Lots of questions, few challengers at Laurel council candidates forum

Candidates in the Nov. 5 City Council elections discussed capping development, addressing traffic concerns and revisiting the dog park fee at the Laurel Board of Trade's candidate forum on Monday at the Laurel Municipal Center.

While all eight candidates were invited to the forum, according to LBOT Chairman Matthew Coates, two of the challengers did not attend.

"I didn't feel it was in a neutral location, and I wanted it to be at a place where it would reach more people," said at-large challenger Adrian Rousseau.

Rousseau and Ward 2 challenger Thomas Matthews, who also didn't attend, said having the forum at the Municipal Center favored the incumbents.

"They are able to sit in an arena they are always in and have the community see them in a place they are used to seeing them already," Rousseau said. "I respect the Board of Trade and everything they were trying to do; I just felt like it was a poor choice of locations."

Coates defended choosing the Municipal Center for the forum, saying the LBOT chose the space because it was a public building, could be used without paying a fee and also allowed for being aired on the city's cable television station.

He said that when Rousseau was invited to the forum he expressed concerns over the neutrality of the city building and that he was disappointed Rousseau and Matthews didn't attend.

While Rousseau and Matthews were absent Monday night, Ward 1 challenger John Mathew Smith did participate in the forum, as did the five City Council members seeking re-election: at-large member Michael Leszcz, Ward 1 members Valerie Nicholas and Ed Ricks, and Ward 2 members Donna Crary and Fred Smalls.

A crowd of about 25 residents and LBOT members listened as the candidates, seated at a table in the front of the room, answered questions that were sent in to the LBOT in advance or written and submitted during the forum. The questions were presented by moderator Pamela Hunter, who has a background in human resources for the federal government and has moderated the LBOT's forum in previous years.

In response to a question about capping development, the five incumbents touted the council's efforts at maintaining "smart growth" in the city. Leszcz said an example of smart growth was the redevelopment of existing infrastructure in the city.

Ricks said there is still a lot of potential development in Laurel, and Smalls warned that the council needs to manage that potential. Nicholas was against capping development, but Crary said it could be capped after the three developments now in the works are completed. Smith said he has observed changes in Laurel, making it more urban, and that "some in the community would say cap it."

The six candidates were unanimous about reducing the property tax rate when the expected increased revenue from new developments such as Towne Centre Laurel become a reality.

The five incumbents, who are jointly campaigning as Team Laurel and were mostly in agreement with one another throughout the forum, listed priority capital projects that centered on traffic. Smalls listed traffic circulations and roadways; Ricks' top priority was transportation needs in the city; Leszcz listed roads and park land, noting the intersection at Route 1 and Cherry Lane will be improved with the Towne Centre Laurel construction; Nicholas pushed pedestrian safety to the top of her list; and Crary wants to get drivers off the road by widening sidewalks for the foot traffic, increasing the city's designated bike routes and working with the state to increase MARC train service.

Challenger Smith said his priority was making "people aware of traffic accident spots," and suggested signage to warn drivers and pedestrians.

Smith also questioned the need for city's speed cameras and the placement of the camera on Van Dusen Road. All five incumbents defended the cameras, noting that a reduction in the number of speeding tickets means the cameras are "doing their job."

Several times during the forum, Smith challenged the $30 membership fee the city charges dog owners to use the Dr. Bruce Morley Dog Playground, saying city taxes should cover the fees. The park, off Van Dusen Road behind the Leo Wilson Park, opened in 2008 with no fees; in 2011 the city began charging residents $30 and nonresidents $35 for membership. Smith said he has seen fewer dogs and owners since the fees were enacted, and that many dog owners fled to a free dog park in Maryland City to avoid the fees.

Lesczc pointed out that dog owners who live outside the city, and don't pay city taxes, are using the park, while Smalls, Ricks and Nicholas all said the fee is used for maintenance and upkeep of the park.

"This is a viable question," Crary told Smith, saying perhaps the council should revisit the charging of fees for the dog park.

The candidates presented varied wish lists of how they would like to use new revenue coming into the city. In addition to reducing or removing the dog park fee, Smith suggested resurfacing the pedestrian path around Laurel Lakes, and Leszcz said improvement around Laurel Lakes, following the county's dredging of the lakes, would be a priority. Ricks said he would boost the city's capital improvement fund, and Nicholas pointed to more senior services and youth programs.

Crary's wish list included a skateboard park; adding mile markers and more security to Laurel's parks, such as Riverfront Park; and increasing bike lanes and pedestrian walkways.

Smalls said enhancing technology, such as wireless Internet, in the city's public buildings was on his wish list, as was public safety and increasing recreational offerings.

Both Crary and Smalls floated the idea of something that they called "out of the box": a rugby stadium or some other attraction that would put Laurel on the map.

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