a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

A city’s ‘city issue’ issue

Posted by Thomas Nephew on March 11th, 2012

Early last month, my city’s City Council voted 5-2 in favor of a resolution about the infamous Citizens United ruling, which concluded:

WHEREAS, the Takoma Park City Council supports efforts to see the ruling overturned or a Constitutional Amendment proposed that would reaffirm fair opportunity in the electoral process for individual people.
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED THAT the Council of the City of Takoma Park supports efforts to reverse the decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and supports efforts to open the electoral process to the broad group of citizens who wish to participate effectively in the affairs of their country.

Get Microsoft Silverlight

2/6/12 Takoma Park City Council: session on
legislative updates and gas tax/Citizens United resolutions
(may require installing Microsoft Silverlight video software).
The first 4 minutes can be skipped for this discussion.

I was surprised to learn my own councilmember, Seth Grimes, was against it; I was even more surprised to learn why he and Councilmember Tim Male voted “nay.”  From the “GranolaPark” (which is as reliably dismissive of such causes as the name implies) account in the Takoma/Silver Spring Voice:

Tim Male … firmly rejected two proposed resolutions, one calling for the reverse of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision  […]  Male said there was “no value” in the city passing the resolutions. In the first place the Citizens United case was not a city issue. Secondly, Takoma Park supporting a liberal cause would not be a surprise, nor would it carry any weight  with the legislature, he said […]  If the city is to make a progressive stand, he said, let it be for something “hard to do.” The city’s rent control policy, for instance, comes at a price that residents are willing to pay for the sake of principle.

Seth Grimes also failed to [vote] for the resolution against the Citizens United decision. He didn’t see it as a city issue, either, and said constituent concerns should be brought up with elected officials in the appropriate jurisdiction.

Grimes, July 2007: “…I attended tonight’s Takoma Park, Maryland City Council
meeting to urge the City Council to vote in favor of an impeachment resolution,
which they did. It’s a very important step that shows the world where we as
individuals in Takoma Park stand and we all hope that it will set an example for
other people in the United States who feel as we do to urge their representatives
in Congress to take steps toward the impeachment of Vice President Cheney
and President George Bush.”

(Video by Michelle Bailey, published 09/18/07 at

One reason I found this surprising was that not too long ago, Seth Grimes had quite a different view.  In 2007 he was videotaped supporting an impeachment resolution; he uploaded a copy of the video himself in November 2008, and I recall seeing it or another one like it on his campaign web site* during his uncontested run for office last November.  All that notwithstanding, Grimes had signaled his “no” vote a few days before the council session in his blog, writing:

I have misgivings about the other item. The Citizens United decision is bad news — corporations are not people, and heavy corporate spending in electoral campaigns is pernicious — but Citizens United isn’t a city issue. Should the city devote time and resources to this question? Again, please share your thoughts.

On February 28th, I responded:

I wish I’d seen this sooner. I’ll share my thoughts per your request, even if it’s too late for the Citizens United vote.

I think you’re making a mistake if you remain committed to avoiding national political issues and resolutions of this kind purely on principle.

It won’t surprise you to hear me say it’s important for its own sake: sometimes national leaders fall down on the job, so sometimes they need to hear from local politicians. And when you and city council say something, you have a particular kind of recognition and respect that I don’t. Don’t let people tell you your statements would be discounted just because it’s a Takoma Park resolution. You’ve taken the trouble to run for office, and you’ve been elected. That matters.

I also don’t think this resolution or others like it need to take significant resources on the part of the city. The resolutions are generally written for you, you’ll have to listen to people advocate for it regardless, you’ll take as much or as little time to discuss it as you like.

But I think it’s also particularly important even when one is focused, by preference, on a purely Takoma Park agenda and goals.

That’s because part of what sets Takoma Park apart is precisely its reputation for not shying away from national issues when a reasonable, timely, cogent statement can be made. I think both current and prospective residents really value that. And I don’t mean in just a vague, “that’s nice” way, I mean in a way that makes people want to live here.  Therefore, that reputation is indirectly a part of what helps maintain the unique population and unique political climate that are so important to accomplishing your local political and policy goals.

We’re proud of the Nuclear Free Zone, of the impeachment resolution, of the sanctuary city status, of votes condemning the Iraq war or the PATRIOT Act. So whatever your feelings about any particular “national issue” resolution per se — whether Citizens United or anything else — I hope you’ll reconsider ruling out supporting any such resolution in the future. I think you’d be upholding a proud Takoma Park tradition. And I think that, too, is a part of your job.
(links added)

I’ve had no real answer to my comment or an emailed version of it I sent. When I told Councilmember Grimes during a conversation that I was surprised because of his former support for the impeachment resolution, he basically simply acknowledged that he was for that then but wouldn’t be for it now– which isn’t an explanation, more just a restatement of the situation.

In watching the city council discussion of all this, the only other thing I saw was that he noted the results of an extremely sparse canvassing of our Ward, in which the handful of opinions he got were split — 7 for, 7 against, 2 hard to interpret — on the value of resolutions about non-city or indirectly city-related issues. It’s hard to believe this could have tipped Mr. Grimes’s opinions one way or the other, though he seemed at pains to suggest they had a bearing. Mr. Male’s opinions were oddly formulated, too, as if city council decisions only have value if they are surprising or difficult to make. That’s a measure of *newsworthiness* perhaps — but that shouldn’t be the yardstick a representative measures his success with, representativeness and faithfulness to one’s principles should.

At any rate, my goal here isn’t to be hostile or to embarrass. Rather, I hope Mr. Grimes, at least, reads this supporter’s comment again, takes a look at that video, recalls how he felt and what it meant for those of us supporting that impeachment resolution — and changes his mind. He was right in July, 2007. There’s no reason he can’t be right again.

* UPDATE, EDIT, 3/11: The link leads to a post on Seth’s Facebook page, posted in August on the day of his announcement there that he was running for City Council.

2 Responses to “A city’s ‘city issue’ issue”

  1. Seth Grimes Says:

    Thomas (& readers), I’ve posted my response:


  2. Thomas Nephew Says:

    Thanks for the reply, Seth. I now see the “misgivings” email you sent to PEN (our neighborhood listserv) on 2/5/11, the day before the City Council hearing, titled “City-council topics, February 6 2012.” I missed it at the time because (I confess) I don’t read every email on PEN. The short notice, an understandably plain title and the lack of response on that particular listserv combined to bury an important topic in what looked like a routine email.

    I don’t mean to suggest a single February council decision made in good faith requires some sort of ‘accountability moment,’ even though I disagree with that decision. I’d much rather find some common ground about this issue with you.

    I get that you, Councilmember Male, and the whole Council are elected to focus on and want to focus on — allow me to reformulate — community-related issues. I’d suggest that the impeachment resolution you supported in 2007 was in fact “community-related” even though it clearly wasn’t a “city issue.” It was community-related because those of us working for it proved, by signature gathering, by speaking at council sessions, and other means that there was a lot of community support for the resolution.

    I think you and the Council are or would be right to require some kind of demonstration that a non-city-issue resolution you’re asked to consider has community relevance, community backing, or both, and I applaud your instinct to set some kind of ground rules. In your view, that didn’t happen to an adequate extent with the Citizens United resolution; I respect that judgment though I disagree with it. Going forward, though, I’d like to suggest that you might set the bar a little differently than you have so far, by adopting ‘community-related’ yardstick instead of a ‘city issue’ one. That way the community can expect that its non-city issue preferences might, from time to time and with work, be acknowledged and reflected by Council resolutions.

    [I’ve posted substantially the same comment at Seth’s blog]

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