Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Specifics are welcome in order for changes, say council members

As members consider priorities for Takoma Park, some say broader ideas will not bring about results quickly

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Among the major themes in the wide-ranging list of priorities being crafted by the Takoma Park City Council are ‘‘sustainability,” ‘‘livable community,” and ‘‘engaged, responsive and service-oriented organization.” But several council members stressed that more specific aims are needed in order to make any substantive changes.

Since January, council members have been working to develop a plan for what they would like the city to accomplish in the remainder of their current term and beyond. The priorities extend from revitalizing New Hampshire Avenue and reducing crime in troublesome neighborhoods to strengthening rental housing laws and allowing residents to pay city fees online.

‘‘In one way, we’re trying to suggest something that we could live by for a number of years,” said Councilman Josh Wright (Ward 1) during a council work session Monday.

Seated around a rectangular table in the council chambers Monday and not on their regular dais, council members debated how specific they should make their stated goals, as well as the instructions they would give city staff for pursuing them.

Councilman Doug Barry (Ward 6) said he was concerned that if goals were ‘‘overly broad and general,” they would fail to engage the needs for some areas of the city. A goal to develop public safety plans in every neighborhood, for example, Barry called ‘‘laudable,” but he questioned the need for distributing public safety resources throughout the city after a recent report showed that 30 percent of the city’s crime takes place in his Ward 6.

Barry asked whether the citywide focus made sense ‘‘given that in each of the wards, the needs are different, and the document doesn’t really seem to differentiate between those differences.”

Councilman Terry Seamens (Ward 4) agreed and said the council’s instruction to city staff should be more specific.

City Manager Barbara Burns Matthews pointed out that many of the city’s plans for Ward 6 and the New Hampshire Avenue corridor, such as those involving the city’s department of Housing and Community Development, could not be accomplished without first tackling crime.

‘‘If we don’t get a handle on the crime problems along that corridor, HCD would work itself into a frenzy ... if they don’t feel safe,” Matthews said.

Councilwoman Colleen Clay (Ward 2) said that neighborhood associations in other parts of the city should be encouraged to develop public safety plans, but city police should make Ward 6 or other problematic areas their own priorities.

Clay said the council should also avoid getting bogged down in details and long debates, and pointed to the city’s affordable housing plans as one example of a program that should be put into effect sooner rather than later.

‘‘We spent 18 months talking about definitions of affordable housing,” she said. ‘‘If we could just let some reservations about the nitty-gritty go, just flow with it and get it done ... I think the document will be just as good if we sit and pore over it for a year and a half.”

Wright said he wants to see the city be more proactive and less reactive. For example, he said the city should make a ‘‘big push” in support of mass transit projects, rather than resort to reactionary acts such as the protests against development at the Takoma Metro site.

The council’s planning will be helped next year by results from the Community Indicators Project, a citywide survey the council has funded for next year’s budget, which members say can give them a better idea of residential concerns. Mayor Bruce Williams said the council could begin adopting resolutions stating their priorities as soon as the end of this month, but the specifics would not be worked out until September.