Published on: Friday, January 1, 2016 Takoma Park Newsletter

New Year, new mayor, new conversations

By Apryl Motley

Newly elected Takoma Park Mayor Kate Stewart can’t wait to hear what the community has to say about a variety of issues that will impact residents. While email and listservs have their place in City-wide communications, Stewart finds them not as helpful for “having meaningful conversations and dialogue about difficult issues.”

There is no shortage of those as she begins her term. Topping her list of priorities are community policing, development of Takoma Park Junction, and affordable housing. In addition addressing residents’ concerns about Washington Adventist Hospital’s move and developing the FY17 budget are top priorities. So where to begin?

For Stewart the answer lies in engaging more members of the community to discuss how these issues affect them and the overall culture of Takoma Park. “The way to achieve greater community engagement is for our City staff, City council and residents to all be working together,” she said.

“In particular, we need to shift the framework for how we think about community engagement,” she continued. “The model for how we generally think about it now is that residents need to come to City staff or the City Council. I would like to see more of us getting out into the community more often.”

To that end, plans are already under way to facilitate the types of interactions and conversations Stewart believes will be most valuable to all members of the community. One of them will be Friday morning coffees around the City in which Stewart, the City manager, the City Council person for that area, and other City staff will participate.

“We would pick a central location near metro and bus routes, start at 7:30 a.m. and be available for two hours for people to drop by on their way to work and talk about issues that are impacting that part of the community,” Stewart explained. Location and other details are being worked on for the first Friday coffee of the year, which will be announced soon.

Along similar lines, Stewart envisions holding quarterly community conversations during the year where “we can bring together members of the community, outside experts, City staff, and the City Council to have conversations about issues we need to address as a whole community.” The first community conversation is scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 6, and the topic will be affordable housing.

For Stewart the coffees and conversations are small, but integral, parts of a larger effort to increase civic engagement. She said having polling places throughout the community for early voting during the last election was a good start: “The engagement and enthusiasm there was wonderful.”

Stewart hopes to build on the community interest generated from just having an election. “People are paying attention to what’s going on in terms of the City Council,” she said, “so that we can really bring people together and start thinking about ways to engage the public more.”

One strategy already put in place to increase engagement is holding City Council meetings Wednesday evenings instead of on Mondays. While walking door-to-door during her campaign, Stewart learned that attending meetings on Monday is hard for a lot of people. The council’s first meeting of the year will be held on Wednesday, Jan. 13 at 7:30 p.m.

In addition, Stewart wants to raise awareness about the public comment period during City Council meetings. “People don’t know that you can come to the City Council meeting during public comment to raise an issue, and it doesn’t have to be on the agenda or be a voting item,” she said. “A lot of people thought you could only speak to an issue if it was on the agenda or a voting item, which limits people being able to come and voice their opinions.”

And Stewart wants to hear those opinions. During her campaign, she stressed the need for leaders who will listen, hear and act. She says this approach to leadership comes from her training as a researcher. According to her, “if you take the time to listen and you really hear what peoples’ concerns and goals are, then you can act on them and get much closer to what you’re trying to achieve.”

There is a lot Stewart hopes to achieve, and she is excited about working with the residents towards those goals. “Takoma Park is a wonderful community where people come together when issues need to be resolved,” she said. “As we think about starting this next chapter in our City’s history, we need to make sure we’re protecting what makes Takoma Park so special as well as taking advantage of opportunities to make our community an even better place for all residents.”

This article appeared in the January 2016 edition of the Takoma Park Newsletter. The Takoma Park Newsletter is available for download here.