Attorney Don Hadley, who was nominated by Mayor Bridget Newton to the Planning Commission and has been a business associate of her husband, will moderate a debate tonight featuring both mayoral and council candidates being held tonight at the King Farm Community Center. The debate will be telecast live on Rockville’s public television channel starting at 7:30, though there is a live meet-and-greet at 7:00.
Hadley, now the Chair of Rockville’s Planning Commission, served as an agent on a property owned by Newton’s husband. Unfortunately, the questionable choice of Hadley to moderate tonight’s debate is probably the least of the challenges regarding transparency and the role of developer interests in the the City of Rockville.
It follows past cozy practices. When then-Councilmember Newton nominated Hadley to the Rockville Planning Board in 2010, she did not disclose the business relationship in the public session. but merely said “I think he’ll do a wonderful job,” as shown in the video clip below (click here for the the full session and minutes).
Moreover, Newton’s husband may have benefited from the Council’s decision in 2010 not to consider historic designation for the property at 408 Great Falls Road–the same property development which involved Hadley as well as Newton’s husband.
What happened? The then-owner of 408 Great Falls Road applied to have the property rezoned in a manner more favorable for its development (from R-90 to R-90 HD). Staff recommended that the historic designation for the property, so the city council had to decide whether to initiate the process for public consideration of historic designation. Note that this initial step was not to designate the property as historic but only to start the public process of consideration of the idea.
As is common, the property owner opposed designation and thus did not want the Council to move forward with the public process. At this meeting, after first pushing for the property owner to be given a chance to speak, Newton announced that “I need to recuse myself from this vote” because her husband had “made an offer on the property last Spring. The offer was not accepted. I want to be above board and let you all know that that happened.” (See the video below at 12:58 and click here for the full meeting and minutes).
So far, looks like the action of a good public official. Indeed, one of her colleagues, John Britton, wondered publicly why Newton needed to recuse herself, stating: “I understand your recusal and I guess that’s your personal choice. I understand your interest in the property but it’s a past action with no current interest.” (See the video at 15:19.)
Newton responded by saying that “she wanted to avoid the appearance of impropriety.” This statement and her decision makes Newton appear even more transparent and careful–seemingly avoiding any taint on the the Council decision not vote to pursue historic designation.
Newton’s stated desire to avoid “the appearance of impropriety” renders it all the more surprising when she informed her colleagues that her husband had “recently secured the property under contract. She disclosed this information just nine days after her silence regarding Britton’s assumption that her husband had no ongoing interest in the property.
The people of Rockville may not think any of this a problem. After all, it was water under the bridge when Newton was elected mayor two years ago. Nevertheless, it serves as an example of the powerful role development interests can end up playing in a process in which they have a keen interest–and why true transparency rather than its appearance matters.
In any case, I still wonder why Don Hadley, someone who Bridget Newton nominated to the Planning Commission and has done business with her husband, is thought to be the right choice to moderate the debate tonight including Newton.