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Kate Stewart oversaw a tough series of council meetings last year in which crowds showed up to protest a tiny retail development. She explains why she wanted to hear suggestions instead of resistance and why abandoning the project would also have been unfair.
Q: In the first half of 2018, your council received substantial heat from residents opposed to Takoma Junction–a 1.4-acre parking lot next to the grocery co-op that was intended for future retail stores. How hard was it to remember that this is a city of 18,000 people and you are hearing on a given night from not even 100 of them? So really, what seems like life or death in the council chamber is not the end of the world for thousands of others.
A: That’s correct. We had online comments. We held a number of open houses. We also did a day on the actual lot–we sketched the outside of what the development may look like. People could come, stand, and be like, “okay, this is how far it is from the street” to get a sense of it. The important thing to remember is that the opportunity to provide public comment at a city council meeting is just one way that people express their views.
Q: At one point in a meeting, a woman started to read off a list of opponents and went well over her time. She turned away from the microphone and continued to yell, and you called a recess. Did that get the meeting back on track or was there another way you could have handled that?
A: I think it’s really important that people stick to the three minute comment period. We had people who had been there waiting their turns who needed to get home to children. The reason I called for a recess was because the energy in the room was getting so antagonistic, particularly the folks who opposed the development. The way that they were heckling and saying things was really not conducive to a good public meeting.
Q: The racial equity statement in the development ordinance asked several questions about the development, without providing any policy predictions. Do you think the people who questioned the racial equity implications were right to demand better?
A: I think it’s always important to demand better. When I asked the resident activists who criticized us for this to provide us with ideas, their ideas were basically, “we just don’t like the project!” I think if you’re going to be pushing your local government to do something, not just being critical, but actually coming with ideas. Local government is set up as this antagonistic relationship between government and residents–it’s one that truly bothers me. To do the job well, I rely on residents to push us but also to come to us with ideas.
Q: A lot of the people complaining about racial equity were older white people. Don’t get me wrong, those are the ones who you want to care about racial equity. How did it feel to watch a room of liberal white people yell at each other over how to save a food co-op and black and brown people?
A: I think Takoma Park is not unique. When it comes to any type of change, there are very strong feelings. I was talking to somebody the other day–the person told me that this urban planner, when they do meetings regarding development projects, their first rule is to start with the youngest person in the room to have them talk about what they want. When you’re talking about a development project, you’re probably talking about something that’s going to be there for 30-40 years. So starting with somebody in their twenties, that’s the person for whom you’re creating this space.
Q: There were two arguments that I heard repeatedly from the opponents. One was that they weren’t opposed to development; they were just opposed to this development. And the second was how divisive all of this was. They’re saying, “it’s on you, the council, to unify the community,” by which they meant giving them what they wanted. Were you in any mood to unify the community given that some of them were now trying to recall you?
A: My concern for folks who wanted to delay the project or have us hit the restart button is that would make some people happy, but the folks who wanted the project, that would make them unhappy! That wasn’t a compromise! For them, that would be stopping a project they like. I did not see that as a way to bring the community together.
Follow Mayor Kate Stewart on Twitter: @KateforTakoma
*Interview 115 was previously omitted in the numbering order.