater discussion with members of the public. We have had presentations followed by question and answer sessions from County Councilmember Hucker, the U.S. Post Office (thank you, Congressman Raskin, for coordinating this meeting), Pepco, Montgomery College, State Department of Assessment and Taxation, one focused on Accessory Dwelling Units, and more. If you missed any of these you can always find the recording on the City website. Thank you to Councilmember Kovar for his suggestions and assistance in pulling together a number of these meetings.
  • Councilwoman Kostiuk and I have been working with DC Council representatives to coordinate meetings regarding the work on Eastern Avenue. It has been frustrating dealing with many of the entities since the road is completely within DC. However, we have been able to hold two meetings this year with most of the utilities and DC Department of Transportation in the same room to hear from residents and report about the project.
  • When specific concerns or issues come up in the City, we have been responsive in pulling together experts around the region to present information and answer residents’ questions. A great example of that this year is the excellent panel of experts our Director of Public Works, Daryl Braithwaite, pulled together on why oak trees are dying.
  •  In addition, we continued the Friday morning coffees in different parts of the city and the Friday lunches in the Crossroads area that allow the public to drop in and chat with Councilmembers and key staff. Individual Councilmembers also held meetings, play dates, walks and other great gatherings to get to know, listen and engage with residents.
  • Donna Wright, the City’s Communication Specialist, has been putting in place a number of new ways for the City to communicate with residents. We started the new Takoma Insider which is sent via email each Friday. Sign up here. In addition, we have focused on providing information in different languages, specifically Spanish and Amharic.
9. Our Amazing City Committees and Commissions

We have amazing committees and commissions in the City that help the Council and staff tackle the work of the City. This year, we began to look at how we can increase participation in the Committees and improve the experience residents have when they serve on Committees. We conducted a survey to gather input and are working on recommendations to share with the full Council on how to improve the system.

In particular, many of our Committee members stepped up in a big way this year:

  • The Tree Commission and Committee on the Environment have been invaluable as we tackle the Tree Ordinance and Tree Canopy work and continue the work to address Climate Change;
  • The Board of Elections is busy working to prepare us for our 2020 Elections which will be the first City elections in sync with national elections;
  • The Grants Review Committee has been taking a careful look at how we run the program and expanded the pool of grantees;
  • The Arts & Humanities Committee put in place a new Cultural Plan with an emphasis on racial equity;
  •  Thank you to the residents and Councilwoman Kostiuk who have helped revitalize the Safe Roadways Committee, now the Complete Safe Streets Committee;
  •  And all the work of the Youth Council, Commemoration Commission, and the Recreation, Pension, and Nuclear-Free Committees, the Noise Control Board, the Commission on Landlord-Tenant Affairs, Ethics Commission, Emergency Preparedness, Façade Advisory Board, Police Chief’s Advisory Board.
  •  We also have a number of short term task forces such as the Parking Task Force, Council Compensation, and the Legal Services Review Advisory Group.

I want to specifically thank City Clerk, Jessie Carpenter, who assists the City Committees in functioning.

10. Award-Winning, Smart, Skilled, Hard Working City Staff

None of the above work would be possible without our amazing staff in the City. Every day our staff work on behalf of our community and residents. Many times the work they do goes unrecognized. I am glad to say this year our staff has been recognized and brought much praise to our City!

Here are just a few examples:

  •  City Manager, Suzanne Ludlow, received the Caring Heart Award for Outstanding Service to the Community and was just voted by her peers from around the region to be the next Chair of the Council of Governments Chief Administrative Officers Committee.
  • Jessie Carpenter, City Clerk/Director of Council Affairs, and Leicia Monfort, Teen Program Manager, were recognized by Takoma United for an Engaged Community as 2019 Unsung Heroes!
  • Jason Damweber, Deputy City Manager, was elected by peers from across the state to serve as the Vice President of the Maryland City/County Manager’s Association.
  • Finance Director, Susan Cheung, and her staff were awarded the Distinguished Budget Presentation Award from the Government Finance Officers Association for the FY2019 City Budget. This is the first time the City has received this award and was the result of the staff’s great work on improving the presentation of information in the budget document.
  • Lucy Neher, the coordinator of the Safe Routes to School Program, secured a grant for $86,494. The budget includes coordinator salary, non-infrastructure activities such as Walk to School Day activities, and the iCan Shine Bike Camp for two years. This is the 10th consecutive award for Takoma Park since 2007. In addition, Lucy’s work coordinating the TKPK 5K race resulted in $30,000 going to local schools to promote safety and wellbeing.
  • We have outstanding Planning Division staff members and this year three of them became “EcoDistrict Accredited Professionals” – Rosalind Grigsby, Community Development Manager, Jamee Ernst, Planner, and Alex Michael, Planning Intern. The EcoDistricts Protocol is a neighborhood and district-level approach to urban planning that prioritizes equity, resilience, and climate protection to guide community development. This approach aligns with the City Council’s sustainability, livability, and racial equity goals, as well as the Housing and Economic Development Strategic Plan, to help guide growth in the City. The certification is a step toward creating a certified EcoDistrict in Takoma Park to accelerate neighborhood-scale sustainability, green infrastructure, and community-based decision making. More information and case studies can be found on the EcoDistricts website.
  • Karen MacPherson, the Library’s Children, and Young Adult Manager have had numerous articles published in the Washington Post. One example is her June 2 article, “Yes, Parents, there is a magic formula to keep your kids reading through the summer.” The article provides strategies on steps parents and caregivers (who are “the secret ingredient” in the magic formula) can take to help kids keep reading during the summer while school is not in session.
  • Our Police Department has dealt with a number of very tough cases this year and has shown professionalism, caring, and gone above and beyond to assist residents. In particular, under Chief DeVaul, the departmental structure has been changed, the Chief’s Advisory Board has been revised, and several new community outreach programs have been initiated. I want to thank Councilmember Seamens for his vision and advocacy to support and improve policing in our community.
  • We have many more staff in the City and it is impossible to name each of them and their accomplishments. I want to extend my thanks to all of them for their dedication and hard work.
Looking Ahead to 2020

In the year ahead, we will continue much of the work discussed above, and specifically, we will wrap up our work on the tree ordinance and tree canopy goals. Thank you to Councilmembers Kostiuk, Dyballa, and Kovar for leading these efforts.

Other projects will include the library renovation, Census 2020, upcoming City Elections, and much more.

In addition to working on projects, I want to thank my colleagues on the Council for their participation in regional and national associations and committees. With their work with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, the Maryland Municipal League and the National League of Cities and other organizations, the City of Takoma Park “punches far beyond its weight class,” in the words of Council of Governments Executive Director Chuck Bean.

I want to also take this time to thank our Deputy City Manager,  Jason Damweber. He will be leaving the City and moving with the family to Colorado. It has been an honor to work with Jason these last few years. His dedication, professionalism, and excellent work have greatly benefited our community and he will be missed.

Every day I have the great honor to work for the residents of Takoma Park, with my colleagues on the Council, and with the most dedicated staff of City employees.

Together, we accomplished a great deal in 2019. I am looking forward to transforming the world with all of you in 2020!

Thank you!
Mayor Kate