Only two councilmembers came out to meet with their constituents, Marc Elrich (D - At-large) and Roger Berliner (D - District 1). Elrich, who has made clear his opposition to the plan, was well-received by the crowd. Berliner? Not so much.
Ignoring questions from his constituents, he attempted to deliver another defense of his compromise plan, which was largely accepted by his colleagues in straw votes last month. But as one protester's sign noted, "half of too much is still too much." With 3550 people and nearly as many vehicles allowed in a 1.5 block area under the Berliner alternative, the core complaints of the community remain unaddressed.
Berliner's speech was really quite remarkable when you consider the way representative government is theoretically supposed to work. "I come here not because, quite frankly, I share your point of view, because I do not," he said. "And I'm sorry with respect to that." At that point, some in the crowd began booing.
It would seem that if a councilmember found that his constituents, for whom he works, do not support a plan, the best course of action would be to follow the advice of his constituents. Seek further reductions in height and density. And should his colleagues not agree to those changes, he could do the right thing and vote against the plan.
"I get that this is not a popular stand," Berliner told residents yesterday. So why is he taking a stand against his own people? It doesn't make any sense. What is the higher goal than protecting the quality of life of your own constituents?
I give credit to Berliner for having the guts to actually come outside and face the crowd. George Leventhal, Nancy Floreen and Hans Riemer were all hiding inside, unable to engage their consituents, who pay them six-figure salaries (of course, those three also told Olney residents to drop dead in 2014, when they blew off a long-scheduled debate hosted by the the Greater Olney Civic Association, leaving a packed room of residents who turned out stunned at the insult). And again, no one would dispute that the Berliner alternative is better than the original proposal.
But it would be more constructive to come out and say, "I hear you. What specific changes do we need to make for this plan to be acceptable to the community?" Instead, Berliner took a more confrontational approach, considering the sermonizing and condescending rhetoric he and Leventhal have addressed residents with has not gone over well to say the least. He couldn't have been surprised to be booed in response. Then he runs back inside.
The fundamental question is, where is the community's councilmember? Shouldn't overwhelming opposition suggest that a "No" vote is in order from the District 1 councilmember on May 3?
After the elected officials spoke, leaders of the Save Westbard citizen organization and residents took turns at the microphone. Cheers and chants often drowned out TV interviews being conducted by WTTG Fox 5 and MyMCMedia, among others. Bill Turque from the Washington Post was in attendance, as well.
|Storming the gates|
The protesters were quiet and respectful, and filed around the back of the room, as well as some of the seating area. Councilmembers initially seemed to ignore the silent protest. But as cameramen from two TV stations and MyMCMedia filmed inside the room, they began to realize that this negative story was going to be on the local TV news. Translation: Another public relations disaster for the Council.
With the involvement of major media outlets, people across the County and region are learning about the broken planning process in Montgomery County. We've seen development attorneys who give $250 checks to the Council President get to talk during worksessions, while residents have to sit quiet. And we're finding more out about the sausage-making process behind the scenes, such as private, inappropriate meetings between planning commissioners and developers. Those private meetings were not disclosed as is required by ex parte communications rules.
Councilmember Elrich's point about residents feeling they are "outside the process" is one of the most important to be made in this debate. I attended every single meeting held morning and night for a week in November 2014. The clear message of residents was to limit heights to 45-50', and for low-density development. That, and many other specific points were never reflected in the plan drawn up at the end. Yet the developers have private meetings, unlimited speaking time, and are getting what they want in the end.
Election Day 2018 could be a rude awakening for some on the Council.