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City Council candidates, Mayor offer vision for development, transportation and schools

Candidates air their views, Kentland citizen's raise their questions at KCA forum

Mayor Jud Ashman, far left, is joined by City Council candidates Jim McNulty, Yvette Monroe, Laurie-Anne Sayles and Michael A. Sesma at KCA's Meet the Candidates Forum.

Candidates running for Gaithersburg City Council and the unopposed mayoral candidate shared their vision and strategies for managing business and economic development, transportation infrastructure, overcrowded schools, supporting nonprofits and a host of other topics at a Meet the Candidates Forum hosted by the Kentlands Citizens Assembly (KCA) at the Kentlands Clubhouse on Wednesday, October 11th.

KCA Trustee Steve Longley moderated the forum, offering an opening statement to each of the four candidates for two seats on the City Council (two incumbents and two challengers) plus Mayor Jud Ashman, who is running unopposed, before opening to floor to questions from attendees and those who had emailed questions in advance. The event was open to the public and was recorded and available to view at www.kentlandstowncrier.com.

Opening statements

Ashman, seeking his second four-year term as Mayor led the opening statements. “I have had the honor to serve you as Mayor for the past three years, and before that for seven years on City Council,” Ashman began. “With all the unrest in the world today, Gaithersburg is a government that works, and that makes me proud to be part of the team.” Ashman works to provide stability, he said. His focus is to bring about good jobs for the city. His other priorities are to advocate for transportation and transit solutions to enhance the quality of life.

Jim McNulty, a challenger for one of the two open Council seats spoke next. “This is the first time I have ever run for public office,” McNulty said, though he has successfully served his community’s homeowners association. “I want to thank everyone for taking the time to educate themselves about the candidates.” McNulty is self-employed, following 20 years in the television industry, including at local TV stations NBC4 and ABC7 as well as The Discovery Channel in Silver Spring. He was one of the hostages taken by a gunman in a September 2010 incident at Discovery Channel. “The SWAT team saved my life,” McNulty added. After that experience, he started a support group for sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and also supports other service organizations. McNulty also has served on the City’s Transportation and Old Town committees.

Yvette Monroe currently holds a Council seat, having been appointed to complete the term of Henry Marraffa, following his passing in October of 2016. “I started getting involved with the city as my children grew up,” Monroe explained. She served on the Education Enrichment Committee. “I have worked with the Mayor and council, and enjoy it greatly. I hope to bring consistency and compassion” to the City Council, she added. Monroe seeks to work toward the revitalization of Gaithersburg Old Town and solutions for transportation. “I have a magic wand that I pull out to fix schools and transportation,” she said with a smile as the audience laughed.

Laurie-Anne Sayles is the other challenger for a seat on the Council. Sayles seeks “to bring leadership with vision to the City Council.” Elaborating on her door-to-door campaign tactic, Sayles said, “I wanted to make sure when I ran that I knew what was on the minds of voters.” Sayles is focused on education and economic development, among other initiatives. “Our businesses impact our communities,” she noted. “We have big challenges right here in the Kentlands and in Old Town. We are tasked with bringing the right mix of businesses to the community.” Sayles recently participated in a small business town hall. She also observed that Gaithersburg is growing at a fast pace, and pledged to help manage that growth.

Michael A. Sesma is running for reelection to the City Council seat he has held since 2005 “It is my honor and privilege to support you as a council member,” he expressed. “My first obligation is to listen to you about you concerns, your aspirations, your needs and wants for the city.” Sesma noted that some of the issues that existed when he first ran in 2005 remain a concern. “We still have a problem with school capacity,” he noted. Sesma also stated he wanted to make sure Gaithersburg has the infrastructure in place to support the implementation of Kentlands Downtown. “We have important decisions to make that require long-term leadership,” he explained. “We want to support, retain and attract businesses to make Gaithersburg a sustainable economy.”

Commercial revitalization

Responding to a question about new commercial development’s impact on other parts of the city and plans for re-purposing existing buildings, McNulty indicated that he lived on the east side of the city and said he shared this concern. His dry cleaners just closed and he acknowledged the challenge. McNulty was pleased that the overall vacancy rate in the city was 7 percent, although it was 25 percent at Lakeforest. “We don’t want to lose sight of the character of our neighborhood businesses.” McNulty also mentioned available resources such a tool kit and matching grants.

Sayles shared that she used to live in Old Town and is now in Watkins Mill. She felt it important to invest in upgrades, especially in Old Town, and to engage with small businesses. “We have to do what we can to make our businesses feel like they have a home right here.”

Sesma stated he was committed to developing Old Town and proposed an economic development fund to help rebuild vacant spaces. He said he learned from the National League of Cities that Gaithersburg was the only city that implemented this type of strategy to help current small businesses stay in Gaithersburg and to attract new businesses. Sesma added that Gaithersburg also needs to attract larger businesses as well, as part of its economic development strategy.

Monroe indicated she lived in the city and, after speaking with residents, learned that many want national chains such as Starbucks, but also desire the “quaint, homey type of feel from local small businesses.” Monroe said, “There are a lot of good things going on.”

Kentlands Downtown

Asked about the tangible plans for Kentlands Downtown, Ashman explained there were presently three initiatives: the proposed apartments that would be located on the site of the former Famous Dave’s, the Lowes tract of land (Kentlands Square owned by Saul Centers), and the properties on the other side of Kentlands Boulevard purchased by Kimco. He added, “Density brings a bigger market to the local retail establishment.” Ashman agreed that we could think along the lines of Main Street, but he warned that increased density would be needed to attract employers, jobs, and residents with disposable income. Ashman also noted we need to be mindful of broader changes to the retail landscape such as Amazon and its impact.

In response to a question about plans to facilitate economic growth and generate more and better jobs, particularly for students right out of college, Sesma advocated for “a sustainable economy,” which he explained was an employer-based economy. He reminded attendees that MedImmune was the largest employer in the city and its new owners, AstraZeneca, continued operations in Gaithersburg after acquiring MedImmune. “We want biotech, manufacturing, and other large business to locate in Gaithersburg,” Sesma maintained. “That is what is going to sustain our economy in the long run.” Sesma emphasized that the city would not forget its small businesses, but the council must create conditions to help larger corporate entities decide to locate in Gaithersburg. “That’s part of our approach.”

Sayles supported building partnerships between education and the business communities, with the intent to grow talent through student internships. “We have to do a better job partnering our businesses with our students.” Sayles also wants to leverage the biotech corridor, to strengthen the transportation infrastructure, and to better market Gaithersburg.

McNulty focused on the transportation infrastructure, including the need to develop strategies for hubs and directions of travel. “We want people to use transportation to come to us, not just to send our people to jobs elsewhere,” he reasoned. He also hopes to work with Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) and Montgomery College to provide opportunities for students in vocational training, not just STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines.

Transportation both to, from and across the City

Asked about transportation enhancements planned to help people move across the city, McNulty shared that a focus of the city’s transportation committee is making Gaithersburg more bike-friendly, but he added that long-distance commuters were also a concern. “We need to leverage relationships with the state and county.” He also explained that the Mid-County Highway, for example, created pressure on cross-streets and intersections, so improvements needed to include local intersections as well as main commuter routes. “Studies are underway and I am curious about those results,” he added.

Addressing a separate question about the Corridor Cities Transitway (CCT), Sesma noted, “We’ve been working on the CCT for some time,” explaining that the Gaithersburg cannot do any large-scale transportation projects without the collaboration of the county, state, and even the federal government for support. “The plan is there and ready to go, and they are in the environmental design stage now.”

Over-crowded schools

Sayles was the first to tackle the question of what can be done about over-crowded MCPS schools, suggesting the city could find the space to build another school, but affirmed that space is scarce. She forewarned that communities, including Kentlands, will need to face splitting students among other existing schools. “I don’t know if that is the best solution to split the neighborhood,” she commented. “I like the idea of re-purposing existing buildings.” Sayles also acknowledged the challenges with portables and wanted to work toward better predicting student population growth.

Monroe explained that the city communicates with MCPS about over-crowded schools. “Portables are cold in the winter and hot in the summer,” she observed. “We want the best for our students.” She also mentioned safety and security of children.

“It’s high demand for short supply of classroom space,” McNulty added, suggesting there may be other ways to build schools, and online offerings may also be an option. “This is not about our teachers. It is the demand,” he said.

Sesma shared that school over-crowding was the reason he became involved in the City Council. “It was about boundary decisions, clusters, and where our children go.” He also observed that much of the capacity problem is not from City of Gaithersburg development, and recognized that a complicating factor was that Gaithersburg children go to schools outside the city. “The fastest we ever built a school is Lakelands Middle School, and we fought for that,” he explained, adding that the process still took a year to complete even when the city gave MCPS the land.

Ashman affirmed that he also became involved in city government because of schools, and even back when he was the cluster coordinator, Rachel Carson was a problem. “What’s interesting is that our problems at Rachel Carson are not about new development in Kentlands, but the change-over in home sales,” he determined. “People with young families are moving into the Kentlands, so it is not just a problem of over-development.” Ashman recommended studying population trends and how the city can supplement what the schools provide, such as police officers in schools. “Gaithersburg is a big supporter of MCPS.”

Asked directly if her committee was looking at adding space to Rachel Carson, Sayles replied no and explained the committee was charged with looking at ways to reduce crowding.

Ashman confirmed there were no plans to build an addition onto Rachel Carson and reiterated the school system’s plans to split the student population between Rachel Carson and DuFief Elementary School. “We have been meeting publicly and privately to identify other potential sites to keep the children together,” he added.

McNulty noted a need to look at funding sources, as well as space, plus the challenges working with a separate governing body. “Even if the city funds it, the Board of Education still needs to implement it.”

Sesma agreed about the importance and challenges in working with MCPS. He recalled the difficult process in 1996 when the cluster was created. “We don’t want to go through that again,” he said, but cautioned that boundary changes would be on the horizon.

Support for nonprofits

Asked about the role of nonprofits in addressing critical issues and the city’s need to support them, Sayles explained that she has worked with nonprofits, addressing issues such as affordable housing and minimum wage. She described the need for families to become more sufficient and how to help people struggling with job loss. “The government can’t do everything,” she said. “To have funding to support nonprofits that work in the community would be a positive step.”

McNulty expressed he was keenly aware of the need for mental health support. “My personal experience has given me a greater awareness of people who are dealing with something. I support the efforts of nonprofits 100 percent.” He stated he would continue to support programs and groups that serve communities.

Monroe remarked that she works through her church and the faith communities. “Whatever we can do to support nonprofits, we will do.”

Sesma emphasized that there was no disagreement about the need to support nonprofits. “We must provide resources for vulnerable populations and continue to provide support to those organizations and groups who do that.”

Asked about Gaithersburg’s role as a gateway to Montgomery County’s Agricultural Reserve and the need to support it, Sayles agreed and added that she liked community gardens. She stated her commitment to sustain the environment and the city’s watershed. Sayles mentioned Maryland wineries in addition to the farms. “The possibilities are endless.”

Sesma highlighted the City’s agricultural heritage, including reserving the land to support the County Agricultural Fair and the Fair Board. Sesma also shared that building a new park on the site of the prior Consumer Product Safety Commission is in the planning process. He agreed that Gaithersburg must remain environmentally-minded, in response to a separate question about converting parking garages to vertical farming. “We need to be aware of the impact we have around us. Our agricultural reserve is special.”

Monroe added that she served as a judge for the king and queen of the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair this year. She was taken with the passion of the students in the 4H program. “I would like to see growth and support in this area.”

The opioid crisis and immigrant population

Addressing a separate question, Sayles suggested partnering with hospitals and schools to better address the opioid crisis. “We must treat it as a public health issue and not vilify the people who are using.”

Ashman said it was a problem “near and dear to my heart as well.” He confirmed that substance use and treatment is a priority of the city, along with the county. He elaborated that the city is providing all of its police officers training on Narcan (naloxone), the nasal treatment for suspected opioid overdose. “Thank goodness, we’re not the epicenter of this problem.”

Asked about the City’s problem with undocumented immigrants, Sesma stated that Gaithersburg could probably be considered a sanctuary city and explained that police officers were not agents for border police and immigration services. “We don’t want to isolate our populations,” he stated. “We are interested in public safety first and safe neighborhoods, including community policing,” he continued. “To have safe communities, you need to include every part of the community.”

Closing remarks

During closing remarks, Sesma thanked everyone for attending in person and online. He said he appreciated that questions revealed attendees were interested in the entire city, not just our own neighborhood. “I bring experience and perspective.”

Sayles pledged her commitment to the City and stated she was a hard worker: She believed in better communication and leveraging resources. “I am accessible and accountable.”

Monroe asked attendees to remember three words: concerned, committed and compassionate. She is a long-time resident and plans to age in place. “I will work faithfully.”

McNulty asked that residents come out to vote. He stated the last election reflected only an 11 percent voter turnout and he hoped for more involvement. “I believe I can make a difference.”

Ashman acknowledged that he had no opponent, but praised the four candidates running for the two seats. “They are inspiring. They are committed to the city.” Ashman also hoped that the two incumbents, Mike Sesma and Yvette Monroe, would be given the opportunity to stay together and continue to serve the City.

Kentlands Trustee Longley closed the proceedings by reminding attendees that the KCA is holding elections Nov. 3, a few days before the city’s elections, and added that he hopes residents will vote to elect new members of the Board of Trustees. Three seats are open and there are four candidates in this year’s election.

Another City of Gaithersburg Candidates Forum for the Gaithersburg election is scheduled Oct. 20 at 2 p.m. at Asbury Methodist Village in Parker Hall.

Voters must be registered by October 23 in order to vote in this year’s City election. There is an option to vote early on October 28 and 29. Election Day is Nov. 7. All voting takes place at City Hall. The polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.More information about Election Day Nov. 7 and voting can be found on the City’s website or by calling 240-777-VOTE (8683).

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