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Sunday, April 2, 2017

The Stealth-Like City Election

George Wenschhof
George Wenschhof
What if you held a municipal election and no one voted?  Well, The City of Frederick has been doing this for quite some time.  The city averages less than 25% turnout in the general election when everyone can vote regardless of political party affiliation.  The turnout is so low that the winning mayoral candidate receives a little over 4,000 votes and this in a city that likes to boast they are the second largest city in the state of Maryland with a population over 70,000.
The joke on the street is the only way you can tell the city is having an election is to hear the announcement by Jennifer Dougherty, she is running for mayor.  She has been running for mayor in every election since 1993, only skipping the 1997 election.  She has run as a Democrat and an Independent and did manage to win once out of the six times she has run to obtain the distinction of being the first woman mayor of Frederick.
However, she performed so poorly and alienated so many voters she would become the first incumbent Democratic mayor to be challenged in her own party primary election where she would lose to former four-term Democratic mayor Ron Young.
Not known as a team player, she has never endorsed or supported the Democratic candidate who wins the party mayoral nomination. This has resulted in a Republican mayoral win in a city where Democratic voters hold a solid majority.  Her unwillingness to support the Democratic nominee led her to run as an Independent in the 2013 election, but the result was the same, another loss.
Now in 2017, Jennifer is at it for the seventh time and back running as a Democrat.  Along the way since 1993 she added two more losses, one a county commissioner campaign and the other a congressional campaign.  All in all, her record is 1-8 and there are no indications to believe it will not be 1-9 after this year’s city election. Not known to be overly friendly, she has yet to discover the number one reason voters cast a ballot for a candidate; "They like them."
Lackluster and leaderless describes best Republican mayor Randy McClement, the beneficiary of the Democratic infighting.  He will be running again, hopeful for a third term.
Two term Democratic alderman Michael O’Connor has also announced his is running for the Democratic Party nomination for mayor.  However, his biggest challenge will be to demonstrate how he would be better than the mayor he consistently supported over the last seven plus years and how to overcome being labeled "McClement-like."
Other mayoral candidates will likely come forward on the Democratic side because of the perceived weakness in the two announced Democratic candidates.
Less than a handful of aldermen candidates have announced so far, partly because there is no need to announce early to campaign when so few voters participate in the election.  The deadline to register as a candidate is July 3, 2017.
The solution to a higher turnout and engagement by voters is simple and cost effective.  Move the city election to coincide with the presidential election.  This move would result in tripling the voter participation and reduce the cost the city wastes on a special election.  With this move, polling locations would stay the same for voters and they would not have to experience the hodgepodge polling locations that include churches the city uses today. This only adds to voter confusion and lower voter turnout.
The opposition to this change, including mayoral candidate O’Connor use the lame excuse, "we only want informed voters."  A phrase reminiscent of the poll tax and exams required in years past to limit voter turnout of “some” people.
Interestingly, I recently asked someone who believed this position: "Do you think voters who participate in the state and county elections are informed voters?"  Their answer was a quick “yes”.  Hmm, the state/county election has many more elected positions than the city election would have when combined with the presidential election.  In addition, I always ask, "How do you determine who is an informed voter?"  I suppose their answer would be "they voted for me."
Instead of the city election being lost in the hubbub of the presidential election, the opposite would take place with more interest among voters generated in the city election.
Another change needed to engage voters across the city would be to move to electing the aldermen from districts and to end the current at-large approach.  This would help ensure representation of all communities in city hall. Changing the name board of alderman to city council would be another helpful move.
The city is no longer the small town when I was a boy with a population of 20,000.  Much has changed and the city always destined to grow, primarily because of its strategic location in the state, has indeed grown. It has become a vibrant destination point and a place where you not only want to raise you family; you also want to retire here.
Let’s continue this positive growth by changing the city election date to coincide with the presidential election and by electing council members by representative districts across the city. This needed change is past due.
The primary election will be held on September 12, 2107 and the general election will be held on November 7, 2017.
Stay tuned.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Rebid Hotel/Conference Center

George Wenschhof
Over the last seven years, The City of Frederick has repeatedly fumbled and stumbled throughout the development process for a desired downtown hotel/conference center.  The result is a convoluted project destined to be a failure for taxpayers.
Over two months ago, the Maryland Stadium Authority (MSA) announced their unanimous vote to not sign the latest Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) and the Maryland Economic Development Corporation (MEDCO) tabled discussion of the five-party MOU needed for the release of the $1 million authorized for the project during the 2016 session of the Maryland general assembly.
These announcements were followed with the December 8, 2016 press release by Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot (D) projecting state revenue shortfalls totaling $38.3 million over the next two fiscal years.
As a result, it was not surprising to hear recently that Governor Larry Hogan (R) has not included the needed $7.5 million for the hotel/conference center in his annual state budget.

With The City of Frederick unable to meet the conditions in order to receive the $1 million authorized by the general assembly a year ago it would be irresponsible for them to attempt to insert the $7.5 million into the state budget. 
These actions combined have effectively put the current proposed project on life support with the likelihood of it moving forward zero.
It is painfully clear the size and scope of this project is premature and a lack of support exists for a project that relies on excessive public financing.
There are some proponents of the project who argue that if this project does not go through, it will be another three decades before a downtown hotel/conference center is built.
To borrow a phrase made popular by vice president Joe Biden, “that’s a bunch of malarkey”.  The economic market place determines the success of development.
Persisting to move forward with the present proposal will most likely result in colossal failure.
Instead, there should be an immediate move by the mayor and board of aldermen to terminate this effort.
In its place, the city should rebid the downtown hotel/conference center with new parameters that are more appropriate and feasible.
First, an update of the feasibility study on the need for a 207 room hotel and 24,000+/- square foot conference center should be done taking into account the privately funded Holiday Inn/Conference Center expansion is anticipated to be completed in 2018.
The Holiday Inn/Conference Center expansion will have a total of 205 rooms with 30,000+/- square feet of conference space.  It also has easy access to interstates and an abundance of onsite parking making the demand for two large venues within miles of each other suspect.
The long envisioned Carroll Creek development to date has brought mixed results with new businesses opening and most weekends bustling with visitors.
However, maintaining the same level of activity throughout the week has been problematic for some business owners resulting in chain restaurants The Green Turtle, Five Guys, Ben and Jerry’s, the Japanese restaurant Hinode and the Voltaggio Lunch Box being among those who have closed their doors.
After an updated feasibility study is completed, it is likely data will support a smaller, less costly and more appropriately sized hotel/conference center in downtown Frederick.
Prior to issuing a new request for proposals (RFP), the city should hold a series of public workshops to determine what level of public financing is acceptable to taxpayers.
The amount of public financing should be spelled out in the new RFP process, a serious omission in what was previously done. Examples of public financial contributions are a several million dollar contribution or a waiver of taxes for a specified number of years.
However, public financing should be limited to no more than ten percent of the overall cost of the project.  In addition, the city should not have ownership of the property or partnership in the project, both risks to taxpayers.
The geographic area where an RFP would be accepted could also be expanded in the downtown historic district.
Furthermore, the city should require the developer obtain financing, site plan and building permit approvals at their expense prior to providing any public financing.
All of the above steps would provide for more public input, likely increase responses, reduce public financing and result in the desired positive economic impact for the community.
I strongly support an appropriately sized downtown hotel/conference center and believe this addition will be a good fit for The City of Frederick. I also appreciate the efforts by community stakeholders to make this project a reality.
As a boy, my parents sent me to Cotillion classes taught at the Francis Scott Key Hotel located downtown at the corner of N. Court and W. Patrick Streets. It was a grand hotel where I learned proper etiquette and how to ballroom dance.
I always looked forward to when Mom would take the three of us to the restaurant located in the basement where we would have grilled cheese sandwiches and cherry cokes!
Sadly, the hotel would close and ever since there has not been a hotel located in what is now designated a historic district.
However, persisting in forcing a bad project forward is not in the best interest of The City of Frederick – Doing it right is.
Stay tuned.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Bowens Readies Run for Alderman

Antonio Bowens
George Wenschhof

During a recent interview, Democrat Antonio Bowens told me he intends to file the paperwork by the end of February or early March to run for alderman in The City of Frederick.

He feels there is not a lot of representative government happening now and local elected officials are not listening.  Bowens added the current administration concentrates more on downtown than the rest of the city.

Mr. Bowens said he felt there was not enough diversity in local government and he wants to give people hope.  He would like to see The City of Frederick become more of a leader in the state.

Fiscal responsibility is important to Bowens and he wants to see better money management by the city.  He would like to look at selling the city owned golf course if it is not making money.

In regard to the development of the park on the Hargett Farm, Bowens asked “How is the city going to pay for this?”

When it comes to the proposed downtown hotel/conference center, Bowens said “I do not think this is necessary”.  He feels what is being proposed will be an eyesore and does not believe in subsidies, adding “Why put taxpayers on the hook to subsidize Marriott?”

Homelessness is another major concern for Bowens who said he does not feel the city is doing enough to help this population.  He said “everyone deserves dignity and respect.”

Blighted Properties are another of his concerns and not just downtown but throughout the city.  Bowens wants to see them be brought up to code.

Bowens would also like the city to bring back the Bulk Trash pick up service.

I asked him “what led him to being interested in politics”?  Bowens said he opposed the rezoning of the Frederick Town Mall for a Walmart four years ago.

When asked if he was supporting any other candidates in the city election, Bowens said “I am supporting Kris Fair.”  (Fair is a Democratic candidate for alderman)

Bowens added he liked the beautification committee proposed by Fair, but wonders where the money will come from to pay for this.
Antonio Bowens told me he comes from an old Frederick community family and has many relatives.  He grew up in Monrovia, graduated from Urbana High School and attended Frederick Community College.

He works as an interior designer at J.C. Penny located at Dulles Town Center.


(Editor’s note:  The City of Frederick primary election is September 12, 2017 and the general election is November 7, 2017.  The deadline to file for a candidate is July 3, 2017.)