Sunday, July 20, 2014

City manager review and blighted properties

This message covers two items on the city-council agenda for Monday, July 21.

The council will meet in a non-public administrative session to conduct the city manager's review. Brian Kenner started as Takoma Park city manager in late June, 2013, responsible for budgeting and management of city staff, programs, and facilities, under the policy direction of the council. We will discuss Brian's performance as city manager as well as his job-related goals and objectives.

If you have comments regarding Brian's performance that you'd like to share, please communicate them to me by e-mail (sethg@takomaparkmd.gov) or phone (301-873-8225). Please let me know if you'd like me to keep your comments confidential.

I've already written about the proposed resolution, scheduled for open session discussion at 8 pm, of city policy on sharing license plate reader data. Also on Monday evening's agenda, slated for 8:30 pm, is a discussion of applicability of Montgomery County Code in Takoma Park, which is a relatively technical matter.

The other agenda item that will be of broader interest is a discussion, Vacant and Blighted Property Tax Rate, slated for 9:20 pm. We'd like to figure out a way to better handle private properties that have fallen into serious disrepair. Many of them, but not all, are abandoned. In many cases, but not all, the property owner owes back taxes and/or fees to the city or the county.

The Washington McLaughlin Christian School property, located at Poplar and New Hampshire Avenues, is a prime example. There are others including several houses around the city. The house formerly at 36 Philadelphia Avenue, demolished by the city last year, is an example. (I wrote about that property several times, including here.) That case took us so long to address via the limited set of tools legally at our disposal that the property became unrestorable. We'd like to be able to act more quickly. We'd like to see the properties rehabilitated, whether by their current owners or by purchasers, so we're looking for new tools.

An approach applied in other jurisdictions is to create a high property-tax rate for blighted and vacant properties. The council will discuss this approach on Monday evening.

Please let me know if you have thoughts on this matter.

Thanks,

Seth

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Should Takoma Park share license-plate reader data with the State of Maryland?

Monday evening, July 21, the city council will discuss and then vote on a resolution authorizing our police department to share its license plate reader (LPR) data with the Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center (MCAC). Police Chief Alan Goldberg requested this policy change; MCAC is a state "fusion center" that would retain the data for one year (or longer if needed for an active investigation), making it available for law enforcement investigations by agencies state-wide and for homeland security investigations. Current city policy is that our own police department may retain LPR data for up to 30 days and may not share it with outside agencies.

Takoma Park has three vehicle-mounted license plate reader systems. They identify vehicles that have been reported stolen or that are of interest in a criminal investigation. Please note that Takoma Park can continue to benefit from the LPR technology, for local crime reduction, without sharing data from our own readers. Our police force has accees to other jurisdictions' crime data, regardless whether we share our LPR data.

Vehicle-mounted LPR (Gazette photo)

We are reconsidering city policy. The aim is to establish city policy that responds both to legitimate law enforcement needs and to concerns that data sharing infringes on civil liberties and that shared data could be improperly used.

We could authorize our police force to create a local database with extended local retention, say up to one year, or we could instead authorize transmission of our data to MCAC (making local retention unnecessary).

What is your view?

Please let me know; constituents' views will inform my vote. Contact me at sethg@takomaparkmd.gov or 301-873-8225. Do consider attending Monday evening's council meeting to comment at 7:30 pm, or share your position with the council: Bruce Williams <brucewtakoma@gmail.com>, Frederick Schultz <SchultzAssociates@rcn.com>, Jarrett Smith <jarrett.smith@gmail.com>, Kate Stewart <katemarystewart@gmail.com>, Terry Seamens <TJSeamens@aol.com>, and Tim Male <timothymale@gmail.com>.

There are many information sources and opinions on this issue. They include:

- The resolution backgrounder, which includes the proposed General Order 717 covering sharing of LPR data; an excerpt of a MCAC internal policy document, and responses from LPR program manager Colleen Richarts to city questions; and a May message from Senator Jamie Raskin, Senate co-sponsor of a 2014 bill that governed MCAC data policy, regarding protections.

(Two House of Delegates co-sponsors of the 2014 bill, Ana Sol Gutierrez and Al Carr, also contacted us in May. They were dismayed that their bill had been watered down and asked the city not to change its policy. Carr wrote us, "We would also hope TP would not cede control of its residents' information to the fusion center (which can change its policy at any time and has discussed increasing its retention policy) and add to the growing problem of governmental databases about innocent individual's daily lives.")

- An informative May write-up by Councilmember Tim Male, and Councilmember Kate Stewart's most recent update, which provides a to-the-point description of the issue.

- The ACLU of Maryland, which issued a May action alter stating, "Sharing and storing location data is not necessary for using [automated] LPRs to identify stolen cars or find missing persons. But 99.8 percent of the data collected by police departments using this technology has no connection to any offense at all. If a crime occurs where location data might be useful, the Takoma Park police should store only that relevant data, and should not store or share all the data they collect. We must defend the core American principle that you are innocent until proven guilty. Takoma Park should not help fill a statewide database tracking the location and movement of innocent Marylanders. Tell Takoma Park Councilmembers: We can fight crime and protect privacy."

- Maryland SB699, as enacted this year, taking effect October 1, 2014, regarding state handling of LPR data. This is the bill that Senator Raskin co-sponsored -- again, see his e-mail to me in the Monday evening backgrounder -- but that Delegates Gutierrez and Carr believe falls short.

- Robert Wack, president of the Westminster, Maryland Common Council wrote us in May to related that Westminster decided not to share the town's LPR data. While Westminster's LPR use, like Takoma Park's current use, provides local police the "ability to scan, analyze, and report on licenseplate information day or night, under any weather conditions, and at any time, place, situation (driving or stationary)," from Westminster's "perspective, allowing the collection, storage, and sharing of this data is one more step toward a pervasive surveillance state that none of us are comfortable with."

- The draft Takoma Park resolution, authorizing data sharing with MCAC within MCAC's one-year retention policy.

Is the police chief's proposed policy acceptable?

Could it, or the council's authorizing resolution, be strengthened?

Will the law enforcement benefits that result from LPR data sharing be sufficient to justify this policy change, given the civil liberties and privacy concerns?

These are questions that the council will discuss in considering the resolution. Myself, I am unconvinced that LPR data sharing will enhance law enforcement in Takoma Park, or elsewhere. I have not seen a compelling crime-fighting argument.

My own suggestion is a compromise. The Takoma Park Police Department should be authorized to retain data for up to one year, and to continue accessing other jurisdictions' data through MCAC and other channels and systems. In one year, the department would report back to the council on the effectiveness of longer local retention, and the council would then, at that time and using actual data now lacking, consider data sharing.

Please do share your thoughts.

Seth

Added July 22, 2014:

The city council voted to change city policy on license plate reader data sharing and retention. By a 4-3 vote, the council decided that city LPR data should be transmitted to the Maryland fusion center, where it will be retained for one year (or longer, if needed for an investigation) and where it will be available for law enforcement and homeland security investigations.

I voted Against, because it did not seem that law enforcement benefits would be sufficient to outweigh privacy and civil liberties concerns. Also voting against were Jarrett Smith and Terry Seamens. Voting For were Bruce Williams, Tim Male, Fred Schultz, and Kate Stewart.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Green Purchasing & Flower Avenue Green Street: July 14 at the City Council

The July 14 city council meeting includes two items that will interest many residents: A vote on an environmentally-preferable purchasing ordinance and an update on the city's Flower Avenue Green Street project. (The complete agenda is online.) (The mayor has postponed, until July 21, a resolution setting out city policy for sharing of city license-plate reader data that had been scheduled for this Monday evening.)

The environmentally-preferable purchasing ordinance extends existing city purchasing preferences, which currently cover recycled products. The expanded preferences will help the city gain Sustainable Maryland certification, opening a variety of financial and technical assistance opportunities to the city. Information on Sustainable Maryland is online as is Monday's council backgrounder, which includes the draft ordinance. A big Thank You to Cindy Dyballa and the city's Committee on the Environment for their work on this ordinance!

(Meanwhile, we're continuing to develop the Young Activists Act of 2014, which would opt in to Montgomery County's business recycling requirement; expand food-waste collection to city apartment buildings and businesses; ban most food-service polystyrene use (including styrofoam); and require that disposable food serviceware be compostable. The council green-lighted development of the bill at a June 16 worksession. We are working over the summer to address questions about feasibility, costs, and facilities and hope to bring a bill to vote in September.)

The Flower Avenue Green Street project will transform a heavily-used, substandard street via the installation of new sidewalks, stormwater facilities, bus shelters, and traffic-calming measures. The city annexed the full Flower Avenue right-of-way from Montgomery County, took control of the street from the State Highway Administration, and has assembled over $2.2 million in funding for the project, which has taken shape over the last four years. We now own Flower Avenue between Piney Branch Road and Carroll Avenue (and then downhill to Sligo Creek Parkway).

We have six primary objectives for the Flower Avenue Green Street project, as described in the council backgrounder:

"(1) Design of ADA complaint sidewalk on the east side of the street and identification of repairs needed to the existing sidewalk on the west side, (2) identification of locations for, and design, of low-impact stormwater retention facilities to capture and filter run-off from the street, (3) design improvements to pedestrian crossings and bus stops, (4) recommend energy efficient street lighting fixtures for the area, (5) identify the amount of on-street parking needed for the current residents and (6) assess the optimum road configuration to enable objectives 1 - 3 above. The City will repave the street, once the project improvements are implemented." Upgrades to the Flower-Carroll intersection are also in the works.

Attend or watch the Monday-evening council session for the Flower Avenue update, or learn more at a community meeting that the city will be holding on Wednesday, July 16, 7 pm at Washington Adventist University's Wilkinson Hall.

And as always, please contact me directly, at sethg@takomaparkmd.gov or 301-873-8225, about any city-related matter that concerns you.