WashPo Covers Back Room ‘Dernoga Money’

The Washington Post revealed Thursday that former Prince George’s County Councilmember Thomas Dernoga privately solicited contributions totaling about $1 million from developers for charity during his 8 years in office.

Such funds, which would normally be part of a formal developer or community benefits agreement, were instead extorted behind the scenes in a highly unethical (and perhaps illegal) donate-to-play arrangement designed to benefit Dernoga politically.

Community members, especially in his Laurel political base, were accustomed to seeing him present “Dernoga Money” at various back-to-school nights during his tenure in Upper Marlboro. Dernoga jokingly refers to himself as Robin Hood, according to the Post story. Unfortunately for him, moralistic pronouncements will mean little in the federal probe investigating the county, which many speculate he is caught up in.

“Most of the people want a favor. They want more density. They want more parking. They all want something. They seem to think they are entitled. You say you want the county to do you a favor that might be good for the county, but it is also going to make you a lot of money. But are you willing to support local needs?” …

“You have these people making millions, and all this density and all the traffic [we’d] absorb on Route 1. You mean to tell me you have nothing to help out our schools?” Dernoga said. “I found it greedy on the part of the property owners.”

Dernoga said that project would have cost the main developers $120 million and that $100,000 would have been a “drop in the bucket,” he said.

Dernoga’s shenanigans during the development review process have been a frequent problem for College Park (and have appeared multiple times on this blog), on issues like the Mazza GrandMarc impact fee waiver controversy and Route 1 form-based code debates. His total disregard of process, a surprising approach for a trained lawyer who ran for the county’s top law enforcement post in 2008, stymied many a development project on Route 1 in northern College Park.

Perhaps most notable of these projects are two failed luxury condominiums just north of MD-193 to the east and west of Route 1. Joe Lasick, owner of one of the properties which was slated for a 200 unit mixed-use development, claims Dernoga held up his project for a $200,000 donation to local schools.

After multiple delays incited by Dernoga before the November 2007 donation request, Lasick refused and Dernoga decided to “revisit” the tax incentive on which the project proposal was based. Today, two downtrodden vacant lots on opposing sides of Route 1 in College Park, each a block long, face drivers as they pass through the derelict retail corridor.

College Park residents are paying the price for Dernoga’s actions. The delays he introduced for developers, including for those who didn’t make donations, meant that many parcels of land on Route 1 never got developed during the real estate boom, and we’re stuck with strip malls, parking lots or vacant land instead of useful properties that house residents or shops and contribute to the city’s tax base.

Fortunately, ethics legislation, which was signed into law April 12, bans Prince George’s council members from asking anyone who is seeking development approvals to provide anything of monetary value. Hopefully that legislation will avoid another Robin Hood in Upper Marlboro. Robbing from the future to fuel political ambitions is ultimately a losing proposition for Prince George’s County.

City Scrambles to Spend Speed Camera Money

The College Park City Council seemed to be taken off guard Tuesday by $350-600,000 in city speed camera funds that must be committed to “public safety” projects (including pedestrian infrastructure). The money must be committed in the next two months or it will be returned to the state. The relatively large sum (equivalent to 10% of the city’s total budget) was perfectly foreseeable when the cameras were authorized last November, but for whatever reason no project prioritization conversation has occurred until this week.


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Unfortunately, various neighborhood factions (see video above) will inevitably descend upon City Hall attempting to eke out their “fair” (read: small) share of the money in the coming weeks. The city as a whole would be much better served by a small number high-value, cost-effective investments that will save lives. A pedestrian activated HAWK signal where the Trolley Trail crosses Paint Branch Parkway or a full traffic light at Route 1 and Hartwick Road come to mind. The latter project would also expand accessibility to floundering businesses on the east side of Route 1 in Downtown. Each project would cost about $80-100,000. City staff should immediately begin conversations with the state to assess the feasibility of planning such projects on non-city roads in the expedited timeline (Funds must be committed by June 30th). The City Manager has done a tremendous disservice to the community by not already having these conversations.

On a similar note, we continue to be dismayed but the relative lack of attention being paid to the impending State Highway Administration (SHA) Route 1 crosswalk reconstruction project from Albion Road to Paint Branch Parkway. That initiative is going to be a major missed opportunity if SHA is left to run with whatever their highway engineers feel like doing. Traffic camera money could easily be used to supplement or complement those propsoed state investments and perhaps even extend them north of Paint Branch Parkway towards the emerging mixed-use district there.

RTCP Presentation – Background, Impact, and Takeaways

The following is a presentation I gave to my colleagues at UNC’s Department of City and Regional Planning last month. Included is some background on the beginnings of the RTCP as well as an honest assessment of the project’s impacts and takeaways. While the audience was composed of aspiring planners and academics, the presentation is accessible to a general audience.
Rethink College Park – DCRP Speaks Presentation

Town Hall Meeting about Crime in College Park – April 6th

A moderated town hall-style meeting to address issues of safety in the College Park community will take place on Wednesday April 6, 2011 at 6:00 PM in Jimenez Building Rm. 0220 on campus. This building is directly across the street from Stamp Student Union.  Screened questions coming from members of the audience.  For the panel, University Police, the Prince George’s Country  Police, the local College Park Officials, Administration, and representatives from the student body have been invited to speak.  The audience will consist mainly of students and College Park residents.  The main topics of discussion will include safety, but will also cover other issues that the audience finds important.

Editorial:

As a senior at this university, I love College Park as much as the next student. However, over the last four years I’ve seen on and off-campus safety become an increasingly serious issue. Seemingly every week the Diamondback reports about crimes in College Park. Crime is to be expected as a city grows, and there is no question that over these last few years College Park has been transforming and expanding. Most of that transformation has been beneficial, but this city has also transformed into something I never thought it would be. It has become dangerous. Ensuring the safety of the community has been put on the back burner. In the last year alone there were 13 murders in 13 days, stabbings, muggings, and sexual assaults. The level of crime in the city is only rising and really getting out of control.

Also, let’s not forget about the riot last year that made national news. I know the student’s haven’t. The riot has caused increased tension between the students and the police. Many students do not trust the police and question whether they have their best interests in mind. From a student’s perspective, we see police concentrating on closing bars, breaking up parties, and issuing massive numbers of tickets. What we do not see them doing is protecting us, and the College Park community. It’s time for the city to reassess their priorities, and make College Park safe again.