From the Editor: Mutiny on the Council

June 10, 2012

“Just imagine if we can become the next [Las] Vegas or Atlantic City in terms of venue and host the next [boxer Floyd] Mayweather fight at National Harbor.”

County Councilmember Will Campos, on casinos at National Harbor (Gazette, 3/12/12)

Susie CurrieBY SUSIE CURRIE —If you, too, are eagerly awaiting the prospect of high-stakes sparring coming to Prince George’s County, come on down to city hall any Monday night that the Hyattsville City Council is in session.

The current council, with three new members and a new mayor, has just wrapped up its first year. They are in a well-deserved recess until July 16, having checked off several items on an ambitious to-do list: authorizing speed cameras, approving a redistricting plan, hiring a human resources director, appointing acting directors for executive-level positions, and passing a five-year plan to improve city buildings and streets, to name a few.

But at what price?

When you put 11 personalities in a room together at least once a week and charge them with making decisions for the rest of us, some disagreements are inevitable. With this group, though, some observers — and the elected officials themselves — think that too often disagreement turns into dysfunction.

Tim Hunt, Ruth Ann Frazier and Matt McKnight, doing the work of the city in an atmosphere some call dysfunctional. (February 2012)

Tim Hunt, Ruth Ann Frazier and Matt McKnight, doing the work of the city in an atmosphere some call dysfunctional. (February 2012)

 

Meetings regularly include accusations ranging from rudeness to deceit to preferential treatment of one ward over another. Arguments over parliamentary procedure frequently erupt, with councilmembers Tim Hunt (Ward 3) and Candace Hollingsworth (Ward 1) citing Robert’s Rules of Order when Mayor Marc Tartaro pointedly refuses to recognize them. Interruptions are common.

Longtime resident David Marshall has been attending and speaking at Hyattsville City Council meetings for 26 years. He told the council they “were acting like a bunch of kindergarteners” the week after one especially acrimonious meeting.

“I’ve seen a lot of them not get along before,” he told me recently. “But this is the angriest council I’ve ever seen. OK, you don’t like somebody: That doesn’t mean you get to step on his neck at every meeting.”

Longtime councilmember Paula Perry and former mayor Bill Gardiner, for example, were at odds for years, dating at least from the time they both represented Ward 4.

“It’s no secret that Bill and I didn’t get along,” said Perry. “But we never brought the meeting to a halt because of it.”

She was referring to the Meeting That Wasn’t, which will likely go down in Hyattsville history as the first to be canceled because legislators couldn’t agree on an agenda. A meeting can’t begin until its agenda passes unanimously, so any adjustments a member wants are usually made as a matter of course.

But on March 19, Hunt asked that a homeowners’ variance request be moved from the consent agenda to the action agenda, so it could be discussed before vote. Tartaro refused, wanting to pull the agenda item instead. That led to recesses and calls to the city attorney. Finally, the mayor adjourned the non-meeting and everyone went home.

“We have a problem,” said Warner, “and I think everyone on this council recognizes it.”rockem sockem What isn’t clear is how to solve it.

By the February 27 meeting, the increasingly public discord prompted Perry to offer a motion for a team-building council retreat, complete with a proposal from a local vendor.

“I dislike retreats probably more than anyone, because I’ve been to so many,” said Perry, who has represented Ward 4 since 1999. “But this is one that I personally will make sure, if at all possible, takes us in the direction we need to go in. … As some residents have said, we look totally dysfunctional.”

Ruth Ann Frazier (Ward 5), who with 15 years of service is the longest-serving member, agreed. “The way we’re communicating and the respect we have for each other is at a very low point,” she said.

But other members wanted to see more specifics about the scope of the retreat, as well as bids from at least two other contractors. The proposal was sent back to staff without a vote.

The budget process for fiscal year 2013 began soon afterwards, and the number of weekly meetings doubled to fast-track the process. Tempers frayed further; even the normally mild-mannered Council President Matt McKnight (Ward 3) said at one point, “I’m tired of spending every night of the week here tabling things for no apparent reason.”

Tartaro had hoped to stick to the self-imposed deadline of passing it by the end of April  the earliest in recent memory by introducing it as emergency legislation on April 30.

The city charter says there should be at least six days between the time an ordinance is introduced and voted on, except in cases of emergency. But with two months remaining in FY12, several councilmembers couldn’t justify the urgency.

“I’m not sure what we’re debating at this point,” said a beleaguered-looking Tartaro.  “Is it the content of the budget, or the procedure?”

When the procedure serves as a reminder of the old saying about the law and sausages, maybe things are a little too transparent. On the other hand, as Prince George’s County residents know all too well, spending too much time in proverbial smoke-filled rooms does not tend to foster altruism.

Surely there’s a happy medium somewhere.  And here’s hoping that our council finds it on their return from a well-deserved vacation.

Otherwise, perhaps they should add one more job posting to Human Resources Director Chris Vermillion’s list: referee.