Just 76 people voted in last fall's Ward 5 city council election, by far the fewest of any of Takoma Park's six wards and another indication of lagging interest in the city's far northwest corner.
A lively three-person debate on Thursday, ahead of Tuesday's special election to replace former Councilman Reuben Snipper, signaled that might be changing. About 50 residents packed a room at Washington Adventist University to hear candidates talk about the future of the Washington Adventist Hospital site, how to engage renters in city politics, how to support under-developed commercial areas and a host of other issues.
“Everyone really does feel the projects coming and the change coming, and we really want to make the right decision,” candidate Melinda Ulloa said.
Many asked pointed questions, some even directed at specific candidates.
Mike Tabor asked Ulloa why she had not sent mailers or provided yard signs to supporters, as is typical in city elections.
“I'm questioning how seriously you are taking this campaign,” Tabor said.
Ulloa said it would have cost too much and that she had been knocking on doors instead.
Tabor then questioned candidate Jarrett Smith's progressive values. Smith defended his campaign and said the city should group with other area municipalities to sign ordinances dealing with national issues.
One resident asked how the candidates would make the ward more prevalent in city politics.
“We need to vote. We need to get people out to the Ward nights at the city council,” Smith said. “We need to show that we're engaged.”
Candidate Eric Hensal proposed a Ward 5 Civic Association, which would be structured to allow participation from as many homeowners and tenants as possible.
Ulloa said residents need a reason to go to the city council meetings.
Hensal, who wrote widely used anti-sweatshop legislation during his time as an Ohio city administrator, said it is appropriate for the council to make statements about national and international issues. He proposed Takoma Park create a publicly owned municipal power company in the wake of recent power outages.
“The city sends out mailers. The people want to actually talk to a city councilman, they want to see one, touch one,” Smith said. “I've talked to people who didn't know there was a city council.”
All three said they would lobby Washington Adventist Hospital to keep an urgent care facility on its Carroll Avenue site. The hospital is awaiting a ruling from the Maryland Health Care Commission on its planned move to White Oak.
Takoma Voice editor Eric Bond, who moderated the debate, asked the candidates what they hoped their legacy would be if elected.
“That I really did increase engagement,” Smith said. “When people talk about Takoma Park and its wards, that Ward 5 would be one of those top wards regarding engagement, regarding creativity.”