Prayer, Campaign Sought to Avoid Post-Game Riot

UMD riot, 2010

With the UMD vs Duke game only one day away, the students, police, City officials and religious leaders have been very busy to avoid the repeat of 2010 riot that earned bad reputation for our college town. More than a dozen students were arrested during the riot and the county police was accused of using excessive force.

Students, UMD Chaplain Rev. Kim Capps, Rev. George Wilkinson of Holy Redeemer Roman Catholic Church, Maj. Liberati of P.G. Police & UMD’s Public Safety Chief David Mitchell will gather for a joint prayer rally tomorrow, Feb. 1 @ 7 – 8 PM at the West Chapel (in Memorial Chapel). The rally has been billed as a gathering to pray for the “Safety and Sportsmanship and seek God’s blessings for our city before the UMD v. Duke home basketball game on Feb. 2nd”.

In the mean time, the UMD students have been planning to observe a “Beat the Duke Week” to allow students to celebrate the outcome of the game in a constructive manner, should the UMD wins against Duke.

Additionally, a pep rallywill be held tomorrow at 6 p.m. in Comcast Center, said Student Government Association President Steve Glickman.

Mayor Andrew Fellows said he likes the university’s proactive approach, “instead of throwing up our hands and saying there is nothing we can do.”

Peggy Higgins Talks about her New Job, Opportunities

Peggy Higgins

Peggy Higgins

The recently elected school board representative in our area Peggy Higgins took her time to share some her thoughts on her new job and her vision to address the challenges the school system is facing. Please see the complete interview below.

1) What was your reaction after you first learned the news of your election victory?
My first reaction when I learned I had been elected was a sense of purpose.  I am truly humbled by the number of people who supported, worked and voted for me. It is an honor to represent my community.

2) What are the challenges you are facing in your new job as the school board representative ?
As a board member of six weeks, the current challenges have mostly to do with forming relationships with other Board members and school superintendent Dr. Hite and his staff as well as learning the structure and process of resolving parent concerns.  And then obviously the biggest challenge all of us are facing is how to assure the continuation of academic rigor for our children despite the very real budget constraints.

3)  How will your approach in addressing  challenges in Prince George’s schools in our area be different from previous approaches?
Like each of my Board colleagues, I bring my own unique experiences to Board deliberations and discussions.  My background both as a social worker and as a municipal department head is a good mix of practical experience working on behalf of children and families and an understanding of how bureaucracies operate. I believe this practical experience contributes positively in our Board deliberations.

4) Many appreciate your work as the Director of College Park Youth and Family Services (YFS). Do you plan to continue working with YFS?
The School Board position is not a full-time paid position.  Each Board member receives $18,000 minus taxes of approximately $6,000, leaving an annual income of $12,000 a year. It always has been my plan to continue my work for College Park.  I love my job as the City’s Youth, Family and Seniors Services Director and have 21 years experience in this position.  Thus I am very aware of the ebb and flow of those duties which is helpful as I take on Board responsibilities. I have committed to being very busy these next four years and accept that responsibility.  As I anticipated, it is my personal time that has disappeared.

‘Armed’ Escaped Prisoner Last Seen Around North College Park

 The University of Maryland Police is reporting that that a man who escaped from the Garrett County Detention Center may have be in the area of College Park. 

The escapee, Deandre Kelly, was seen in the vicinity of the Seven Springs Village Apartments off of Cherry Hill Road earlier in the week. 

A phone call to the UMD Police has revelead that the escaped prisoner has not been caught as of this morning.

Any community member who believes they may have seen or have come in contact with Mr. Kelly is asked to contact the U.S. Marshalls at 301-489-1717 or 800-336-0102, or 911. 

The US Marshalls Service is warning that Kelly should be considered armed and dangerous. Kelly assaulted two correctional officers and forced them to open an exit door by producing what appeared to be a handgun on last Sunday. 

29-year-old Kelly, is described as 6 feet tall and 275 lbs. 

After Kelly’s escape, authorities offered a $6,000 reward for information leading to his arrest.

The agency says Kelly was being held on $100,000 bond since his arrest Saturday for alleged drug and firearm violations and lying to police.

The FBI is assisting local and state authorities in the investigation.

Will Pepco Ever Learn?

Yesterday early morning, I  received this email from our council member talking about the power outage at.. guess where? – the City building.

Because the power is out in most of downtown College Park, including City Hall, the city’s web server is down.  As a result, I can’t get any e-mail on my city account, nor can anyone on staff.

The power outage continued until a good part of the day, yet in many part of the City, a significant number of Pepco customers in the region remain without power. Pepco is saying customers need to wait at least until 11 tonight for complete power restorations.

According a NPR report, only Pepco could restore only 40% of its power outage over 24 hrs since the storm ended last Wednesday midnight. The same figure for Virginia Dominion Power is 80%, and the Baltimore Power Electric is 70%.

The Washington Post is also reporting that Pepco was the slowest in seeking help from others to restore power. It trailed behind other utility companies in the area, such as BGE and Virginia Dominion Power.

This is not the first time Pepco’s response to snowstorm has been criticized. After last year’s snow storms, Maryland Public Service arranged two public hearings, where customers slammed Pepco’s record of poor services.

Need Snow Shoveling Help? Let Us Know

Blizzard Braves, 2010

It’s that time of the year again. Snow is piling up on our streets, driveways and pathways. The weather forecast said we’d be getting upto 8 inches of snow in the area overnight.

Like the past years, we’re offering free snow shoveling help for the folks who need them. We know many of our neighbors, especially the elderly and disabled ones, often get stuck in their homes during this season and need our serious help.

If you or anyone you know who may need such help, please feel free to give me a call (301-659-6295) or email me at faz.kabir@gmail.com. We hope to get some volunteers throughout the snow season to help out the needy folks.

Also, if you’d like to volunteer in this, please let us know. The experience you’ll get is very rewarding.

Comfort Zone to Face County Hearing

After receiving two violations and failing to ‘correct’ its alleged business practices, the ‘adult store’ Comfort Zone will be appearing at a zoning hearing before the county’s Board of Zoning Appeals next month.

City officials are expected to attend the hearing, as they are the main prosecutors in this case, enforcing the county’s zoning laws.

The hearing was first scheduled last Wednesday (January 19), but was postponed to March 2.

The reason for the postponement is a bit unclear. While one City official wrote to me that the hearing was postponed “at the request of the business owner”, but according to this Diamondback piece, it was postponed “because not enough members were present to hold a vote” at last week’s scheduled hearing.

Residents, Police to Discuss Gangs in Neighborhood

Number of gangs in PG county

If you have seen group of young folks hanging around your street corners after dark, night after night, for no apparent reason, chances are that they are part of organised gangs.

The presence of gangs in our county is real. According to a recent statistics, there are some 23 gangs in our part of the county (district 1).

In late spring 2008, the Prince George’s County Council established the Youth and Gang Violence Task Force (CR-25-2008) to review and evaluate the County’s violence prevention programs and make recommendations to ensure a well-coordinated and systematic violence prevention effort in the County. This resulted in a report, which was published in 2009. 

I recently received an email from one my neighbors on such a gang around four corner area and the police thankfully responded promptly.

In case you’re not sure, talk to your local police officer. Better yet, try to attend the meeting tomorrow with the police, who will be discussing this issue in particular.

The community meeting will held at District 1 in the conference room (5000 Rhode Island Ave.) at 6:30pm. A special presentation will be given by Sgt. George Norris of the PGPD Gang unit / Gang Expert.

Residents, MD Delegate Up in Arms Over WSSC’s Messy Street Work

A messy NCP street, courtesy of WSSC

The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC)’s water replacement work in north College Park may have completed recently, but it has caused much concerns among the residents.

Residents think the restoration work on these streets are nothing but “cheap patch work”.

WSSC started the water replacement work about a year ago, which involved approximately 4 miles of water main in our neighborhood. The affected streets are located between the following boundaries: the Beltway to the north, Hollywood Rd. to the south; 53rd Avenue to the west and Baltimore Avenue to the east.

Please see a map of WSSC’s replacement work here

In an email to NCPCA, WSSC’s contract manager Robert Spigone has recently said:

Final restoration is currently being done (weather pending) which includes concrete work for sidewalks, driveway, and curb/gutter, asphalt paving of water and sewer trenches, and grading, seeding, stabilizing grass areas disturbed (yards, tree box areas, and R/W’s).

As can be seen in the message, the WSSC only promises “asphalt paving” of the trenches, which is not the same thing as the original construction of our streets.

This is quite contrary to the promise that WSSC made in the water main replacement brochure (please see below), where it said it would restore the paved streets “as closely as possible to their original appearance“.

Residents expressed concerns about WSSC’s sub-par repair work in this month’s NCPCA meeting.  The residents said they would like to see WSSC restore the streets where they have removed pipes to the condition they were in before the excavation.

The good news is that the MD Delegate Joseline Melnyk was also present at the meeting. Ms. Melnyk, who has recently been appointed as the WSSC sub committee in our area, listened resident’s concern first hand. She promised her office will contact WSSC with residents’ concerns. 

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Bluelight Phone Near Metro Goes Live

After months of speculations, the much anticipated blue light phone went into operation near Greenbelt Metro’s north entrance, near Lackawanna and 53rd ave intersection. The single emergency phone started working from last Thursday night. Residents expected to have this phone in August last year.

Though the downtown and the UMD campus have a bunch of such emergency phones, this will probably the first of this kind of phones in north College Park area.

Blue light phones are illuminated with a bright blue light, which should make them easier to find. In case of emergencies, callers should be able to contact the Police directly by activating these phones (by pressing the big red button). An emergency dispatcher should be notified of the caller’s exact location.

Lackawanna St. Streetscape Site Furniture

The installation of the phone is part of the Lackawanna streetscape project that has recently stirred much controversies due to the excessive street lights.

The design of the blue-light telephone had a slight deviation from what was originally shown in the Lackawanna Street’s streetsacpe design document. A picture of the site furniture in the design document shows that the phone would be powered by solar power; however the installed phone seems to be powered by Pepco’s land lines.

The blue light phone is manufactured by a Chicago based company called Talk-a-Phone .

City Hit by $20M Lawsuit

A group of property owners in College Park has recently sued the City with a $20M  lawsuit. A 19 page court document detailing 107 complains (please see below) says that the City has enacted rent control ordinances that only apply to residential properties (and not other apartments / student housing). The plaintiffs also have complaints against the rent stabilization board that the City has been forming to enforce the ordinances.

The lawsuit asks the Court to award the plaintiffs “$20 million dollars in compensatory damages”. Additionally, it asks for another “$20 million in punitive damages plus cost, expenses and attorney”s fees as well as any other relief available under law”.

Another lawsuit by the property owners was previously rejected by the State Court of Appeals in December 2008.

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City’s Business Incentive Program Shows Success, Faces Challenges

The business of facelifting: Jungle Grille style

If you are planning to start up a business in College Park, here is the first stop you want to consider in your journey: Economic Development Department of the City of College Park. For other entrepreneurs who want to start an online business, eCom babes is a great beginner’s course that will teach you how to open an online store and establish a customer base in just four weeks.

Where the State and the County offer help with funds for new businesses, City’s Economic Development Department is also trying its best to entice new merchants set up their shops inside the City.

Termed as “College Park Business Incentive Program”, the initiative is offering up to $2,500 in dollar for dollar matching grants to city businesses for the design, fabrication, and installation of storefront signs.

By providing signage incentives, the City hopes to encourage new and existing businesses to improve their façades by upgrading their signs with quality materials. Funds will be disbursed after signage has been installed.

The City approved $10,000 last year for the program. So far, four businesses – Jungle Grille, Street Tacos, Ledo Restaurant and Bagel Place took advantage of the program in the past year. This year, the applications for two more businesses, Azteca and Ollies Grill have been approved. Also, the application for one more business – Three Stripe Addidas is pending for approval.

So far, the program has been wildly popular among the business communities” – said Christopher Warren, program’s coordinator in an interview to me. Mr. Waren said he intends to ask the City to extend the program in the next fiscal year (FY2012).

In order to be eligible for the program, the business or the property owner must operate in the Downtown, Hollywood, Route 1, or Berwyn commercial districts. Funds will be disbursed to the grant applicant after work is successfully completed and invoices are submitted to the City.  Also, applicants will not be reimbursed for work completed before the Business Incentive Program application is approved by the City.

Businesses, who are part of a strip mall, such as the ones in REI / MoM shopping complex, will also need the approval of the property owner to apply for the program.

The signage incentive program however had its own challenges. Except one, most of the business who took advantages of the program are from the downtown area. The only north College Park business using the program, Azteca Mexican restaurant on Route 1, is expected to open its door in early summer this year.

Mr. Warren said he tried his best to outreach to the businesses in north College Park, but did not get a good response. The harsh economic situation may have contributed to this lack of response, he thinks.

In addition to the signage incentive program, the Economic Development Department also help local businesses in a number of ways. The department often help direct businesses to which city department to talk to for a particular issue. It also helps new merchants navigating the process of opening a business in College Park, find a space, provide market data and information on county/state loan programs . The department also market local businesses through a website called shopcollegepark.org

To contact the Economic Development Department, please call or send an email to Chris Warren- Economic Development Coordinator at 240-487-3543 cwarren@collegeparkmd.gov.

Speed Camera: Optotraffic Reports Drop in Speed, Revenue

Speed camera near Duvall Field

Two months after speed cameras went into operation on major streets in the city, the company that installed these cameras published a formal report on the cameras’ effectiveness on public safety and revenues they bring to the City.

Optotraffic was awarded the contract to install and maintain theses cameras across the city.

The City has been insisting that the primary purpose of these cameras is to improve public safety, whereas some residents think they are ‘speed traps’ and ways to generate revenues for the City government.

According to the Optotraffic report, the median speed on these camera zones has dropped by 2 mph on average over the past two months.

On the revenue side, the drop was rather significant during the reporting period. For example, for the Rhode Island Avenue camera, the total number of tickets issued daily was 32 in the November last year, however that figure has gone down to 25 in the second week of January. The similar figure for the camera in Metzerott Road near St. Andrews Place was the most dramatic – the figure dropped from 550 to 110 was reported during the same period.

According  to the contract, the motorists who get camera tickets need to pay $40 per ticket; however the City only gets 60% of the total revenues, the rest goes to the Optotraffic company. The City can only keep up to 10% of its operating budget and the rest must be given to the State. The revenues also must be used in public safety improvement projects.

You can view the entire report below:

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WMATA Says ‘No’ to Camera Petition

I don’t want to be the bearer of the bad news, but this is the latest on the camera petition that we sent to WMATA recently.

Basically, the WMATA ignored the concerns of some 300+ residents in north College Park, who use the Metro’s north  entrance on a daily basis.

True, it’s a disappointing news, but we’ll try our best to take the residents’ concerns through other avenues. Soon we’ll contact the 21st Delegation and the County council to see if they can bring the Metro back to its sense.

By the way, the Patch covered the story yesterday evening. It also published the entire letter with the petition signatures that was sent to Metro. Here is the link. (Thanks Patch, as always!)

And, here is the response letter from the Metro, which I find pretty lame and frankly void of substance. True, it mentions the landscaping job that they did after the incident, but the letter has no mention of  the concerns expressed by 300+ residents. I wonder how can we make them listen?

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Pena-Melnyk Talks to NCP Residents on New Session, Life in Annapolis

Joseline Pena-Melnyk at NCPCA

The super-busy new session in Annapolis  had just started a day ago, yet that did not stop State Delegate Joseline Pena-Melnyk to make a trip to north College Park, and speak to its residents.

“It’s very hard to drive back from Annapolis at this time of the year, but for north College Park, it’s anything (that I can do)” – Ms. Pena-Melnyk told  the residents gathered at the north College Park Citizens’ Association’s regular January meeting on last Thursday. Ms. Pena-Melnyk also served as the council woman of College Park before she became a member of the 21st district Delegation.

Usually, the 21st Delegation that represents College Park comes to civic association meetings after the 90 days session ends, thus Pena-Melnyk’s trip to NCPCA was an unusual one.

“It”s an early trip, but if you have an idea about a bill, you can make an early request.” – explained Pena-Melnyk about her visit to north College Park.

Talking about the make-up of the new House in Annapolis, Pena-Mylnyk said it currently has 141 delegates and 47 Senators. “It’s a very changed place [since the last one], in the House there has been 26% turnover – a lot of new faces – a number of committees have changed, since a lot of people have moved.” – said Ms. Pena-Melnyk, who is serving second term as part of 21st Delegation.

Ms. Pena-Melnyk is a member of the health care committee, which is one of the 6 committees in the house. “We’ve extended Medicaid, and made sure children can stay with their parents’ policies.” said Ms. Pena-Melnyk about her previous accomplishment about the health insurance. There are some 47 million people in the US uninsured, almost 700,000 of those are in Maryland alone.”

Talking about her job in Annapolis, she said every year over 2500 bills are passed. “This figure is a big number, since all these must be passed within 90 days” – she said. Each bill first comes from the related committee and then it is passed in the House first requiring 71 delegate votes (out of 141 votes). Then the bill goes to Senate where it needs 24 Sentaors’ votes (out of 47 votes). At the end, the Governor must sign the bill, when it becomes a law. If the Governor seeks a change, it goes through hearings in the House and the Senate again.

Ms. Melnyk represents two counties – Prince George’s and the Anne Arundel county. This means that she needs to attend two Delegates’ meetings, which happen simultaneously every Friday morning. She said residents are most welcome to join those meetings. Attending two meeting simultaneously is “stressful” – she said, but she  tries to be in both meetings depending on when and where voting takes place. “You basically choose your battle” – she said.

She has also been appointed as the new Chair of the WSSC subcommittee of the Prince George’s county. In this session the committee will be dealing with 4 new bills.

When not in session, Delegates work with different caucuses, such as Democratic, Black and Women caucuses, where they attend many meetings.

She said each bill can take up to 8 hours of hearing before the Delegates can get a chance to vote on them. She had seen a single bill having up to 92 witnesses. “You came to Annapolis, you must get the respect and be heard” – she said of the constituents who speak at these hearings.

“After 10pm, when the session ends, I get to my computer and I see some 1000 emails just one particular issue.” – she said. “Some time I get to stay until 2am to answer these emails”.

In the new session, the hot topics are mostly about policy makings – such as alcohol tax, possibly a gas tax and the same sex marriage act. “You know we don’t have money” – she said why the Delegates will be busy in working on these policy issues, which involve minimal funding.

The House will also be working on balancing budget to address $1.6B deficit that the State is facing.

In Remembrance of Dr. King

Dr. King: I’ve a dream

Today marks the Martin Luther King day.

On a national level, groups are organizing events to reflect on MLK’s contribution throughout his civil rights movement. But on a local community level, is there anything we can do to carry Dr. King’s legacy in our present times?

I’d say – yes.

True, the ugly traces of segregation that Dr. King had to deal with may have gone from our lives now, but we still see significant gaps between groups in our own towns and communities.

One of these challenges that we see in our small college town is the gap between residents and students. We often see both groups have been painted with broad brushes, which I think is not quite fair. Students, on one hand, are seen as noise-making, riot-causing folks who only bring shame to this town. On the other hand, residents are often seen as a group who are annoyance to this college town – they are against anything and everything that has to do with the university and the students.

Similar gaps also remain among different ethnic groups within the residents. Neighbors often point to the change in ethnic demographics as the reason for many issues in the neighborhood. 

As I said many times, I think the only way to bridge these gaps is to bring the groups together. Styaing at a distance and pointing fingers to each other will only widen these gaps.

One way to address these widening gaps is to organize events where we can bring these groups in one place at one time. The College Park day that we helped organize last fall, I think, helped to address that to a certain extent.

Another way to close the gap could be to organize many joint projects together involving these various groups. This has been fairly successful involving students and residents. Both have organized quite a few projects in the past, but I think more can be and should be done.