Archive for the ‘Takoma Park’ category

07.14.18 Takoma Junction development won’t . . .

July 14, 2018

. . . end life as we know it,

  • threaten the existence of the universe,
  • hurt a single poor person,
  • make a whit of difference in the availability — or lack thereof — of affordable housing in Takoma Park,
  • gentrify the whole city or otherwise change the progressive ethos of Takoma Park,
  • damage other structures,
  • harm children who need to cross the street,
  • inconvenience more than a few people due to traffic (it won’t have much impact on traffic at all).

Takoma Junction development will

  • replace an ugly impervious surface with a nicely designed two-story building that will improve quality of life in our city, following at least 30 years of inaction,
  • force the Coop to adjust how it operates.

As for the Coop, not only has it refused to engage constructively over the past five years, it has whipped up an ideological frenzy, in which a small and positive change to our city becomes the moral equivalent of

  • separating families at the border
  • GOP theft of the Supreme Court
  • police violence against people of color
  • collapse of liberal democracy
  • hating the poor.

Opponents’ arguments have at times been amusing, more often been baffling, and now have become outright offensive. By turning their opposition into the Moral Issue of Our Time, they are distracting themselves and the rest of us from the more serious work needed in the face of resurgent racism, international collapse, and climate change. Heck, every breathless moment they spend on their struggle is a minute they are not spending countering the very-present threat to our county from the Washington Post, the development industry, and Nancy Floreen. If you hate over-development, that is the battle to be waged. (Go Marc Elrich!)

Reason will prevail at City Council on July 25, because the majority of councilmembers and residents know the difference between reality and frenzy.

PS. Jarrett Smith: now that you have no political future, how about regaining a shred of dignity by resuming your support for Junction development? You switched sides in an instant for no good reason, so it shouldn’t be hard for you to switch back.

©2018 Keith Berner






07.04.18 Official campaign lit report

July 4, 2018

At our home, we received 3.84 pounds of campaign literature during the Maryland/Montgomery county primary election campaign, beginning with a piece from county executive candidate David Blair in early February. Overall, we received 105 pieces of campaign mail. The biggest polluter of all was (big surprise, eh?) the aforementioned Blair, MoCo Pharma Bro and General Plutocrat, who drowned us in 14 pieces. This doesn’t include three more pieces sent by the developer’s group, Empower Montgomery (which Blair helped found), from whom we got three particularly ugly pieces in the final two weeks.

What amazed me as a political analyst is that Blair had the mailing campaign almost completely to himself until mid-May for the June 26 primary. I asked one candidate who I know had enough money to mail why he waited so long to do so. His reply was that his political consultants told him no one would be paying attention until the end.

Common sense tells me that when as many as a dozen pieces are arriving daily in mailboxes by early June, no one is going to pay attention to your piece then, either. So much for the great wisdom of consultants who only know one way of doing things: the way they did them four years ago.

Because I follow local politics so closely, none of the deluge made a whit of difference to me. I read almost none of it; though, I occasionally marveled at something that was particularly well (or poorly) designed. I get that this stuff is meant for low-information voters, some significant percentage of whom are actually swayed by  it (though, the Washington Post’s horrific endorsements certainly counted for more).

Of course, very few mailers contained any actual information about what the candidate intended to do or why they deserved a chance to try and do it. Perusing such vapid campaign communication is the equivalent of following the email-only campaign of my Takoma Park City Councilman Jarrett Smith who threw his hat in the ring for County Council at-large just before the deadline. (He managed to spend a few thousand on graphic design, but had no money to mail — the two or three signs he managed to put up were gorgeous). Smith’s justification for running was laid out so carefully in this email he sent to the main Takoma community listserv on June 26:


I ask for your vote on this Election Day. There are big issues before our county. It is the time to vote for experience and proven leadership.

In your service,

Jarrett K. Smith

I suppose Smith should be congratulated: he got his substance-less message out for tens of thousands less than other candidates who spent all that money to tell us nothing.

PS. Smith came in 29th place out of 33 candidates for MoCo at-large, so maybe his strategy was a little wanting, after all.

©2018 Keith Berner

05.30.18 A flip for a flop

May 30, 2018

Jarrett Smith’s precipitous reversal on Junction development betrays cynicism on behalf of a hopeless cause (his quest for higher office).


  • February 23: Takoma Park Ward 5 City Councilman Jarrett Smith, who was reelected less than three months earlier, files to run for County Council, just four days before the 2/27 deadline. He is to face 32 opponents in the June 26 primary.
  • April 20: Smith, who has supported plans to develop Takoma Junction for years, defends the project’s size in an email (implying his continued support).
  • April 22: The City holds a “pop-up” event on the site of the proposed Junction development, encouraging visits by officials and residents.
  • April 23: Smith authors an email asking for details on how to kill the project, which is the first indication of his flip.
  • April 28: Smith explains his change of heart to City Manager Suzanne Ludlow, due to a couple of hostile voters he met at the pop-up, whom he “normally . . . wouldn’t care” about, but can’t ignore “right now.”
  • May 4: At Smith’s request, a resident posts to two ward listservs Smith’s declaration of opposition to Junction development. (The councilman hadn’t posted any communication to these listservs for months.)
  • May 11: Smith breaks his long boycott of the listservs with his campaign announcement for County Council. He announces no policy positions, providing only Takoma Park pride and ethnicity as campaign rationales.
  • As of his mid-May campaign finance report, Smith has almost no support (he ranks 21st of 24 candidates who filed), not even within his ward. His campaign is invisible, he is nearly unknown outside of Takoma Park, and he has no money for campaign publicity.
  • Conclusions
    • “Right now” in Smith’s 4/28 email is all about his new status as a candidate for higher office.
    • If Smith thinks he has any shot of finishing in the top 15 on June 26, I want some of what he’s smoking.
    • It is unethical to kill good policy in service to one’s political career (common though it is). It is a shear mystery why one would do so when there’s no possible payback for the dirty deed, not even electoral victory.

The Flip: Takoma Junction development

On May 5 (before I knew the inside details), I wrote about Takoma Park City Councilman Jarrett Smith’s sudden reversal on Takoma Junction development after years of consistent support for the project. I portrayed his refusal to communicate his own views to Ward 5 residents (or solicit theirs), instead tasking a resident to post for him to the community listservs he had been boycotting for months.

Last week, an inside source provided your blogger with emails retrieved through a public-records request that detail how quickly and thoughtlessly Smith switched sides. As recently as April 20, Smith wrote to unnamed recipients in support of the project, defending the developer’s need for profit to make the plan viable:

Subject: Re: Getting more public space at the Junction
From: Jarrett Smith <>
To: Jarrett Smith <>
Date Sent: Friday, April 20, 2018 10:15:23 AM GMT-04:00
Date Received: Wednesday, May 16, 2018 3:20:28 PM GMT-04:00
I don’t understand how all of these financial assumptions can be made. NDC will have a construction and long term financing on this project. We also don’t know what their IRR is for their investors. Maybe that 8% is to cover brokerage commissions? I know that a project of this size, every dollar is important. A modest reduction in profits could ruin this entire project.
Jarrett K. Smith
Takoma Park City Council. Ward 5

[emphasis added]

Only three days later, Smith had switched sides, demanding information on how to kill the deal:

Subject: Junction Development
From: Jarrett Smith <>
Date Sent: Monday, April 23, 2018 10:44:43 AM GMT-04:00
Date Received: Wednesday, May 16, 2018 3:18:17 PM GMT-04:00
The vote on NDC’s site plan proposal is coming before us in the next few weeks. I think we need to review the DA that unwinds the deal. We need to know the penalties so we can share with residents before May 9th. I ask staff to share the details with us as soon as possible.
Jarrett K. Smith
Takoma Park City Council. Ward 5
[emphasis added]

It took Smith five more days to declare his implacable opposition to Junction development, when he refused to take part in the survey of councilmembers regarding areas of agreement and disagreement:

Subject: Re: Important Update on Council schedule re Budget and Junction
From: Jarrett Smith <>
To: Suzanne Ludlow <>
Cc: City Council <>, “Damweber, Jason”
<>, Jessie Carpenter <>, Sara Daines
<>, Rosalind Grigsby <>, “Cheung,
Susan” <>
Date Sent: Saturday, April 28, 2018 11:20:26 AM GMT-04:00
Date Received: Saturday, April 28, 2018 11:20:28 AM GMT-04:00
Thanks, Kacy for taking the lead on compiling Junction survey and drafting the resolution. I won’t be filling the survey because I’m a no vote on moving the [sic] forward. I wanted you to know why there are only six survey responses.
Jarrett K. Smith
Takoma Park City Council. Ward 5
[emphasis added]

Later that day, Smith responded to City Manager Suzanne Ludlow’s inquiry about his sudden opposition to the plan:

Subject: Re: Important Update on Council schedule re Budget and Junction
From: Jarrett Smith <>
To: Jarrett Smith <>
Date Sent: Saturday, April 28, 2018 1:38:53 PM GMT-04:00
Date Received: Wednesday, May 16, 2018 2:55:22 PM GMT-04:00
I can’t afford fighting with anymore of my super voters. I was told at the pop up if I support this project there will be war. In normal circumstances I wouldn’t care, but not now.
Jarrett K. Smith
Takoma Park City Council. Ward 5
[Empasis added. The “pop up” referred to was a site visit for residents organized by
the city on April 22.]

“Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t care,” writes Jarrett Smith, “but not now.”

What does “not now” mean? Well, the one thing that has changed just recently in Smith’s calculations is his last-minute decision to go for a political promotion to the Montgomery County Council: in this email he is declaring a swap of policy for votes.

Clearly what happened is that a couple of residents collared Smith at the April 22 “pop up” and declared potential war on him if he wouldn’t help kill the Junction project. His sudden fear of a minuscule number of lost county-council votes was enough for him to sell out the city and the rest of his constituents. Just. Like. That.

It is one thing for an elected official (or anyone else) to change their view after considerable study over a period of time. The suddenness of Smith’s switch (not to mention his disinterest in resident input prior to that day) betrays its cynicism.

The Flop: A hopeless campaign for County Council

Smith campaign status:

  • He is one of 32 Democratic at-large candidates on June 26.
  • Many candidates started campaigning almost a year ago. Smith launched his campaign on February 23, four days before the filing deadline.
  • Smith rejected public financing of his campaign, anathema to campaign-finance-reform fans.
  • He hasn’t exactly been raking in the bucks through private fundraising, though: his total raised of $5,610 and his cash balance of $2,427 put him in 21st place of 24 campaigns that filed reports due by May 15.
  • Only four of Smith’s 32 contributions come from Ward 5 residents (by comparison, 250 contributions are necessary to qualify for public financing).
  • Nearly half the dollars Smith has raised comes from out of state (three from possible relatives, with the surname “Smith”).
  • The two-thousand and change Smith has on hand won’t pay for s single mailer, which Seventh State Blog estimates would start at $35,000.*
  • Smith has almost no name recognition among voters outside of one part of Takoma Park.

In sum

Jarrett Smith’s political ambition is shear fantasy. It wouldn’t be worth a second glance, if he weren’t selling us out on its behalf.

Jarrett Smith’s flip is clear: a sudden and complete reversal on a project vital to Takoma Park. His flop is just as apparent: a campaign having no apparent public purpose** or prospect of success.

I’m baffled. What Smith has done here just doesn’t make any sense, not even for his own self-interest (his campaign is an embarrassment that won’t help him at all in should he go for the glory again in 2022).

I wrote last fall about Smith’s sense of entitlement to public office and disregard for constituents. We can now add delusions of grandeur to the bill of particulars on this unfit politician.  Residents need to hold Jarrett Smith’s feet to the fire if they are to have any hope he will remember his serious obligations to engage them and to further public policy without self-interest.

*Statistics are from Seventh State Blog and the Maryland Board of Elections.

**Smith broke his long boycott of community listservs on May 11, when he posted a campaign announcement with these vapid rationales:

  • Montgomery County is now majority ethnic;
  • Since Ike Leggett’s election approximately 30 years ago as the first African American At-Large County Councilmember, every ethnic member of the county council has held another previous elected office. In my case, I am in my 4th term representing Takoma Park’s City Council; and lastly,
  • this year’s election will be the very last time a Takoma Park Councilmember can maintain his or her seat and run for another office, therefore, in the spirit of solidarity and Takoma Park tradition, I need you.

[excerpted verbatim from Smith’s 5/11 email]

©2018 Keith Berner


05.05.18 Jarrett Smith flips on Takoma Junction development and shows his usual contempt for constituents

May 5, 2018

I am in favor of development at Takoma Junction. Feel free to skip the following critique of Jarrett Smith if you would rather see only my rationale in support of the project, which appears at the end of this post.

On Thursday, Takoma Park Ward 5 City Councilman Jarrett Smith sent the following email to ward resident Esther Siegel:


Subject:              Re: Takoma Junction
Date:    Thu, 3 May 2018 23:01:20 -0400
From:   Jarrett Smith
To:        Esther Siegel


Please share my email below:


It has taken five years for us to get to this point on the Takoma Junction development project. Over the years, the city’s development partner has shared with the community various iterations of the project. They have shown us ideas for urban farming on the new structures roof, a CoOp in a newly built store, and an improved failing intersection.

Council is tentatively scheduled on May 23rd to vote on the current NDC site plan, and it is my intention to vote against it.

I feel the current proposal doesn’t build on Takoma Park’s tradition of green space, the assurance that the CoOp’s long term home is in Takoma Park, and there is still uncertainty surrounding improving traffic conditions around the Junction location. This is unacceptable. I’ve worked for and supported small business for years, therefore, I think this is the time to once again support the backbone of American business, which is neighborhood businesses.

My colleagues and I have a tough decision before us. But, you will know my position regardless.

In your service,


Jarrett K. Smith
Takoma Park City Council. Ward 5

Yesterday, Siegel forwarded Smith’s email to two community listservs in Ward 5.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Smith has always either been in favor of Junction development (all his previous council votes on the project have been “yea”) or tried to avoid taking a position. Only this week did his position change and neither his constituents nor the rest of Takoma Park knows why.

As I documented last fall, Smith does not believe in public communication. He stopped sharing his own views with constituents after his first term ended in 2014. During the ensuing years, Smith has developed a well-earned reputation for ignoring contacts from anyone who has criticized him or whom he doesn’t like. Among those out of favor with Smith are top city officials and numerous residents and constituents around the city. You call or write to Jarrett Smith and – unless he favors you – you hear crickets.

Just the same, Smith continued reposting the city e-newsletter to the Between the Creeks (BTC) and Erie-Maple (E-M) listservs until the November 2017 election. After November, Smith ceased posting to BTC entirely. Even though he is not a resident of the Erie-Maple neighborhood, which keeps its listserv closed to outsiders, he still posted news there. (I was the one who persuaded E-M to allow the city councilman to be on its listserv in 2012.)

I can’t prove it, but can fathom only one explanation why Smith stopped posting to BTC: I manage it and am no longer his fan. (Erie-Maple is managed by someone who has never criticized Smith publicly.) Smith may be as offended by me as he chooses. But his refusal to communicate with the 68 other members of the BTC listserv constitutes shear petulance and dereliction of duty.

When I became aware that Smith was discriminating against Between the Creeks, I contacted him privately and politely twice to encourage him to resume posting there. Needless to say, I got no response. Only when I threatened to make his discrimination public did he act. Do you think he might have resumed posting to BTC? Wrong! Smith decided instead to stop posting to E-M!

So, there has been zero pubic communication from Councilman Smith to his constituents in many months. That also means he has never publicly requested input regarding Takoma Junction development (or anything else).

When Smith finally decided to show his face on Thursday, he did so to a single constituent (Esther Siegel) and asked her to carry his water by publicizing his change of heart (without acknowledging that it is a change of heart).

Siegel has a long record of community activism. While I think she is wrong about the Junction, she had every right to work Smith until the latter changed his mind.

I hereby challenge Jarrett Smith to reveal which other constituents he has discussed the Junction with since last November. If he has only sought input from one or a small number of constituents, he has failed the rest of us. I challenge him further to elaborate on the 71-word explanation (the third paragraph of his email) for his new position.*

Smith will ignore these challenges, because I am persona non-grata. The only way he will fulfill his fundamental responsibility to serve all his constituents is if enough of us stand up and tell him to. I urge everyone who reads this post to write to or call Councilman Smith and remind him that public service is about us, not him:

Jarrett Smith: (301) 960-7462 /


As for the substance of Takoma Junction development, the arguments in favor are compelling (for example, see this and this). I’m a bit biased about this source, but I’ll reprint here Marty Ittner’s response to Smith and Siegel yesterday (Ittner is my wife):

1. Why is Jarrett communicating to us through a 3rd party and not directly?

2. To me, the worst outcome would be for history to repeat itself: nothing was done in the 80’s, because neighbors couldn’t agree. So we were left with a city-owned impervious parking lot, which is no longer free.

3. A vacant paved lot at a major intersection is suitable for development, which will increase foot traffic and help the small neighborhood businesses along Carroll avenue survive and thrive, and draw more foot traffic from Old Town. The wooded lot behind will be left green. How is killing the Junction project supportive of neighborhood businesses?

4. Uncertainty and divisiveness are germane to any large and complex project. This requires strong leadership to remain steadfast to address the concerns Mr. Smith himself points out in his list. Wouldn’t it be better to commit to keeping a watchful eye on these valid points, rather than throwing in the towel after 5 years?

5. I have been extremely impressed with the Council’s exhaustive and inclusive process getting to this point. [Mayor] Kate Stewart has explicitly stated Council’s commitment to keep the Co-op in place. (look at the plans!) The new building and streetscape are harmonious with Takoma’s aesthetic. I am excited to have a new, walkable destination to shop and eat. Yes, there is uncertainty, but let’s look to our leaders to continue to do the hard work of making this happen.

The arguments against development all have a fatal flaw: they make the perfect the enemy of the good:

  • Rather than seeing a positive plan that can be tweaked further, they push for an unachievable utopia and catastrophize any deviation from it;
  • They claim starting over will be easy, forgetting the 30-year history of this conversation and the hard work and enormous progress made over the past five years;
  • They facilitate the CoOp’s ceaseless temper tantrum. From the start of the current effort, the CoOp’s position has been (more or less): change one iota of our circumstances and we will die.** They have threatened their own death over and over again, refusing to engage at all constructively in a rigorous, inclusive process. There is zero evidence that the CoOp will be harmed by the development plans at Takoma Junction. Yes, their life will change. So be it.

Smith’s couple of arguments to Siegel are utterly specious. His (and others’) carping about “green space” ignores reality entirely: an impervious parking lot and useless ugliness at the heart of our community. And the councilman’s implication that Junction development is a threat to “neighborhood businesses” is even more ridiculous: here, at last, is an opportunity for small, locally owned businesses and restaurants to make a positive difference, for their owners, the rest of us, and the existing businesses that are struggling in a wasteland.

I urge support for Takoma Junction development as the alternative to another 30 years of blight. Please write not only to Councilmember Smith, but to the entire Takoma Park City Council. (Insiders report to me that two other councilmembers are wavering on their previous support: Peter Kovar – Ward 1 and Cindy Dyballa – Ward 2, so a direct email to them is a good idea.)

* Smith’s rationale is likely 100% political. He has probably calculated that Siegel speaks for others in Erie-Maple, which is where the most consistent Ward 5 voters live. (Your blogger lives on the edge of that neighborhood). As demonstrated by the councilman’s recent decision to run for county council at-large (believe it or not!), his eyes are on greater glory than little Takoma Park. (Blogger’s prediction: Erie-Maple’s ~50 activists will find more attractive candidates among the 33 running in the June primary and Smith will finish in the bottom 10 in the race. I’d rank his chances lower than that, except that several other unknown and undeserving candidates are running.)

**The CoOp’s declaration of impending death reminds me of the tactic used by uber-developer Folger-Pratt, when they stood to profit from a huge expansion of Washington Adventist Hospital in the early aughts. F-P argued repeatedly that changing so much as a comma in their plan would render it unworkable (by which they meant that their guaranteed 11% profit might suffer marginally.) You can’t reason or do business with an entity making touch-it-and-we-die claims.

©2018 Keith Berner

03.15.18 D20 Pride (Moon, Smith, and Wilkins)

March 15, 2018

If you live in Takoma Park or Silver Spring (state legislative district 20) and read today’s Washington Post Metro section, you could not help feeling a burst of pride at being served by the most progressive and among the most effective delegations in Annapolis.

In “Maryland General Assembly advances bill that bans bump stocks on firearms,” we learn that our elected officials are taking the lead on gun control in Maryland. Del. David Moon is the lead sponsor on the bill mentioned in the headline. A few paragraphs later, Sen. Will Smith appears as the star of an effort to bar domestic abusers from owning guns.

Turning the page in the Metro section leads to an article titled “Activists urge Maryland to stop ‘Potomac Pipeline’ ahead of key deadline.” Here we learn of Del. Jheanelle Wilkins’s leadership in opposing construction of an environmentally destructive pipeline.

Of course, these are merely examples of our elected officials’ proactivity on issues we care about. A glance at Wilkins’ Facebook page shows her recent involvement in labor rights, just sentencing, maternal health, windpower, and more. Moon is even more prolific, leading or joining efforts to ban corporate contributions to political campaigns, institute same-day voter registration, make police accountable, and prevent child abuse and neglect.

If you live in D20 and are not following your elected officials on Facebook, you really should.


Speaking of local pride a recent, outstanding series about the geography of political contributions in Montgomery County shows Takoma Park (the zip code, not the city) to be far ahead of all other jurisdictions in average contributions per resident: $1.97, with Chevy Chase a distant second at $1.43. Tired of all the whining about how much an outsize role Takoma Park plays in county and state politics? Just point out to the whiners that if they had our residents, they could also be leaders.

Another interesting tidbit from the Seventh State series is that Marc Elrich beats George Leventhal 4 to 1 at Takoma Park contributions, even though they both reside in Takoma Park. Leventhal beats Elrich somewhat up county, but trails significantly in the activist, densely populated area Seventh State calls the “Democratic Crescent.”

©2018 Keith Berner

11.03.17 Amee Bearne for City Council, Ward 5

November 3, 2017

Amee Bearne is the right candidate for Ward 5:

  • Bearne gets implicitly the problem faced by the overwhelming majority of ward residents, who have never even seen their council representative, don’t know anything about the services Takoma Park offers, and don’t vote or participate in the community.
    • Bearne is a renter in an apartment building – giving her personal insight into how most others in the ward live.
    • Bearne is not only enthusiastic about directly engaging with residents, but has proven her ability to do so, having organized her building’s tenants and held community events to which all are invited.
  • Bearne has the experience our ward and city desperately need, including expertise in urban planning/historic preservation, service with CHEER on housing and community development (among other things), and a stint as an intern with the City of Takoma Park.
  • Bearne is whip smart, articulate, and passionate. There is no way she will end up as a passive placeholder when she joins city council.

Bearne is not a perfect candidate. For one thing, her relative naiveté, coupled at times with too-much self-confidence, gets her in trouble. Examples include the political speech she tried to deliver at a neighborhood picnic, without asking anyone first if such speeches would be welcome (she bombed and was eventually cut off). Another instance came up at this past Monday’s candidates forum, when a question about schools came up. Rather than admit she was not informed on the issue, Bearne made the newbie mistake of trying to answer authoritatively, even though she didn’t even know we have a county (not city) school system.

My assessment is that Bearne is smart enough to learn from these kinds of mistakes. We can’t expect she will enter office knowing everything she’ll need to know, but knowledge gaps can always be filled in. Residents and city council colleagues will need to give Bearne some mentoring and remind her to seek out such guidance proactively.

As I have written*, I think relationships across the county, especially on the Maryland Municipal League (MML, which incumbent Jarrett Smith cites repetitively) may be of some value to the city, but have produced nothing for the ward. If Bearne is elected, it will be the city’s job to meet that need. I note, further, how current councilmembers who have inserted themselves into this race (Tim Male and Fred Schultz wrote recommendations for Smith) overstated Smith’s importance and utterly disregarded what is happening on the ground in Ward 5. I will suggest to Mayor Kate Stewart that councilmembers be discouraged in the future from these kinds of endorsements.

This election year (as in most years and places), Ward 5 does not have the luxury of selecting a “perfect” candidate. But we do have a real chance to replace a disengaged councilmember, with someone committed to making a daily difference in the lives of neighbors, not only the homeowners who vote, but all the renters who don’t. With the level of effort we will get from Amee Bearne, maybe more of these folks will vote the next time around.


*An excerpt from my reply to Bill Brown on the Takoma Park listserv: “If (and there is disagreement among current and former city officials about this) participation in the MML is vital for Takoma Park, it would make sense for that to be covered by the mayor or a city staff position – an individual elected or hired to serve the whole city. Nonetheless, there [is] really [no] issue with any individual councilmember’s taking this on, as long as doing so is not used an excuse for ignoring ward residents. If Smith can chew gum and walk at the same time, that’s a good thing. If not, then the fundamental point I’m making is that his first obligation is to the residents . . . of the ward that put him in office.”

©2018 Keith Berner

11.02.17 The complacent incumbent in Ward 5: the case against Jarrett Smith

November 1, 2017


While I was an adamant supporter of Jarrett Smith’s first campaign for Takoma Park City Council in 2012, I have become increasingly disillusioned. My concern turned to alarm in September, when I contacted him about holding a candidate forum (which ended up taking place this week – see below) and he responded by disparaging his opponent and refusing to participate.

Smith has championed some worthwhile issues during his tenure (he is responsible for the city’s plastic bag ban, among other things), but takes too much credit for things he had little to do with (like the Flower Avenue Green Street project). And now he apparently believes his incumbency to be a right (rather than privilege), while making excuses for his own failure to directly engage residents. I have sadly concluded that Smith is an out-of-touch politician unsuited to serving Ward 5’s particular needs.


A major reason I supported Jarrett Smith in his first run came from my concern about the lack of diversity in the ward’s meager civic engagement (with consistently lower voter turnout than in any other ward). Smith seemed to represent a fresh opportunity, because he lived in the northern part of the ward (where there’s been almost no engagement with or by residents) and is African American. I thought he would have a good chance at increasing participation within his neighborhood and among other people of color in the ward.

I had also been disappointed in the lack of proactive communication by previous councilmembers and spoke with Smith about the need for more outreach to generate engagement and he seemed to agree.

After being elected, Smith held one community BBQ, which may well have been the only community event he organized (he cited no others at the candidate forum). For a while, Smith sent out a regular an email newsletter about his and city council’s work, but those ceased two or three years ago, leaving us in the dark about issues pertinent to Ward 5 and Takoma Park.

During the past two years, Smith has not responded to many emails from constituents (this has been my experience and is corroborated by others), as well as from some public officials. Even on issues directly affecting us (e.g., the removal of some stop signs and a small chemical spill at Washington Adventist Hospital [WAH]), Mayor Kate Stewart and city staff have been quicker to respond than Smith and with more useful substance.

Ultimately, Smith seems to have stopped caring about engaging with his old neighborhood (I learned recently that Smith moved out of his that neighborhood some time ago and now lives on Garland Avenue – a non-contiguous part of the ward at the other end from where he had been). Perhaps his relocation led to his lethargy? Nonetheless, there is no evidence of concerted outreach during his second and third terms.

Notwithstanding my increasing disappointment in Smith, I was prepared to vote for him again this year, even though I found his opponent Amee Bearne compelling. (I’ll write more about Bearne tomorrow.)

Then, a month ago, I contacted Smith and Bearne to organize a Ward 5 candidate forum. Bearne’s flexibility was limited because she was on duty with FEMA in Houston following hurricane Harvey, tying her up until late October. When I asked Smith about making some time available then, he responded by disparaging Bearne and declaring: “I’m not going to go out of my way to accommodate my opponent.” When I pushed back he wrote: “Thanks for the offer, but I won’t be participating in any debate.” (He later changed his mind.)

I believe that Smith’s initial refusal to cooperate is a result of incumbent complacency. He apparently believes his city council seat “belongs” to him and considers any challenge to be illegitimate.


Monday’s Candidates Forum

The discussion that took place this week at Washington Adventist University (which was expertly moderated by Takoma Voice’s Eric Bond), showed Smith to be disengaged on the ground, as well as full of excuses and empty promises. A recurring theme was the very lack of diversity in the ward’s civic engagement that led me to support Smith originally. Smith never acknowledged any failing on his part, instead offering rationales such as [paraphrasing]: it’s just as bad in other wards or (the opposite!) those other wards have advantages we don’t.

It amazed me when Bearne drew a contrast to Ward 4, where Councilmember Terry Seamens’s consistent interaction with residents has produced a dramatic increase in voter turnout. Smith claimed that this was entirely due to Terry’s wife Joyce’s work with a charity that distributes free food. As if the husband-wife team were bribing their constituents! Smith finished up that thought by declaring: “I am against free food.”

Here are other highlights of Smith’s forum performance:

  • He claimed we can only secure a freestanding ER (after WAH departs), if the county and state cough up money. He neglected to mention that state law forbids almost all such ERs and, when challenged, referred to a “working group” (who? with what authority?) that is  supposedly about to resolve the issue in Takoma Park’s favor. Count me highly skeptical. Regardless, without a change in state law, lobbying for money is wasted effort.
  • Both at the October 23 citywide candidate forum and this week, Smith named “ending tax duplication” his top priority. He ought to know better, since the matter has been studied and discussed ad nauseum, since the early aughts. Smith offers no concrete path to a different policy outcome, nor acknowledges that – in a heavily county-centric state – counties have no formal obligations in this regard: any gift from Montgomery County would be exactly that — a gift.  In fact, the only aspect under Takoma Park’s control is whether to ditch services (like a police force and recreation department) which the county also provides. This could then result in a tax cut (which would be distributed how?). Is Smith proposing draconian cuts to city services for a tax cut? He doesn’t say. But his repetitive references to his relationships around the county aren’t going to change state law.
  • When Bearne challenged Smith on the importance of holding community events, Smith offered nothing from his past record nor any future plans. He cited only a particular neighborhood picnic that is not publicized much beyond a few blocks and which Smith has had nothing to do with organizing.
  • Smith claimed that his work at the county level is both more important than and mutually exclusive of what he called “capacity building” (He never defined that term, but I gathered from the context that it really means door-knocking and holding community events.) I have to wonder, why can’t he attend intragovernmental meetings and work on the ground in our ward?

Jarrett Smith’s lack of interest in community-building and disregard for some who would engage him directly is disappointing. The sense of entitlement underlying this behavior and his sharply negative reaction to the idea of sharing a stage with his opponent are, for me, offensive.

Takoma Park residents ought to pour love on our councilmembers, who are barely compensated for their positions. But such service is an honor: the right to serve must be earned and earned again: no member of council should ever believe their seat is sacred.

Sadly, Jarrett Smith no longer qualifies to represent our highly diverse and extremely disengaged ward. Since our poor voter turnout is a significant contributor to our relative lack of power in city council, it matters. Since we have  so many neighbors in need who have never even seen their councilmember’s face, getting someone in office who actually cares enough to introduce herself matters that much more.  If I have to choose, I’d go for fewer meetings with county bigwigs that do nothing for our residents and a lot more commitment to “capacity building” on the ground.

©2018 Keith Berner