Team Rockville member claims mayor has too much power over City Clerk
By Neal Earley @neal_earley
ROCKVILLE — In most places, rearranging the office space in City Hall may not be an indication of much of anything, but not in Rockville.
Recently, Rockville’s new City Clerk, Sara Taylor-Ferrell, asked to move her office away from the mayor’s to another part of City Hall – at the request of City Council member Mark Pierzchala.
Pierzchala is the head of “Team Rockville” a small political bloc consisting of Pierzachala, Julie Palakovich Carr and Virginia Onley. Bitter acrimony between the two factions inside Rockville has led to high drama during the last few years.
In Taylor-Ferrell’s request, which she emailed to the Mayor and City Council to move her office, Taylor-Ferrell said the move was necessary to have a secure space for her and her staff to manage the election, one of her duties as city clerk and director of council operations.
But there was another blunter and simpler reason for the move – to have her office be farther away from Rockville Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton’s office.
“It was my idea,” said Council member Mark Pierzchala about moving the city clerk’s office. “…she [Newton] was dominating the city clerk, and also some of her staff.”
Pierzchala explained that he told Taylor-Ferrell to ask the Mayor and Council to move her office, saying that Newton had stepped out of bounds by repeatedly asking Taylor-Ferrell and her staff to work on tasks for her. Pierzchala said as city clerk and director of council operations, it is not Taylor-Ferrell’s job to work at the discretion of the mayor.
However, according to the City’s website, the city clerk and director of council operations is in charge of “administrative staff support for the Mayor and Council’s office; administers City elections; provides staff support to the Board of Supervisors of Elections, Compensation Commission, and Rockville Sister City Corporation; and maintains up-to-date records for the city.”
Taylor-Ferrell did not respond to a request for comment by deadline, but wrote in an email on Oct. 3 to the Mayor and Council that her request to move her office is about election security, given the City’s 2019 election will be done by vote-by-mail for the first time.
The City Clerk has long been charged with election security though.
“Given the upcoming vote-by-mail election, the CC/DCO’s (city clerk/director of council operations) office needs to be completely secure and not be accessible by any unauthorized persons,” she wrote. “The current location of the office does not allow for this type of security.”
Newton agreed that Taylor-Ferrell and her staff needed a secure space to administer the election, but said the Mayor and Council could have offered a special space within City Hall without moving her entire office away from hers.
Newton said she does not know the “real reason” behind the move, but said the move hurts how the City government functions, given it will limit the communication between the Mayor and City Clerk.
“It’s not this seamless communication that used to happen when everybody worked in the same area,” Newton said.
It’s a move that is emblematic of a rift between the Mayor and some members of the City Council, even though that is a word Newton said she would not use to describe the divide.
The decision to move the City’s Clerk office had to be approved by a majority of the Mayor and Council. As with many decisions, the vote was 3-2, with Pierzchala, Onley and Palakovich Carr voting for the move.
Mayor and Council meetings remains cordial, even during hotly-contested debates, but outside official meetings, Newton and Council member Beryl Feinberg have no relationship with the members of Team Rockville.
“It would be nice if this Council could find a way to listen, to hear, what other members are saying instead of voting as a bloc one way or another,” Newton said.
While Pierzchala said it is true he has not had a relationship with the mayor outside of Mayor and Council meetings on Monday nights, he said he would describe his rapport with Newton as a “good working relationship.”
Pierzchala said that Newton can be hard to work with sometimes, that she is often disagreeable and she does not work with the members of Team Rockville on issues and offered to meet weekly with the mayor to work on policy issues at the beginning of their terms, but she declined to do so. Newton said that Pierzchala’s assessment of the situation is untrue.
At the same time, Pierzchala said he does not see the relationship the same way as the Mayor, saying the divisions between them are not personal and differences are a natural occurrence on working elected bodies.
“When we work together, we work together. Sometimes we disagree,” Pierzchala said.
Even Taylor-Ferrell’s appointment as city clerk and director of council operations is a sign of the division between the Mayor and Council.
In September, during a closed session, the Mayor and Council voted 3-2 to fire the previous city clerk and director of council operations, Kathleen Conway, with Pierzchala, Palakovich Carr and Onley voting for the termination. None of the members of the Mayor and Council would discuss the reason given for the termination, citing Maryland’s closed session law, but Feinberg and Newton heaped praise on Conway, saying she was a fantastic city clerk and director of council operations.
Feinberg said that tension between the Mayor and Council has been manifesting itself since Newton was elected Mayor and Pierzchala re-elected to the Council in 2015.
“I’m so disheartened in what has been evolving since 2015, but it has reached a new low,” Feinberg said after Conway’s termination.