Thursday, April 09, 2009

District 4 Debate Shorts: The Issues

I attended all three District 4 candidate debates last week (much to the consternation of the missus). We summarize these events in two posts, one covering the issues and another looking at the candidates.

From left: Lou August, Michael Bigler, Robin Ficker, George Gluck, Rob Goldman, Thomas Hardman, County Council Member Duchy Trachtenberg (representing Ben Kramer), Cary Lamari and Nancy Navarro in Burtonsville.

The three debates were held in Burtonsville, Wheaton and Downtown Silver Spring. The Burtonsville debate at Paint Branch High School included every candidate and drew about 50 people. The Action Committee for Transit/Sierra Club debate in Wheaton drew roughly 85 people. The Montgomery County Young Democrats debate at Silver Spring’s AFI Theater included just the Democrats and attracted over 70 people. The latter debate was outside the district, had no time limits on the candidates and allowed a couple long-winded questions from the audience, all of which hindered its usefulness. Delegate Ben Kramer (D-19) missed the Burtonsville debate because the House had scheduled votes that night.

We have very little material from Republicans Robin Ficker, Andrew Padula and Lou August and Green Party candidate George Gluck. They attended the Burtonsville debate but were prevented from debating the Democrats at the ACT/Sierra event and were not invited to the Young Democrats debate. Based on one nine-person event, we simply do not have enough notes to define their positions on par with the Democrats.

Two issues held the most prominence in the debates I attended: growth and transportation.


Delegate Ben Kramer (D-19) stated, “One of the things we need on the eastern side of the county is good jobs.” He characterizes the redevelopment of Silver Spring as a success and stated more than once that he would like to see redevelopment of the Wheaton Central Business District (CBD). He supports smart growth and defines it as bringing together business and residences at the same transit hubs. “That’s what the future of Montgomery County is all about.” He also said, “We should ensure that affordable housing has a critical role in how we design and build out our communities.”

Former Montgomery County Civic Federation President Cary Lamari repeatedly criticized the county’s growth policy. “What growth policy? We’re subject to special interest influence… If you’re a developer, you know where to send your money and your project will be built.” He said, “According to Park and Planning, every new unit built in the county costs $36,000 to service. But we only collect $8,000-16,000 in impact taxes. We’ve got to require developers to pay their fair share.” Lamari wants a tenants’ bill of rights, community land trusts and an end to developer buyouts of Moderately-Priced Dwelling Units (MPDUs). He says, “We’ve grown beyond our ability to sustain our growth.”

Board of Education Member Nancy Navarro says there is no vision and no interconnectedness in the county’s plan for growth. She says the county needs a “holistic approach.” “I don’t think that we have a comprehensive vision of how to develop this county as a whole. We do it piecemeal. We have to have a comprehensive vision first. I don’t think we have arrived there.” Since District 4 has no transit hubs and a preponderance of affordable housing, “we must coordinate infrastructure before we go ahead with redevelopment.” She stated, “We have to ensure that if we provide more density, we have to get more affordable housing.”

Thomas Hardman says the county’s growth policy is “ill-thought, hopscotch and haphazard… Aspen Hill is pretty dense when we have 20 people living in a basement.” He defines smart growth as mixed-use high density at transit hubs. “Rockville is a textbook case of how not to do a downtown. There’s no place for the poor, no place for the workers.” Hardman says the MPDU program “seems like a failure… the last thing you want to do is concentrate poverty in one area.”

Rob Goldman, the only Burtonsville resident, favors better infrastructure and transit. “Look where we are in Burtonsville. We’ve been ignored… District 4 needs someone to promote growth.”

Michael Bigler says, “If there’s no infrastructure, as far as I’m concerned, there can’t be any growth… We have to stop building until there’s more infrastructure in place.”

From left: Michael Bigler, Rob Goldman and Thomas Hardman in Wheaton.


Kramer said, “As a state legislator, I have strongly supported funding for the Purple Line and the CCT.” He favors County Council Member Marc Elrich’s BRT system, has consistently supported bills to limit raids on the Transportation Trust Fund and supports devoting a portion of the retail sales tax to transportation. He stated that opening the first phase of the ICC prior to its completion is a “huge mistake” and is “ill-conceived” because it would cause spillover onto Norbeck Road which is “already gridlocked.” “We should be looking at light rail up the US-29 corridor and BRT in the interior.”

Lamari stated, “The root problem of congestion is poor decisions in the past. When you grow beyond your ability of growing, you wind up with congestion.” He also favors Elrich’s BRT plan. He says the CCT is the “most-needed project in the county today” and “The ICC is the most destructive project today.”

Navarro emphasized the Purple Line, saying, “I testified for the Purple Line because I noticed a lot of working class people were not present to express their views on mass transit.”

Hardman wants to “right-size” bus lines, install BRT to Olney or Brookesville and plan for light rail up US-29 in 20 years. He also wants to plan for light rail on MD28/198 over the long term. “There are far more jobs in Montgomery County than there is affordable housing.”

Goldman said, “I support light rail going down Route 29.” Transit should also go north towards Howard County. He wants to replace diesel buses with compressed natural gas buses

Bigler stated, “Instead of building the ICC, why didn’t we think about light rail 20 years ago? Then we wouldn’t be having the arguments we are today.”

All candidates support the Purple Line. We are posting their Action Committee for Transit questionnaires throughout the election.

One note for the readers: if transportation is your primary issue, the big player is the state. It is the state, not the County Council, that controls improvements on state roads like Georgia Avenue, New Hampshire Avenue and US-29 as well as large transit projects like the CCT and the Purple Line. Don't forget to raise these issues with the State Senate and House of Delegates candidates when they run next year.

Other issues that were covered by the debates include:

Gang Violence

Lamari wants more activities for kids, more parental responsibility, mentor programs, more recreational facilities. Navarro mentioned educational facilities officers – cops who work in school buildings to keep kids out of gangs. “In Montgomery County, we’re resource-rich but lack coordination.” Hardman says after-school programs will only be effective 10-20 years from now and favors more gang-focused police officers. Goldman favors mentor programs. Bigler said, “We cannot allow these people to be in our schools.” Republican Andrew Padula stated, “If you want to deal with gang violence, you’ve got to come up with more than Peter Pannish solutions.” He wants a crackdown on “hardcore criminals.” Republican Robin Ficker said, “A lot of this violence is drug-driven. Our young people are not kept busy enough.” Ficker recommended starting police boxing leagues. “If they want to fight, then they can fight!” Kramer was not present at the Burtonsville event when the question was asked.

MCPS and the Budget

Ficker said that it was “improper” to give school employees “30% raises over three years.) He mentioned that there were 1,100 administrators earning six-figure salaries and asked, “why are there 1,400 credit cards for 200 schools?” “We have to keep an eye on the school budget so that homeowners can’t be used as ATMs.” Lamari criticized waste, including mailing of MCPS brochures that spotlight school board members. Navarro, a two-term President of the Board of Education, said, “We’re not producing widgets, we’re educating children. That’s why we’re spending money on teachers and support staff.” She mentioned her role in securing $190-200 million in budget savings this year due to the elimination of cost-of-living increases and reduced administrative spending. “Certainly, we enjoy a high-quality school system and that costs money.” Goldman stated, “We need to continue to generate outstanding students.” Hardman said he has no children and admits he knows “little” about schools. “My knowledge is insufficiently complete to decide that question.” Kramer was not present at the Burtonsville event when the question was asked.

From left: Ben Kramer, Cary Lamari and Nancy Navarro in Wheaton.

Climate Protection

Kramer said, “As a member of the state legislature, I was a co-sponsor of the Greenhouse Gas Reductions Act that would cut emissions by 25% by 2020.” He also co-sponsored the 2007 Clean Cars Act. “We have to have higher standards for appliances.” Goldman wants to replace county building HVACs with more efficient systems, retrofit them for lighting and encourage more forestry programs. “We need to encourage and incentivize developers to make buildings more environmentally friendly.” Navarro supports going for “low-hanging fruit” like “opportunities to train people for green jobs, like weatherizing homes.” She wants to move toward LEED buildings and “look at taxes on developments.” Lamari said, “We have to require all new buildings to be in the LEED program. We need to encourage older buildings to go to LEED certification as well.” He praised County Council Member Roger Berliner’s bill providing home loans for energy efficiency. Hardman favors mandatory changing of incandescent light bulbs to fluorescent bulbs. Bigler wants a homeowner energy tax credit.

Liquor Stores

All candidates opposed privatization. Goldman was the only candidate who favored liquor sales on Sundays while Kramer had “no objection” to it. I could not understand Hardman’s answers on the subject. Kramer stole the question at the end by telling the Young Democrats under 21 not to drink. “Stay on your toes,” he warned. Let it not be said that Ben Kramer always tells people what they want to hear!

Speed Cameras

All candidates supported them, but all said they should not be everywhere.

If You Could Pass One Law, What Would it Be?

Goldman would reinstate Ride-On routes about to be cancelled. He wants more bus options in general. Bigler would pass the ambulance fee. Lamari wants a new growth policy. Hardman would revise the housing policy and code to crack down on illegal sublets. Kramer would try to slow down foreclosures. He said, “I was shocked when I saw my family home, where I grew up, was foreclosed and in terrible shape.” Navarro would focus on job creation and smart growth. “I heard a story of a 6-year-old who was crying on the bus because his family had been evicted and he did not know if the bus driver knew where they lived.”

From left: Lou August, Michael Bigler, Robin Ficker, George Gluck and Rob Goldman in Burtonsville.

What are the Three Most Important Issues in District 4?

Bigler: Getting to work, jobs close to our homes, schools.

Goldman: Public safety, jobs in District 4 and in the county, protecting homeowners from losing homes.

Hardman: Economy, economy, economy.

Kramer: Work with other Council Members and the Executive to “make sure this District is not overlooked,” make sure East County is getting appropriate share of HHS and school funding, redevelop Burtonsville and Wheaton CBDs

Lamari: Deal with the budget deficit, establish hierarchy of policies with growth at the top, safety net.

Navarro: Job creation and smart growth, unify the community, safety net.

That’s as much detail as we can offer from the candidates on the issues. Tomorrow we’ll look at the candidates themselves.