Council Endures Tough Town Hall Meeting

Council Endures Tough Town Hall Meeting

So, remember all the Town Hall meetings this summer? Screaming and near-riots, and people carrying guns? We’ve now had two Town Hall meetings on the White Flint Sector Plan — one in September by Friends of White Flint, and one last night by the Montgomery County Council.

Now, some people don’t like the White Flint Plan. The other night on WRC-TV, Paula Bienenfeld, an outspoken opponent of the Plan, led a reporter along Tilden Lane pointing out the traffic caused by school busses from Luxmanor Elementary and Cabin John Middle School, and predicting worse if White Flint becomes a transit-oriented community. (I made a brief appearance noting public opinion polls showing 82% support for changing White Flint.) You can see the video here: http://www.nbcwashington.com/news/local-beat/Walking_along_White_Flint_Washington_DC.html. So maybe it was in anticipation of another media-moment that reporters and TV cameras flocked to Tilden Middle School last night for the Council’s Town Hall.

And it was a full house last night. Young and old, eager and curious. Lots of hand-outs. The Council handed out cookies, which seemed to go down easier than the Transportation Policy brochures they also handed out. The White Flint Community Coalition handed out flyers with fairly-milquetoast positions, apparently trying to walk-back from some of their supporters’ more extreme public statements. The White Flint Partnership had some people handing out “Support” buttons. A couple of police officers stood idly, in crisp-pressed black uniforms, chatting along the side of the entrance hall.

But, sorry conflict junkies. 

No guns appeared at either Town Hall. No shouting, pushing and shoving, or sign-waving. And, really, no great hue and cry either. Even the anticipated “showdown” between supporters and opponents of the Plan fizzled, as about half the audience wore “Support” buttons and only two or three people wore yellow opponent T-shirts. Once again, more people wore green Randolph Hills “volunteer” T-shirts.

Seven of the nine Councilmembers were present, and all spoke at great length. In fact, only two questions were asked in the first half-hour of the program, and less than a dozen throughout the hour-long session. That was because the answers took a while. They weren’t bad answers, but there were a lot of them, and they were your typical discussions of issues, not really sound bites. This is, after all, Montgomery County, where long disquisitions are welcome, not political suicide.

The questioners were uniformly knowledgeable and courteous. Even the “crazy” questions were pretty sophisticated: “We can’t grow forever. When will you know when we have reached the limits on growth?” (Answer: varied by which Councilmember spoke. Marc Elrich said we’ll know when we get asked to open the Agricultural Reserve to development. Note: the County’s Ag Reserve is a program which has blocked development on the northern half of the County, preserving land and winning numerous awards. George Leventhal: I will never vote to open the Ag Reserve; it should remain safe FOREVER!! [Thunderous Applause])

The best question of the night was also the most obvious; asked by a Boy Scout working on a merit badge (who knew they give merit badges for attending community meetings these days?), who wanted to know why the White Flint Plan would take so long. (Answer: it’s a big plan and takes a long time.)

The Council opened up with an invitation to talk about the White Flint Plan, assuming there would be lots of controversy, but there were only two questions directly on the White Flint Plan: the “why so long” question, and Plan opponent Liz King’s question about school siting. (Answer: the Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee is dealing with that. Duchy Trachtenburg: we WILL put a school in the Sector.) Note: the PHED Committee agreed on Tuesday to designate the area by White Flint Park for a school, which seems counterproductive to the whole “school in the Sector” movement, which is spearheaded by people from that area in the south of the Sector, who now say they want a school in the Sector, but not in their backyards. A bit of a backfire, which Friends of White Flint is now working to fix, since we don’t think the school should go there, and we don’t want to lose the new park space we were promised.  

The rest of the questions were all over the map, including:

  • two on whether the County would consider an overall growth policy and direction for the County (various answers, and finally Council President Phil Andrews said the County has had for decades a basic idea of how it wanted to grow and would maintain its basic policy of protecting the Agricultural Reserve, designating protected “wedges” and growth “corridors” and controlling growth);
  • one complaining about bus service “I’d like a show of hands from the audience of how many got here tonight by bus. None.” (Answer: we’ll talk to Ride-on.)
  • one on a rumor that Roger Berliner would not be elected Council President on Dec. 1, since it had been the tradition “for 44 years” for the sitting V-P to become the President the next year (answer by Andrews: we’re going to vote on December 1);
  • one on cutting a hole in a fence to give more access to Grosvenor Metro for walkers (answer: we’ll talk to you later);
  • one on connecting two trails in Bethesda (answer: we’ll talk to the planners);
  • one on whether the Council would support the Weast proposal for the budget (answer: we’ll decide later);
  • one on whether each Councilmember would individually pledge to disclose all campaign contributions monthly on the web (answer: wait, what? Oh, campaign finance is a state responsibility).

The program is supposed to be broadcast on the County Access Channel on various cable systems, but I don’t know when.

Overall, an interesting evening. The Council seems to have no fear of venturing into potentially-hostile territory, and apparently with good reason. The White Flint community doesn’t seem upset over the White Flint Plan. If anything, people want the Council to move FASTER.

Barnaby Zall

Barnaby Zall

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