Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2007

Citizen group paints picture of Hoffmann as pro-development

But councilwoman says charge is not true and that group is ‘fronting’ for her opponent

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A citizen watchdog group is growling about development-related contributions it says Rockville mayoral candidate Susan R. Hoffmann received in her last race, but the city councilwoman disputes the analysis, saying the group is simply an attack dog for an opponent.

Real People for a Real Rockville, a collection of about 20 residents who organized seven months ago, has compiled a list of contributors to Hoffmann’s 2005 City Council campaign. The report says that $7,100 out of more than $15,000 of her 2005 campaign receipts came from donors linked to the development industry or professions that benefit from it.

It is not against city campaign rules to accept money from developers or the development community.

‘‘The big issue is just avoiding the appearance of impropriety,” Lora Meisner, president of Burgundy Estates Civic Association and a Real Rockville member, said. ‘‘It doesn’t mean she’s doing their bidding. But it could give the appearance that there is favoritism going on or some level of impropriety even if there is not.”

Hoffmann says many contributions listed by Real Rockville as development-related are unfairly characterized. There is no conflict — apparent or otherwise — because no money has been taken from developers doing business in Rockville.

‘‘It’s a false argument,” Hoffmann added. ‘‘There’s no sustaining evidence.”

The first in a series of reports on city candidates with established campaign receipts, Real Rockville’s Hoffmann study promises to be the most controversial because it supports a key campaign argument made by Drew Powell, one of two candidates battling Hoffmann in the November mayoral election.

Preceding the group’s report, Powell sharply criticized Hoffmann for taking development money at his campaign kickoff in May.

Promising not to do the same, he sites the report when discussing her record.

‘‘We cannot have the perception of conflict,” he said, painting Hoffmann as pro-development. ‘‘It erodes the confidence in our officials.”

Both Powell and Meisner think the development issue is as significant for Rockville this year as it was in Montgomery County in 2006, when frustration with the ill effects of growth propelled a series of slower growth candidates to victory.

As head of Neighbors for a Better Montgomery, a countywide watchdog group, Powell helped compile lists of development contributions county candidates received.

Hoffmann, the only seated politician running for mayor, contends Powell is using the same formula to target her. If Real Rockville or others can paint her as pro-development, then Powell benefits, she said.

‘‘Real Rockville appear to be supporters of my opponent,” she said, ‘‘and so they’re fronting for him and promoting his candidacy.”

Powell says that is not true and that the facts of the report speak for themselves.

‘‘The list is the list,” he said. ‘‘How can you argue with the names of the people who she took money from?”

Supporting Hoffmann’s argument is the fact that Elbridge James, Powell’s campaign manager, is a member of Real Rockville. The group also includes Andrea Bernardo, who manages the re-election campaign for City Councilwoman Anne M. Robbins, a longtime rival of Hoffmann who endorsed Powell.

Meisner admitted some overlap exists between Neighbors for a Better Montgomery and Real People for a Real Rockville, at least among the people who helped compile the five-page spreadsheet itemizing Hoffmann’s campaign receipts.

Both James and Bernardo say they have not worked on the Real Rockville report, spending their time on their respective campaigns.

‘‘I hate for her to bring it up and try to minimize Real Rockville’s effect that way,” James said. ‘‘Real Rockville is about neighborhoods from around Rockville to look at over-development and what can be done. It is also interested in the city’s actions on land use and open government.”

Other Real Rockville members interviewed say they are not in league with Powell. The group formed in February after a public hearing about proposed changes to Rockville’s refuse collection.

Not many Hoffmann supporters can be found in Real Rockville, Jacques Gelin, West End activist and Real Rockville member, admitted.

‘‘We’re a bunch of people who are very dissatisfied with her as a candidate for mayor and on the City Council,” Gelin said. ‘‘We’re mostly impressed with Powell. But we’re not his tool.”

Following the money

Characterizing Hoffmann as pro-development through her campaign receipts depends greatly upon how they are interpreted.

Some contributions listed by her 2005 campaign are from development-related interests, but not as many as the $7,100 total Real Rockville counts, according to a Gazette review of the Real Rockville report.

Topping the list, Hoffmann received $2,500 from real estate developer Aris Mardirossian, his wife and three of his companies.

Mardirossian is developing Crown Farm in Gaithersburg, but has not been active in Rockville, Rockville Chief of Planning Jim Wasilak confirmed.

‘‘What influence could I possibly provide for him if he doesn’t do any business in the city?” Hoffmann said.

City law allows an individual or entity to donate up to $500 to each candidate during an election cycle. Split between five entities, the Mardirossian donations are legal.

But, says Meisner, the funding clearly violates the spirit of the city law by taking advantage of ‘‘the corporate loophole.”

When contacted by The Gazette, the developer defended his contributions.

‘‘Those people are nuts,” Mardirossian said of Real Rockville. ‘‘They think they have a right to do whatever they want and intimidate everyone else who legitimately have a right to vote and support their candidate. They would be better off in a Socialist or Communist country.”

Hoffmann met Mardirossian in 1986 while both worked on Sidney Kramer’s campaign for county executive. Mardirossian also contributed to Councilwoman Anne M. Robbins’ 2005 re-election campaign.

A Gazette review of the campaign contributions did not reveal any donations to Hoffmann’s campaign from developers active in Rockville.

But the Real Rockville report points to donations from some development-related interests active in the city.

Those include contributions from individuals associated with Linowes and Blocher, a national law firm that represents development interests in the city, and the civil engineering company of Loiederman Soltesz Associates.

Loiederman and Soltesz has done work for developers in Upper Rock, Chestnut Lodge, King Farm and Fallsgrove developments, all in Rockville, Wasilak said.

Other development-related contributions listed by Real Rockville are not as easily linked to the development industry. The group’s report includes receipts from board members of Rockville Economic Development Inc., a pseudo-city organization tasked with bringing business to Rockville.

It also included contributions from Steven A. Silverman’s county executive campaign last year and the 2002 Pennsylvania State Senate campaign of former U.S. Rep. Peter Kostmayer, for whom Hoffmann once worked.

Hoffmann received money from a pair of politicians who own commercial property in the city.

Jeffrey Slavin, a Somerset councilman, gave her $500. Slavin owns commercial property on North Stonestreet Avenue.

Former County Executive Kramer, who owns the Hungerford Drive property upon which Ambrosia Grill stands, donated $250. An application to build a new Bank of America building on the property is being considered by the city planning department.

Other contributions come from individuals associated with real estate, mortgage and land management industries, but their connections to Rockville and development are unclear.

A $250 contribution, for example, was from Robert Askin, who owns a mortgage company in Gaithersburg. Hoffmann got a mortgage through him, she explained, plus she is a friend of his wife.

Following the votes

Hoffmann is standing on her voting record, one she says is not soft on development.

‘‘Examining my record, one would see that no favors are given” to developers, she said.

That record includes key votes opposed by the development community and some in favor of controversial developments.

The councilwoman voted in 2005 for the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, establishing a building moratorium on new development within the city if proposed growth exceeds school and road capacity. The ordinance includes tougher standards with which to judge those capacities than Montgomery County uses.

Hoffmann supported a temporary moratorium on new development applications while the city continues its citywide zoning review. She approved tougher forest preservation standards,

She points to her efforts establishing the Art in Private Development requirement, which has obliged developers to contribute more than $2 million since its inception in 2004.

The councilwoman, who long served as a city planning commissioner, approved two high rise buildings slated for construction on the parking lot in front of the Regal Cinemas. But her support came only after the buildings had been downsized in height and the developer agreed to a tiered plan limiting street level heights.

Hoffmann also approved Twinbrook Commons, now called Twinbrook Station, after the developer compromised on amenities, she said.

Real Rockville has not issued objections to any Hoffmann votes, but plans on analyzing each elected candidate’s record.

Hoffmann has been ‘‘very cautious over the past years because I think she knew she might be running,” Meisner said.

For Meisner, Hoffmann ‘‘is tied in with the [former county executive Douglas M.] Duncan development crowd. And to me, the whole question is do the people of the city of Rockville want the Duncan-Hoffmann development crowd ruling Rockville?”

The councilwoman, who has taken criticism for holding city office and a Montgomery County job at the same time, says Real Rockville and Drew Powell are bringing a negative message.

‘‘They argue that Rockville is overdeveloped,” she said. ‘‘That’s what NIMBYs always argue.”