Prince George's council member Mary Lehman brings Town Hall to Laurel

At her Town Hall June 13, in Laurel, Prince George's County Council member Mary Lehman presented her constituents with a list of things she's done for them over the past year, then spent about an hour listening to their feedback and requests.

Held at the Laurel-Beltsville Senior Activity Center, the annual Town Hall featured free food; a performance by Colours, a Prince George's County student dance group; and informational tables set up by various county departments.

Lehman — who represents District 1, which includes Laurel — talked about the $2.7 billion fiscal year 2013 county budget the council passed last month. The budget included money for pedestrian safety projects, additional firefighters and police officers, and a new 311 call center for constituents to get easier access to government information.

Specifically for Laurel, Lehman noted, the budget includes $4.25 million to begin construction of a new library; $3 million to begin the long-overdue dredging of Laurel Lakes; $250,000 for a pavilion and capital improvements at Laurel Dinosaur Park; and $300,000 for District 1 nonprofits, including LARS and First Generation College Bound.

Lehman also discussed her other legislative efforts, which have largely been focused on the environment.

"If I haven't earned it already, I'm going to earn the nickname Bag Lady," Lehman joked, referring to her continuous push to get Prince George's County to charge a fee for using disposable bags at grocery and other stores.

Many of the roughly 150 residents who attended the Town Hall walked out at the end of the evening with one or more of the reusable grocery bags Lehman distributed. Though enabling legislation for the bag fee failed in the General Assembly this year for the second year in a row, Lehman vowed to bring it back next session.

Meanwhile, Lehman is working on other environmental legislation, including a proposal to provide rebates to residents and businesses who want to do storm-water management projects, such as install rain gardens, rain barrels, green roofs, etc.

She also noted that she is "trying to get county support in however we can" to move the redevelopment of the Laurel Mall forward.

Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker III attended the Town Hall, speaking briefly about his accomplishments and priorities. Like Lehman, he discussed the budget, noting how the county closed a $126 million deficit while still protecting priorities of education and public safety, and the importance of his Economic Development Incentive Fund in growing the county's commercial tax base.

Baker also praised Lehman, calling her his "favorite councilwoman" and telling her constituents they made a "very, very wise choice" in electing her.

"You have somebody who really keeps our feet to the fire and has her eye on the ball," Baker said of Lehman.

Questions from constituents

After the presentations by Lehman and Baker, audience members from Laurel and other areas of District 1 lined up to ask questions and provide comments.

Pat Behenna, of the Friends of the Laurel Library, spoke about how the group opposes demolition of the existing library building until a new one is open.

"Have we waited for a decade?" she asked. "Yes.

"Are we willing to wait a while longer to do it right? Absolutely."

Lehman said the county is exploring different options about how to move forward with the construction process without causing disruption to library service. She also noted that she has formed a Citizens Advisory Committee to provide feedback on the new library's design and ensure that user opinion is incorporated.

Don Williford spoke about Laurel Lakes and how it's deteriorated since he moved to his home near the lakes in 1991.

"To dredge that, it's going to take a double-digit million dollar figure, at least $14 million," he said.

Lehman told him that the $3 million funding for dredging in fiscal year 2013 is just the first phase of funding for what will be a multiyear project.

"What I'm asking is rather than kick the can down the road again is look at what we can do with the $3 million," Williford said, suggesting bank stabilization.

Charlotte Conway, who lives on Olive Branch Way behind Laurel Regional Hospital, asked that a fence be put up between her neighborhood and the hospital.

"We've lived there four years, and probably, almost every homeowner has had a break in from people who escape from Laurel hospital," she said.

Lehman said she had not heard of the issue before, but she would look into it and see what she can do.

Conway also noted that she would like to see better communication with the community about various economic development projects.

"We don't know what's happening with Laurel Regional," she said. "We don't know what's happening with Konterra."

Laurel resident Shirley Roberson said Laurel High is very overcrowded and asked if there were any plans for a new high school in the area

"We are not slated to get a new high school in this part of the county any time soon," Lehman said, noting that Laurel High is not over-enrolled. Lehman said the problem with large classes sizes that Roberson referred to is a result of having too few teachers.

Other concerns raised by Laurel residents included lack of Metrobus service and that MetroAccess does not run late enough or on the weekends, and lack of youth programs.

In an attempt to continue to reach out to the community, Lehman said she is going to start door-knocking again, beginning Friday, June 22.

"There's nothing like talking to people face to face — really one on one," she said.

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