Gaithersburg City Council incumbents Neil Harris, Ryan Spiegel and Robert T. Wu won reelection to the City Council on Nov. 5 in an election that first appeared uncontested but was enlivened late in the campaign season with the addition of write-in candidates Juan Aguirre, Carol Johnson and Nicole S. Ukiteyedi. Elected officials will be sworn in on Nov. 18, 7:30 p.m. at City Hall. They will serve four-year terms.
Out of 36,526 eligible voters, 2,388 votes were cast. Robert T. Wu led with 2,021 votes (84.63 percent), followed by Neil Harris with 1,672 votes (70.02 percent) and Ryan Spiegel with 1,658 votes (69.43 percent). Write-in candidates finished fourth through sixth: Juan Aguirre with 476 votes (19.93 percent), Carol Johnson with 435 votes (18.22 percent), and Nicole Ukiteyedi with 117 votes (4.90 percent).
Voter turnout for the 2019 election was 6.54 percent. This is lower than average turnout for the previous two elections—9.61 percent in 2017 and 11.09 percent in 2015. Johnson described 2019 voter turnout as “an embarrassment for Gaithersburg” and suggested holding debates, registration drives and adding “the mail-in option to voting.”
Spiegel acknowledged that “getting people to vote in off-year local elections is “always a challenge” and cited late entry of write-in candidates “after voter guides and official sample ballots had already been sent” as a possible reason for low turnout.
Harris noted that low turnout is “typical when the ballot appears uncontested,” adding that “write-in campaigns seem to have increased turnout a little over the rock-bottom numbers of the uncontested 2013 race when only 5.4 percent voted.”
Gaithersburg’s voter turnout “is generally lower than similar cities,” he noted. “This could be from many factors—citizen satisfaction (we hear that a lot), larger numbers of renters (who tend to vote in lower numbers and are harder to reach in locked buildings).”
Wu said that to increase voter turnout, “At the very basic level, I think we need to have more individuals interested in running for local office, as competitive elections tend to bring more voters to the polls. I will be looking to engage with and mentor residents who are interested in running.”
But he also suggested looking at “the way the city undertakes its electoral process, and possibly how the council is structured.”
One idea is “altering the structure of the council to provide the mayor with a vote, and expanding the council by one or more seats. Given the mayor’s role as the president of the council, and not the chief executive (as we are a strong city manager government), it doesn’t make sense for (Mayor) Jud (Ashman) to have a veto, but instead have a vote just like other jurisdictions have, such as Rockville and Takoma Park. Giving the mayor a vote would require at least one additional council member to have an odd number of votes.”
Additional suggestions are instituting a vote-by-mail system and “looking at lowering the barriers to entry for candidates running races where more voters will be engaged. One way to do that is through the adoption of a public campaign finance system.”
Harris was the first candidate to declare for the 2019 race, and he campaigned door to door June through September.
Spiegel, who has served on the City Council since 2007, ran a similarly robust campaign. “In addition to the city government conducting all sorts of outreach from mailing voter guides to distributing email newsletters, producing video PSAs, and displaying banners, the candidates themselves often work hard to turn out voters by canvassing, sending mail, attending events, and being active on social media. We’ve made early voting more convenient and absentee ballots more accessible, and we even launched same-day registration this year,” he explained. Twenty-four people registered at the polls on Nov. 5.
The highest number of votes, 460, were cast at the Kentlands Clubhouse, followed closely by the Villa Ridge Community Room’s 445 votes. The highest percentages of write-in candidate votes were cast on the east side of the city—at the Villa Ridge, City Hall and Asbury Methodist polling places. Johnson attributed this to “the dissatisfaction among voters of the city’s handling of our communities represented by these precincts. Two main issues were the Wawa slated for 405 S. Frederick Ave. and the elementary school slated for Kelley Park.”
Harris said, “Write-in candidates were boosted by the support of a group who opposed the MCPS proposal to provide a new elementary school on the grounds of Kelley Park.” While a new Gaithersburg elementary school is needed, he said, the city is working to preserve the park for public use as much as possible. The city has sent a list of about 15 requests to MCPS that include minimizing the footprint of the school, and MCPS “has agreed to about six so far.”
Spiegel said, “I do not think the results reflect a broader dissatisfaction by voters in those areas, but rather a very active group of single-issue voters from one particular neighborhood who were well organized and campaigned hard at those three polling stations—perhaps with the belief that those three stations are where they’d be most effective.”
A 12-year city councilmember, Spiegel reflected, “While we do hear a comment here and there about the need for more attention to the east side of the city, such comments are not widespread and, respectfully, do not take into account the countless hours and millions of dollars that city officials and staff spend working, often behind the scenes and against large structural obstacles, to improve the east side of Gaithersburg.”
The write-in candidacy option was authorized by the City Council in 2013, but the 2019 election was the first time it was put into practice. “The idea was to open up the process to more participation and competition after an uncontested 2013 election,” Spiegel said.
Both Spiegel and Harris said the write-in process may need to be clarified for future elections. “Some issues arose that were unclear—should write-ins appear on the city’s website and literature?” Harris said.
Wu said he is considering the write-in process before taking a definitive position. He noted that “allowing write-ins provided for meaningful competition after only three candidates were certified for the ballot.” He is concerned, though, that the current write-in process “is a very low hurdle to get certified for the ballot.”
Write-in candidate Johnson felt “the (write-in) process worked well. The city contacts were responsive and helpful. I am grateful the procedure was introduced this election cycle and I hope it remains in place. It allowed me to jump in and participate. The city updated the election website so voters could learn about the write-in candidates, which is important as their names do not appear on the sample ballots that are mailed to registered voters prior to the election.”
Johnson, who entered the race on the final filing day, was motivated to run after participating in the city process for the Wawa project. She was opposed to the gas station, which will be located in close proximity to Bohrer Park and Gaithersburg High School, and did not feel that the city was responsive enough to community concerns. “I felt the process implemented by the city was really unfair, and the city needs to learn to reach out to the local communities on the east side of 355,” she explained.
Her takeaways from the experience? “A couple of things,” she noted. “1) your vote matters; 2) if you are concerned, you should run; 3) the incumbents, who had the endorsement of the mayor, should recognize they do not have a mandate, especially for voters on the east side of 355.”
Harris, Spiegel and Wu are ready to continue work on important projects in their next terms.
Harris said major items to be accomplished in his second term include “transformation of Lakeforest Mall, or at least great progress toward that goal; completion of the city’s Visioning Process, including input from residents and other stakeholders on our goal for the city’s future; continuing to work on improving transportation in all modes by working with regional officials to build focused funding and planning processes; and moving ahead with the new elementary school for the Gaithersburg cluster and relief for crowding at Rachel Carson.”
Spiegel said, “I’m going to work hard to shepherd a number of marquee projects to completion, including the redevelopment of Lakeforest Mall, the opening of the Watkins Mill Interchange, the construction of the new police station and the Fishman site, further redevelopment along East Diamond Avenue, the park at the CPSC site, and the full build-out of Crown, Rio and the Kentlands commercial area. We also need to continue working on ideas to relieve traffic congestion and school overcrowding, working with our state and county partners.
“I also hope to be successful in collecting the remaining road maintenance funds owed to the city from the state, after having successfully led the charge to get back 85 percent of it last year. And I will work to defeat any legislation in Annapolis that tries to preempt local control over so-called ‘small cell’ towers,” he added.
Wu said he is looking forward to working on the initiatives mentioned by his colleagues and also focusing on Parklands. “With the completion of the Watkins Mill Interchange projected for the summer of 2020, I look forward to engaging on exciting opportunities at the Spectrum and Watkins Mill Town Center,” he said.
Supporting STEM education, “economic development related to technology transfer, and commercialization of research being conducted at federal laboratories in the area” and environmental issues, including “expanding the composting pilot program, and reducing the city’s reliance on harmful pesticides” are also goals for his second term on the Council.