GAITHERSBURG — When the City Council reconvenes on Jan. 3, Council member Robert Wu knows, he may face a frosty reception from his colleagues as a result of his walking out at the Council’s last meeting, but he says he stands by the decision.
At the Dec. 19 Council meeting, the last meeting of 2016, the Council was scheduled to vote on a resolution authorizing City Manager Tony Tomasello to execute a long-planned annexation of the Johnson property, an area of land near the intersection of Darnestown Road and Quince Orchard, which is slated for mixedzone commercial and residential development.
“In September, the Council voted 4-0 to authorize the City Manager to enter into negotiations with the applicant on the annexation agreement,” Wu said. “I supported this decision and voted in favor of the resolution. On Monday, the Council was to vote on whether to approve the annexation agreement that had been negotiated. After reviewing the agreement, I could not bring myself to support the terms, particularly with respect to density, and assurances that the property would be protected from future expansive development, which I think would hurt our other more central commercial centers, such as the Kentlands.”
The Council has been operating at reduced capacity since the death of Council member Henry F. Marraffa Jr. on Oct. 18. The Council is in the process of selecting a replacement to serve the balance of Marraffa’s final term and will announce its newest member on Feb. 6. Council member Ryan Spiegel, who was absent from the meeting due to a strep throat infection, had announced that he would recuse himself from the final discussion and vote after discovering that his employer, the Bethesda law firm Paley Rothman, had a business relationship with one of the developers contracted for the annexation plan.
Wu argued that the decision was too significant to be made with a weak majority (2-1) vote and suggested that the vote be postponed until the new member was chosen and sworn in.
When this proposal received no support, Wu left the meeting, depriving the Council of the necessary quorum – or overall majority of members present – to conduct business, which provoked consternation from the other members of the Council.
“I’m disappointed by the behavior of our colleague this evening,” said Mayor Jud Ashman. “I’ve been involved with city government for 16 years. So far as I can remember, this is absolutely unprecedented. I hope to have a conversation with our colleague and get him to agree to do what he was elected to do, which is to make the decisions and conduct the business of the city.”
“I am astounded by the rudeness and unprofessional behavior of my colleague,” said Council member Michael Sesma. “I don’t think it serves the people of Gaithersburg. I don’t think it serves the role of city government. He ought to reconsider whether he has a role in the future of the city now.”
Council member Spiegel drove to City Hall and reaffirmed that he was recusing himself from the discussion and vote, but his presence re-established the necessary quorum, and Sesma and Council Vice President Neil Harris voted in favor of the agreement, passing it 2-0.
Wu defended his actions.
“The Johnson Annexation is not any easy issue,” Wu said. “It was (and is) opposed by whole communities and hundreds of our neighbors and residents. Those individuals have very real concerns that must be respected, including the very valid concern that the City would not hear their voices. The least these individuals deserved, in my mind, was the vote of a majority of the Council.”
Wu referred to a pledge he made during his campaign for the Council last year that he would make sure all voices were heard.
“I believe that the voices of the communities and hundreds of residents and neighbors who spoke out on the Johnson Annexation would not be heard or respected with a vote of less than the majority of the council, so I did what was necessary to keep my promise,” Wu said.
“Am I proud of what I did? No. Did I do what I thought was necessary? Absolutely. I stand by my actions and my rationale. Some matters are too important not to receive the support of the majority of the Council. I do regret and apologize for the impact my actions have had on the City, staff, the applicant and my colleagues. I have reached out to each personally to express my regrets, and I do so now. I regret in particular the impact that this has had on Mayor Jud Ashman, who is a great mayor and a mentor, as well as Council member Ryan Spiegel, who is a friend and was dragged into this in his infirm state. I also apologize to Council members Neil Harris and Mike Sesma as well. You may agree with me or not, but I hope at least you understand. To my detractors, I also want you to remember that when your community is on the line and you may feel that your voice is not being heard, I will be there for you.”