from a correspondent:
Subdued it was not.
Candidates in Kensington’s June 1 mayoral election met in a virtual debate over the weekend and clashed about the quality of development in town, enforcement of town regulations, and civility in Town government.
The debate took place on the Zoom videoconferencing platform and revealed sharp differences between the two candidates — the two-term incumbent, Tracey Furman, and her immediate predecessor, Peter Fosselman.
They are erstwhile allies and both said at the outset of the 70-minute debate that they agreed on many subjects.
It didn’t take long for disagreements to become apparent, however.
The mayor was notably pointed in her criticism. At one point, she accused Fosselman of “making this stuff up” — a reference to his criticism about a lack of civility in Kensington’s official life. Furman also took issue with Fosselman’s emphasis on enforcing Town regulations on such matters as graffiti and illegal signage, saying she thought he “would like to live more in a gated-type community.”
The candidates disagreed at some length about the type and quality of development in Kensington, which has about 2,500 residents and a recent tradition of mostly sedate local politics.
Fosselman asserted that “we are on our way to becoming a senior center” for Montgomery County, noting that two housing projects for older people have been approved and another is under preliminary review (but may not be exclusively for seniors).
“We can do better than what we’re getting,” Fosselman said, adding that the Town should seek out developers and encourage them to take on attractive projects. He noted a section of town familiarly known as “Gasoline Alley,” behind the volunteer fire department on Connecticut Avenue, “is long overdue for redevelopment. It would be perfect place to establish a brewery, a distillery, a restaurant-incubator with condos on upper floors.”
Another prospective project he mentioned was a community center with a pool, perhaps with a secondary use such an education center. “We need to put a plan in place and make these things happen,” said Fosselman, who was Kensington mayor for 10 years until stepping down in 2016. He added it is essential that proposed projects be reviewed by the Town’s advisory development review board before they reach the mayor and council.
Furman, who is in her first competitive race for mayor, responded by saying Fosselman’s comments about Kensington’s becoming senior center for the county were “a little bit misleading.” She noted that one of the projects, the 135-unit Modena Reserve on Metropolitan Avenue, hard by CSX Transportation railway tracks, will be “a luxury senior facility” and that two 1930s buildings nearby will be rehabilitated as part of the project’s amenities.
Another, more controversial senior housing project on Knowles Avenue, near the congested intersection with Connecticut, will be for people aged 62 and older. “These will be vibrant people that move in,” Furman said, noting that a retail or mixed-use project at the site would create even more vehicular traffic than senior housing.
Furman said the Modena and Knowles projects “are just going to be great additions to our town and they will fit within our sector plan.”
She also noted the Town’s sector plan, which was revised and updated in 2012 after considerable controversy, imposes building-height restrictions that render some prospective projects “not economically viable.” She said she supports height limitations but noted they “make some of the projects that people want more difficult to get.”
Furman’s “gated-type community” remark came in response to Fosselman’s comments that enforcement of Town code provisions has been wanting. He said he advocates enforcing regulations, which Townspeople backed, to “make the town look better than ever. I don’t find cars parked on grass, overflowing trash cans, and graffiti a nice-looking place to live.”
To such criticism, Furman said, “I know from Pete’s perspective, he would like to live more in a gated-type community where you tell everybody what you should be doing and what you shouldn’t be doing. … I find our residents don’t want that type of code enforcement. They want things to look nice but they’re not interested in the heavy hand of government. And so I try to find that balance.”
She added: “Pete has definitely been my biggest critic. I hear it all the time. But I also hear that we’re doing a great job and that the town looks terrific.”
The candidates also disagreed whether discourtesy and incivility have intruded into Town government.
“I don’t think we have a civility issue,” Furman said. “I was kind of taken by surprise by that because I think our Council meetings have been quite polite. … I don’t see what Pete sees.”
In reply, Fosselman said, “Absolutely, we do” have a civility problem. “People are dismissed, they’re disregarded, they are cut off, interrupted — that’s apparent if you watch videos of Council meetings,” where the mayor presides.
“It has to do with the way people are treated,” Fosselman added, “and there are a number of people who can attest to being treated very poorly, either at Council meetings, [in] making calls to the Town staff, or in any number of situations where they’ve requested things and have been dismissed. And that’s not something I can make up.” He said he often heard such complaints when he went door-to-door early in the year, informing Townspeople he was planning another run for mayor.
Furman disputed Fosselman’s complaints.
“When Pete says, ‘I’m not making this stuff up,’ he is making this stuff up because I have not received those calls. People are not treated that way,” she said and cited complaints about graffiti on a county bridge in town.
“I have seen the graffiti on the bridge and it has been reported to the county, and the county will get to it. We are in a pandemic where it is difficult to get people out to do things right now. And that’s one thing that Pete doesn’t have, is patience. He doesn’t understand when other people have other work that they have to do. And it will get done. But I, for so long, I’ve heard ‘a lot of people are saying.’ Well those people are not saying it to me. And I have suggested that he refer them to me and he never does. Those people don’t exist.”
The debate was moderated by Sean McMullen, a former Town Council member who posed questions based on queries townspeople submitted in advance. On most questions, the candidates were permitted no more than 60 seconds to reply.
Not counting Town staff and others associated with producing the debate, about 65 people logged in to follow the encounter on Zoom. The mayoral debate was followed by a virtual forum for the three candidates for two seats on Kensington’s Town Council. They are: Brigid Hill-Zayat, a one-term incumbent; Nate Engle, a newcomer to Town politics, and Jon Gerson, who served a term on the council in the 1980s.
The elected positions are part-time and non-partisan. Kensington’s day-to-day activities are overseen by a town manager and his staff.