Candidates for City Office Respond to CVT Questions

Community Vision for Takoma (CVT) asked each of the candidates for City Council and Mayor in the November 3rd 2020 election to send us a 200-word response to each of three questions, with a deadline of September 16th. Three seats in this election are contested (Ward 3, Ward 5, and Mayor). Our intention here is to provide information for voters to directly compare responses from the candidates. We will also consider these responses in determining CVT endorsements.

We include one response that came in too late for endorsement consideration. We are no longer accepting responses at this time.

1. Is the City Council addressing racial justice effectively? What specific actions would you seek to take on the Council to achieve more racial justice in Takoma Park?

Peter Kovar (Ward 1):

The Council has taken steps to address inequities in our community connected to systemic racism through actions such as making advances on affordable housing; focusing more on community policing; exploring renovation of the New Hampshire Avenue Recreation Center; seeking to address the Purple Line’s economic impacts; expanding translation of City documents; making the resident survey more inclusive; targeting grants and programs to marginalized communities; and adopting our Racial Equity policy.

We need to do much more in order to fully live up to our ethos of inclusiveness, and to treat our Black and Brown neighbors with respect and dignity. The Reimagining Public Safety task force we’re establishing sets the stage for further improvements by helping ensure we’ll hear from residents most affected by policing and budgetary decisions. I’ll be pushing to further demilitarize the police, develop alternative first responder ideas that emphasize mental health and economic support, and widen participation in municipal affairs. But as a white male living in a wealthier neighborhood, it’s also important for me to listen to residents who live elsewhere. So I’m approaching these issues as someone with plenty to learn, and who needs to pay more attention to voices from other parts of town.

Cindy Dyballa (Ward 2), submitted Sept 20th:

The long-overdue need for racial justice to address systemic inequities requires long-term action at many levels.  At the local level, City council can continue to build on the clear intention of the city’s 2017 equity initiative and recent city efforts, to focus more consciously on building equity into our policies, programs, and budget decisions.  That would look like, to share some recent examples, funding youth recreation programs that serve youth of color and lower income; centering people of color in the effort to reimagine our public safety policies; expanding tree planting efforts in underserved areas; and targeting outreach for New Hampshire Ave. Recreation Center redevelopment to nearby neighborhoods most affected. Identifying and removing barriers to greater civic engagement by residents of color is another critical step. As a city council member, I actively seek out and listen to black and brown voices about what they see and what they need to address inequities.

Kacy Kostiuk (Ward 3):

The City of Takoma Park took the groundbreaking step in 2017 of adopting a Racial Equity Initiative, and racial equity considerations have become part of decision-making and planning-processes.

But this is only the beginning. There is much more to do. Racial equity needs to be a part of every decision and discussion, and we need to make systemic changes to build a truly racially equitable community.

We need to:

•Improve the Racial Equity Initiative through active consultation that gives power to Black and Brown residents

•Develop a comprehensive system for analyzing racial equity impacts in budget decision processes, since many inequities are tied to funds distribution

•Remove barriers and ensure Black and Brown residents are part of decision-making processes by changing the committee structure and providing new supports to run for office

•Systematize and provide more tools to City staff to create racial equity statements on agenda items

•Make difficult decisions and have open and honest conversations about needed changes

As we move forward, a key focus area must be making policing reforms. This process needs to be driven by collaborative, change-making, action-oriented discussions with Black and Brown residents that lead to adoption of concrete policy, procedure, and funding changes.

Olly Swyers (Ward 3):

The city has not done enough to address racial equity. It was exciting in 2017 when the city made a move to adopt a racial equity impact statement for major city actions. That is an incredibly bold and absolutely necessary step to beginning to unpack injustices and correct our path forward. The city was unable to establish a rubric and subsequently shifted the impact statement to “equity considerations”. If we are committed to seeing an equitable Takoma Park we need to do the work to build that rubric and then apply it to all major actions. We also need to address our budget, especially that for policing and salaries, and decide if it reflects our equity commitments. One thing that seems obvious, when you look at salary allocation for municipal staff, is an astounding wage gap between people who are doing physical labor at 40 hours a week, like our mostly Black and brown sanitation workers, and people who are working as managers and administrators a majority of whom are white . We need to take a hard look at who is being paid for what, and how and why we value some labor at such higher margins than others.

Sawa Kamara (Ward 5):

The city has to examine racial biases embedded in city department services such as the police department, affordable housing/ homeownership and businesses. Survey how well we’ve tackled these issues annually by creating an equity goal and a five year plan. To measure progress we should have a community report card or organizational assessment holding Takoma Park City Staff accountable. Hold culturally competent classes( racism training)  and also have a committee that implements racial and diversity decision making. Build our community’s capacity to judiciously address racism by providing opportunities to build relationships and work together on issues. When making decisions that directly affect residents, engage the censorious mass of diverse residents to not only participate but to lead the initiatives. Rather than focusing on racial equities, focus on racial inequities especially institutionalized incongruity in power, policies and practices.  Most people will point out rent control as addressing the issue but that is merely scratching the surface. 

Jarrett Smith (Ward 5):

Our City Council is a not fully immersed in what it means to truly address racial equity. When looking at the racial equity landscape, data is the true indicator of progress and we haven’t progressed when:

•Evictions are taking place that are affecting mostly Black and brown residents; this is unacceptable to me;

•COVID-19 cases are affecting more Black and brown people than anyone else; this is unacceptable to me;

•In a city that is predominantly Black and brown people, the average household income for black and brown people is dramatically less than everyone else; this is unacceptable to me;

•College entrance for Black and brown people in this city is dramatically less than it is for everyone else; this is unacceptable to me;

•Voting/Civic Participation is very limited among Black and brown people because, there is a feeling of hopelessness; what has the government done for me lately… This is Unacceptable to Me;

Takoma Park is a majority ethnic city, and these indicators show us that there is no racial equity.

I was the sponsor of our city’s Racial Equity policy that was unanimously adopted by this City Council. Measurable implementation hasn’t happened.

An economic plan that should accompany Racial Equity needs to be put in place immediately and measured constantly until we see marked improvements in these indicators.

There are members of the community and senior City leadership that have no interest in truly addressing racial equity beyond simply having an intellectual conversation about racial justice or reciting a poem by a nationally acclaimed black poet. These actions do not feed someone who is hungry, educate the unknowing, offer hope to the impoverished, put a roof over someone’s head, provide transportation to that struggling mother who is pregnant with no way to get to her sonogram appointment across town.

Racial equity is supposed to mean something and currently Takoma Park is missing the mark.

Roger Schlegel (Mayor):

The Council’s racial justice initiative is moving slowly and superficially. I would seek to:

  1. Catalogue our history of systemic racism.
  2. Incorporate anti-racist training in City meetings.
  3. Address racialized income disparities among staff.
  4. Use metrics to ensure equitable service allocation, including wifi.
  5. Activate groups to address transit, childcare, social services, building safety, and police relations.
  6. Overcome linguistic, temporal, geographic, and technological barriers to participation.
  7. Ensure pandemic assistance information is delivered to every resident in need.
  8. In near-term climate strategies, Do NOT burden residents of color; DO generate economic opportunities for residents of color; DO prioritize better transportation.
  9. Insist that new development do no harm to businesses that are crucial in building wealth or quality of life for people of color.
  10. Implement an affordable retail stabilization program.
  11. Leverage the establishment of an “Equitable Takoma” credit union to spur racially equitable economic opportunities.
  12. Develop a northern Ward 6 playground, and improve the Eastridge Avenue playground.
  13. Activate more public space to welcome residents of color.
  14. Ensure residents of color play major roles in Library and Rec Center projects.
  15. Ensure Junction redevelopment advances racial equity in use of that site.

Kate Stewart (Mayor):

The work to dismantle over 400 years of institutionalized racism is and must be an ongoing process. In 2017, the City intentionally took on this work which has been highlighted by National League of Cities.

In the last three years, we have trained city staff, Council, committees, and residents; put in place pilot engagement programs; and started to collect data – e.g. resident survey included questions on racial equity and focus groups with African immigrants and Spanish speaking residents.

This work is changing how we do business; guiding where new bus shelters go, how we conduct meetings, determining which local organizations receive City grants, informing the cultural plan, funding oral histories of Black residents, and guiding how we reimagine public safety. And, many other efforts.

These are meaningful, concrete steps forward, but not enough. We need expertise to analyze data, keep our Road Map updated, and all of us accountable. That’s why I am calling for the hire of a Chief Equity Officer. As co-chair of National League of Cities’ Racial Equity And Leadership Council, I have learned a great deal about how to sustain this ongoing work and look forward to doing so.

2. Do you support the current Takoma Junction plan? Why or why not? What is your vision of a successful Junction development — and what process would help the City attain a shared vision?  

Peter Kovar (Ward 1):

I support developing the Junction, primarily because a well-designed project can contribute to creating a more vibrant, walkable community. I don’t support the current site plan, and I voted against it in 2018, mainly because it had inadequate public space and excessive height. While some changes have been made, those concerns remain.

My biggest worry isn’t that I’ll dislike the development that may ultimately be approved, but rather that divisiveness around the project could have a long-term harmful impact. With passion on all sides, I think it’s healthier to seek a compromise. As review of the plan continues, I’d like to pursue a version of the project with a somewhat smaller footprint, meaning most of us — me included — wouldn’t get all we want. But a smaller structure could make it easier to address some concerns about public space, transportation, pedestrian safety, stormwater, and the project’s overall neighborhood impact.

I don’t want more lengthy delays — we should make a decision and move forward, one way or the other. So after the election, in coordination with the County review process, I’d like to work toward a smaller structure, ideally with a timetable for when we’d have a final vote.

Cindy Dyballa (Ward 2), submitted Sept 20th:

In line with the vision of the Takoma Junction Task Force, existing agreements, and the resolutions of other Councils, I support development that contributes to a vibrant and commercially viable Junction.  In 2018 I voted to move the proposed plan for the city lot to county agencies development review. I worked to address concerns about the proposal (such as the Coop’s operational concerns), and I pushed for specific requirements such as green construction, less height, and stormwater management.  When the county agencies process concludes and before any county planning board vote, the City Council must review the revised proposal in an open manner, to check that it conforms with our previous requirements and agreements, particularly sustainability, traffic, public space and the Coop/NDC agreement. As I did in 2018, I will hold several neighborhood meetings to hear thoughts of a variety of ward 2 residents on the revised plan.  I am troubled that some residents feel great mistrust as a result of their experience of the process to date.

Kacy Kostiuk (Ward 3):

Takoma Junction is an important cultural and social hub. In 2018, I voted to advance the project concept plan to the County Review Process because I believe in-fill development at this location has the potential to benefit residents and local businesses, reduce car use, and bring additional revenue for the City’s social and environmental initiatives.

A revised and more detailed plan will come to the City Council before it can move to a County Planning Board vote. The Council must thoroughly review that plan with the community. This must involve careful analysis, questioning, and advocating for change where needed.

I will not support a plan that makes stormwater worse, creates unsafe traffic conditions, negatively impacts racial equity, or creates environmental hazards for the neighborhood.

I will support a plan that benefits residents and local businesses; provides walkable, transit-oriented opportunities; enables the Co-op to serve the community, and offers small businesses and/or nonprofits and social-service providers space to serve our community’s needs.

Recently, I wrote to the developer twice, reminding them of the requirements in the 2018 Resolution, requesting rear illustrations, and asking a long list of community-generated questions. I look forward to receiving answers and having community discussions.

Olly Swyers (Ward 3):

I do not support the current junction plans. NDC’s current plans don’t even address the bare minimum standards set forth by the city council two years ago. It also doesn’t meet any of our climate goals and they have only proposed a bare minimum amount of useful, accessible public space without a paywall, one of many equity concerns. An ideal junction development and development process would welcome, seek, and incorporate community input from the beginning of the process to the final stages through town halls, forums and active feedback sessions. That is what a community partner looks like to me and that has not been the process I have witnessed thus far.  

This project should have been, and could still be, an opportunity for creative and collective decision making. As it is publicly owned land, this is one of the few times where we can actually have a huge impact on the final project. Our city is filled with passion and love for community, and working together on this development could be a chance to foster and grow connections, and find a solution that isn’t just merely a compromise.

Sawa Kamara (Ward 5):

I support the continued but careful progress towards the revitalization of the Takoma Junction area. I support every effort to ensure that the continued input of residents and business owners are taken into consideration. The City’s goals to minimize detrimental impact to neighboring properties, optimize the provision of retail services, and provide for both public and community spaces must be carefully executed to ensure the sustainability and viability of our diverse community for generations to come.

As a resident seeking to represent our community as a City Council member, I will ensure that residents, particularly those in Ward 5, are regularly informed of the status of this important project. I will continue to ensure that a good-faith effort is made to address our concerns appropriately and expeditiously. I will continue to work in direct collaboration and consultation with residents from all walks of life to ensure that the final design respects and meets our goals of ensuring accessibility, inclusivity, diversity, safety, environmental sustainability, and smart economic growth that supports local businesses.

Jarrett Smith (Ward 5):

I do not support the current Takoma Junction plan. Here is the email I wrote to residents prior to my re-election in 2018:


 It has taken five years for us to get to this point on the Takoma Junction development project. Over the years, the city’s development partner has shared with the community various iterations of the project. They have shown us ideas for urban farming on the new structures roof, a CoOp in a newly built store, and an improved failing intersection.

 Council is tentatively scheduled on May 23rd, 2018 to vote on the current NDC site plan, and it is my intention to vote against it. I feel the current proposal doesn’t build on Takoma Park’s tradition of green space, the assurance that the CoOp’s long-term home is in Takoma Park, and there is still uncertainty surrounding improving traffic conditions around the Junction location.  This is unacceptable.  I’ve worked for and supported small business for years; therefore, I think this is the time to once again support the backbone of American business, which is neighborhood businesses.”

The project has torn the community apart. The decision making and discussion on the future of Takoma Junction needs to hit the “reset” button. We as a city and city leadership need to push up our sleeves get to work and starting this entire process over again. Council should ensure this redevelopment is what the residents of Takoma Park want.

Roger Schlegel (Mayor):

I do not support the current plan. In many substantive and egregious ways, it fails to meet community interests, the design constraints of the site, the challenges of the complex chain of intersections, and the needs or nearby businesses. This is clear evidence that NDC has not been serious about tailoring the project in response to the values and requirements expressed in the development agreement.

The silver lining of the controversies that have accompanied the process over the past several years is that we are now quite clear as a community on the types of amenities and design features that could be combined in a consensus vision for the site’s development. My vision of a successful Junction development activates that stretch of Carroll Avenue in a delightful way that provides flexible community space as well as some new dining and commerce while protecting the operations of the community owned-grocery store, maintaining adequate parking for the district, protecting pedestrians and cyclists, and preserving the forest. I think that with good leadership, the community can come together around a shared vision and find the partners and the resources to make it happen expeditiously, and in a way that advances the City’s values.

Kate Stewart (Mayor):

Over six years we have had many discussions and I have written extensively about, spoken, and voted on this project. On the last vote in July, 2018, I supported submitting the draft site plan to County Planning for technical review. The Resolution, along with Development Agreement, requires among other things:

  1. Storm-water treatment significantly exceeding City requirements;
  2. Parking for area businesses; 
  3. Dedicated public space; 
  4. No formula stores; 
  5. LEED Gold certification or higher;
  6. Minimization of impacts to neighboring properties;
  7. Accommodation of Co-op needs;
  8. Creation of an energy neutral building.

I have been and continue to be a strong supporter of the Co-op and believe we can have a project where it continues to thrive.

We have an opportunity to enhance walkability and vitality of the area, improve stormwater treatment (at no City cost), eliminate an unsightly parking lot, and provide the City hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue.

I support continuing County review process and having the project come back to the city for discussion and vote before going before Planning Board. We do not yet know if the next iteration will meet our requirements, but I believe we should continue the process and see.

3. How would you improve the budget process, and what changes would you seek to make in City spending and revenue generation?

Peter Kovar (Ward 1):

The budget is a large, dense document. And while we’ve moved toward more transparency, our budget process is still too opaque, for residents and Councilmembers. Decisions on funding often occur in isolation, rather than through comprehensive review of spending and tax options. We frequently make modest spending changes around the edges without stepping back to consider broader priorities and alternatives.

Major changes may be difficult given the uncertainty around COVID-19. But for future budgets I’d like us to debate several alternatives, for example Constant Yield (same overall property tax receipts as the previous year), flat tax rate (same as the previous year), staff recommendations (a possible tax increase), and a spending freeze or a two percent cut. The Council and residents could then better understand tradeoffs and how community priorities are aligned with taxes and other funding sources within a clearer overall fiscal context. We wouldn’t just be making spending changes around the edges.

I’d also like to see us further emphasize our lobbying for State legislation enabling municipalities to enact revenue measures, and appoint a resident task force to review County functions the City has absorbed so we can explore whether it would make sense to reconsider those decisions.

Cindy Dyballa (Ward 2), submitted Sept 20th:

There are no easy answers on budget, and the uncertain program and revenue impacts of the pandemic make future city budgeting an even greater challenge.  I’d like to continue and expand strategies adopted for this budget year–greater caution in spending, especially on personnel; shifting resources to an unexpected budget priority, COVID response; and significant funds on hold, pending quarterly reviews of spending and revenues.  Building a more diverse set of revenue sources is in order, such as attracting and strengthening local businesses, continued focus on increasing county “tax duplication” payments, close attention to projections for current sources of revenue, and actively pursuing sustainability and other grants.  And I am actively working for a targeted new city property tax credit and deferral program to help some low-moderate income homeowners.

The city budget process provides a great deal of information in a very short time. Actions such as more readable materials, summary graphics, and budget open houses for residents will help make the process even more accessible to a range of residents. I’d like council to consider budget options at the concept level—what it takes to maintain current programs, to target high priority areas, to keep within the current budget level—and focus more on budget strategy and less on smaller line items.

Kacy Kostiuk (Ward 3):

As residents face worsened economic hardships and the City faces possible revenue reductions due to COVID, we will need to make increasingly difficult budget decisions.

We need to improve budget materials and processes to ensure robust, representative resident input:

•Create more accessible budget materials, incorporating infographics and analytical tools such as percentage changes to expenditures

•Conduct targeted outreach to underrepresented groups — especially Black and Brown residents, renters, and residents with limited English

•Develop a comprehensive process for analyzing racial equity in budget decisions

We also must be innovative and look for opportunities to save and meet our goals:

•Set a manageable tax rate for all residents, while developing targeted tax assistance programs that create a more progressive property taxing system — so those who can afford it pay more, and those with greater need pay less

•Reassess and revise the Payment-In-Lieu-Of-Taxes program to meet and create incentives to achieve affordable housing goals

•Create a separate tax category for vacant developed properties

•Collaborate with institutions of higher learning, nonprofits, and volunteers

•Seek opportunities to pilot new programs or technologies, especially in sustainability and community outreach

•Make difficult cuts and changes when needed, prioritizing racial equity and the most critical needs of residents.

Olly Swyers (Ward 3):

Just some first steps to addressing our budget. We need to assess community needs first, as they pertain to our racial and economic equity goals, climate goals and also basic municipal functions. Our budget needs to reflect those priorities first and work within constraints that don’t deplete our emergency reserves. Fiscal responsibility at the city level is an equity issue, as we increase spending year after year and raise taxes at double the rate of inflation, we are already losing longtime community members who have low or fixed incomes. City salaries are incredibly inequitable for some, and growing at unsustainable rates for others. Our city manager and police chief both make well over 200k with benefits. We also have to address tax duplication, in some cases like stormwater management, deferring some services to the county and addressing accurate reimbursement amounts for ones that the city continues to provide. I’m only scraping the  surface here but the first and main thing we need to do is shift our budgeting process to one that is transparent, and asks for active input from the community.

Sawa Kamara (Ward 5):

Budget decisions have a profound impact on our daily lives from the police department (safety) to garbage collection ( sanitation). Our neighborhoods budget is integral for community development. We need transparency in the budget process by analyzing several aspects: connect budget spending with key performance targets, If the budget calls for cut or increase, share when and how it happen, explain reasons for budget cut or increase, share the entire information with the organization through meetings, department program managers, mayor,council, and individuals. Approve the budget in stages not in one action to accurately aim at our goal. Practice revenue forecasting which is an ongoing process six months prior that revises the budget execution phase of the cycle. When proposing a budget or developing that initial assumption the city should solicit inputs not only from the city manager but city council, key stakeholders, policy leaders and residents. Our highest priority should be economic development and affordable housing. We need a better budget for a better city. Our annual budget should identify and address health & social inequalities. 

Jarrett Smith (Ward 5):

Here is how I would re-imagine our city’s budget process. Our budget process could be improved using Zero Based Budgeting. It is efficient and the major advantages are flexible budgets, focused operations, lower costs, and more disciplined execution. Department heads should have to explain in detail their budget request before the budget is presented to Council by the city manager. This gives council the opportunity to ask questions and weigh-in on decisions before the budget is almost final. In our current process, there is a very small window of time for changes once City Council receives the annual proposed budget and has the ability to analyze line items, and suggest any additions or deletions, or request even further explanation.

I’d like to see our budget process adopt some of the rigor of the U.S. Government’s Accountability Office (also known as GAO). GAO is tasked to review programs and initiatives proposed by Congress or that are already on the books. According to their mission statement, they are tasked to, “examine(s) how taxpayer dollars are spent and advise(s) lawmakers and agency heads on ways to make government work better.” For me that is Takoma Park’s budgeting process “re-imagined.”

Roger Schlegel (Mayor):

In collaboration with the Council, I would direct the Manager to develop an outcomes-based budget that is closely linked to a fully fleshed-out and annually updated strategic plan. With this approach, I would insist that the Manager institute protocols and metrics whereby employees track their time on various programs and the outcomes achieved. I would lead the City Council to explore options for returning some services, such as stormwater and criminal investigations, to the County, and for merging and consolidating staff work teams within ecosystem services, human services, and planning/direction/evaluation.

I would press the Manager to propose achievable cost reductions and to identify the most efficient ways to accomplish the objectives of major projects such as the Library as well as ongoing expenses such as equipment replacement and the hiring of consultants. I would advocate strongly for allowing real property tax increases no higher than the rate of increase in the Employee Cost Index (ECI), and I would use budget and management improvements to lead a strong and forceful effort to advocate for an end to double taxation from the County. In select priority areas, I would support new spending, particularly for key racial equity and affordability initiatives.

Kate Stewart (Mayor):

  1. Budget Process: I have made improvements in the budget process the last five years by applying my experience as a small businessowner and executive of a non-profit which received private and government funding. I strengthened Council priority setting process to provide greater transparency and direction to staff on where to focus budgets. And, there is more to do. One change is “Participatory Budgeting,” which empowers residents to help decide how to expend City funds.
  2. Revenue Generation: Given the limitations under state law, I have focused on (1) sustaining and increasing our commercial tax base, especially during COVID-19; (2) getting County Executive’s budget to start addressing tax duplication (although the pandemic delayed Council action) and securing the County Council’s commitment to set aside COVID relief funds for municipalities; and (3) Grants (e.g. $100,000 state grant for New Hampshire Ave façade improvements and $457,000 grant for bikeways on New Hampshire Ave).
  3. Spending: I have advocated for City staff to present Council a “maintenance of effort” budget tied to the cost of providing services.  Through this lens, we can decide how to shift, cut, or increases services (e.g., shifting funds to address COVID-19 relief efforts).

Author: Susan Katz Miller

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