Rockville Mayor Bridget Newton has no opinion on whether the statue of a Confederate cavalry private outside the courthouse in Rockville should be removed. “It’s a County decision. It’s not my choice,” Mayor Newton explained, when I asked her for personal views on the subject.
The statue, which has a memorial plaque stating “To Our Heroes of Montgomery Co., Maryland, That We Through Life May Not Forget To Love The Thin Gray Line” has been the subject of controversy lately in Rockville’s City government. On July 20, the City held a 3.5 hour public meeting on the topic.
Mayor Newton has gone to great lengths to make sure that her non-opinion is the official opinion of the City of Rockville. Here is what appears to have happened: Though the Council had planned to take up the issue publicly at its next meeting, Mayor Newton communicated to the Council that County Executive Leggett wanted a letter from the City more quickly.
Remove the Statue
City Councilmember Tom Moore’s draft of a proposed letter in support of removal of the statue from the courthouse gained approval from two of his colleagues–Councilmembers Virginia Onley and Julie Palakovich Carr. Here is the letter: Councilmember Beryl Feinberg wrote her colleagues that she couldn’t support it as written. The Mayor did not weigh in on Moore’s draft. However, as she has just one vote among five under Rockville’s system of government, Moore’s letter still had a majority.
How “Remove the Statue” Became No Opinion
At that point, Mayor Newton had two options in my view. She could sign the letter and send it on to the County. Alternatively, she could present a counter proposal and see if she could gain support for it from a Council majority.
Newton chose the second approach but appears to have gone about it an unusual, problematic way. The Mayor got two of her colleagues–Feinberg and Onley–to approve a very different letter that says nothing most eloquently on the key subject of whether the statue should be removed.
But she appears to have left Moore and Palakovich Carr completely out of the loop on this significant rewrite–a major violation of conventional Council order. While colleagues often consult each other separately, all are normally invited to weigh in on a final decision, especially when an alternative approach has already gained majority support.
Here is the letter Mayor Newton sent:
Newton did not notify Moore and Palakovich Carr until she had secured approval for the new letter privately and sent it to the County. Here is the email she sent:
Hi – attached please find the letters to County Executive Leggett and Council President Leventhal.
As you know – I was asked by Mr. Leggett to send a letter regarding the Worksession and the need for the County to follow Rockville’s HDC process. As I have also mentioned – we have received several calls (5) from the CE’s office asking where the letter was. Mr. Leggett was appearing live at 12:30 today and wanted to have the letter by then. Unfortunately – we didn’t meet the deadline.
This has been an arduous process and unfortunately there have been many iterations of this letter. My thanks to Councilmembers Onley and Feinberg for their time today in working with me to create an authentic recap of Monday’s Worksession. This letter has been approved by a majority of the Council.
You will remember that we did not have a discussion among the Body regarding any of the options proposed by the SME’s – or the public – and therefore it is not possible for us to opine on the position of the Council or our recommendations. We have removed any statements from the letter that do not accurately reflect what happened Monday evening. . . .
I know this letter will not be pleasing to all members – and while I regret that – what I don’t regret is that it is an factual reporting of a very significant meeting. The Worksession was a highpoint for the City – I’ve had positive comments and reactions from many different sources. I sincerely hope that we can move past this point and get back to the business of working together to govern our City.
Not the Way to Do Business
When I spoke with Mayor Newton yesterday, she explained that she thought that the changes were necessary:
There were changes that needed to be made to be consistent with the Council worksession held on Monday, July 20th. It was important the letter reflect what happened at the worksession. There were no votes taken at the worksession. It would’ve been improper to indicate that decisions had been made.
That’s a nice explanation and sounds reasonable. But it doesn’t explain why two colleagues seem to have been left entirely out of the loop while the Mayor was shopping her very different letter. Clearly, Mayor Newton does not want to take a position and worked very hard to make sure that the City took a similar approach, even to the extent of keeping colleagues in the dark.
Moreover, though the Mayor avers that it was inappropriate for the City to opine on the subject, expressing no opinion does not mean that no decision was reached. Indeed, this approach can be an oblique way of making a decision and rendering an opinion, as it appears to have been in this case.
Especially as the Mayor’s letter takes positions on several topics, which undercuts her contention that it was inappropriate for the City to express an opinion in the absence of a public vote. For example, the letter states that the statue “should be moved once” if it is moved, and declared that it is of “historical significance” and there are “lessons to be learned from it.”
The claims made regarding the importance of public consultation are further belied by the Mayor’s seeming decision not to consult with two councilmembers and notify them only after the letter was sent. Not a model of open decision making.
Finally, the Mayor’s contention to me that it is inappropriate for the City to express an opinion because it’s the County’s decision makes little sense since (1) the County Executive solicited their opinion repeatedly, (2) the letter thanks the Council President for seeking their input, and (3) the Mayor encouraged the Council to respond to the request.
No doubt Rockville’s next Council meeting will be interesting.