By Jon Meoli, firstname.lastname@example.org
9:56 PM EST, December 5, 2011
David Marks’ steady routine involves beginning of his day at his downtown Towson council office before heading home to Perry Hall at 2:30 p.m. to get his children off the bus.
Then, after enjoying dinner with his family, it’s often back to Towson for a community association meeting or event in the other part of his district.
This past Friday, though, the first-term councilman’s morning and mid-afternoon commutes were shorter — he enjoyed weekly office hours in Perry Hall. But he was still back on the road at night, heading to Towson for another night of smiles and handshakes as he attended an Idlewylde Community Association party to help hand out awards recognizing the community volunteers.
Such is life for the Republican councilman from Perry Hall, who in the year since his inauguration in December 2010 has worked to build relationships in heavily Democratic Towson, where he won just one precinct in the 2010 election.
“I made a very conscious effort to spend a lot of energy addressing problems that I thought had been ignored for too long,” Marks said.
“Towson … has a level of sophistication and neighborhood organization that you don’t find in many other places,” he said. “It expects elected officials to be attentive and responsive, and I’ve certainly done my best to live up to that measure.”
Indeed, several Towson community leaders believe the hallmark of Marks’ first year in office is the relationship he has built with their communities.
“(That’s) the way to wrap up his first year,” said David Kosak, president of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations. “I think the best testament to the success is not necessarily in the accomplishments, but the fact that there weren’t problems created.
“I think we have great communication to point to as a sign of how well the partnership has worked.”
Similarly, Idlewylde Community Association President Tom Lattanzi, whose meeting Marks attended Friday, said his community is “ecstatic” with Marks so far.
“We have been blessed over the years with really good County Council members, but this guy really goes out of his way,” Lattanzi said. “He lets us know ahead of time what’s happening with respect to various things in the community that would affect us, and we’re grateful for that.”
Such involvement in the community has been a priority for Marks, who while insisting that his efforts only enhance the larger causes championed by community and business leaders past and present, said he does not think he could have been more visible in Towson over the last year.
He readily cited the installation of trees and sidewalks in Burkleigh Square, his support of the historic designation in Anneslie, his help with code enforcement in Rodgers Forge, and tree replacement in West Towson and Riderwood Hills as examples of the “mundane” but “very important” issues that consume most of every councilman’s day.
“Every one of us has big goals, dreams we want to pursue, but you spend a lot of time on the little issues that are fundamentally important to the people we represent,” Marks said.
Almost like a mayor?
In his first year, Marks points to two such “big goals” that he primarily focused on: school overcrowding and the revitalization of downtown Towson.
“The day after I was inaugurated, I went before the school board to argue in support of the expansion of Hampton Elementary School,” Marks said. “Two months later, there were mothers from Stoneleigh Elementary School in my office asking how their problems could be solved.”
The results of those two particular cases can already been seen.
Hampton’s addition is under way, while the recent decision to hold Stoneleigh’s 2012-2013 school year in the soon-to-be-vacant Carver Center for the Arts and Technology while Stoneleigh is renovated signals confidence that funding will be made available for that project to begin next summer.
“David has been a phenomenal resource,” said Juliet Fisher, a mother of two Stoneleigh students. “He’s been so incredibly involved in the process.
“I don’t think we’d be where we are at with Stoneleigh today without a lot of people, but he’s a very important one.”
Marks was quick to point out that it was a collaborative effort between himself, Towson’s state legislators and County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, not to mention the dogged lobbying of Fisher and other Stoneleigh parents.
“Within one year, they were able to get an addition almost completely advanced at that elementary school,” Marks said. “The Stoneleigh Elementary School addition is something that epitomizes the involvement and sophistication of residents in Towson.”
Revitalizing the downtown Towson area, though it has long been one of his goals, is one for which the returns may not be seen for a while.
“Before I was elected, one of my predecessors, County Councilman Doug Riley, told me that Towson needed someone almost to act like a mayor,” Marks said. “They needed someone to champion the rebirth of downtown Towson, and that’s what I’ve tried to do.”
Earlier this year, the council passed two pieces of legislation that Marks drafted to help spur downtown development.
One accelerates the county review process for downtown development projects, while the other codified the Urban Design Principles, which residents and businesses collaborated on to create guidelines for future projects in Towson.
Towson Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Nancy Hafford, whom Marks credited with helping bring people back to the downtown area, said the councilman is “very positive and very motivated.”
“I think he’s doing a really good job,” Hafford said. “I know everybody would like to see 100 new businesses move into the Towson core, but it’s challenging right now.”
Bumps in the road
Perhaps in his zeal to lure businesses back to downtown Towson, Marks found himself in one of his few major conflicts with the Towson community.
At the request of the Towson City Center developers, Marks submitted a bill that relaxed the county’s regulation for building signage in downtown Towson.
Despite opposition from the GTCCA on the grounds that it bypassed the variance process and could lead to excessive downtown signage, the bill was passed Oct. 17.
“In retrospect, I should have tabled the legislation,” Marks said.
Ultimately, Marks took an “extraordinary step in response to community concerns” and submitted a new bill to clarify the restrictions that the developers and the community could agree on.
“It’s just a matter of working through the process as it’s normally designed,” Kosak said. “The sign bill in particular has shown how the relationship has worked over time, and how we’ve grown to work together.”
Marks found himself in another tight spot with some community members regarding the councilmanic redistricting plan created to reflect 2010 census data.
The five-member redistricting commission, appointed by the council, recommended several east Towson neighborhoods — including Loch Hill and Glendale-Glenmont — be moved to the 6th District, which extends to Middle River and is currently represented by Councilwoman Cathy Bevins.
From the time residents spoke at an Aug. 1 hearing before the County Council to the vote two months later, Tony Gross, president of the Loch Hill Community Association, said Marks was “great.”
Gross said the councilman was in communication about what he planned to do and delivered assurances that he would make adjustments to the map.
But despite his efforts, Marks couldn’t drum up support among council members and ultimately decided not to submit his amendment. The commission’s recommendations were passed, and those communities were carved out of the 5th District.
“That’s what rubbed the community the wrong way,” Gross said. “To me, it would have been a better position for him to submit it and get it turned down by the other council members than not submit it at all. Then, the community wouldn’t think you didn’t keep your word.”
Marks contends that he kept his word and did his “very best” to keep the precinct in his district, but said he’s one of seven votes on the council and “not a miracle worker.”
“There are relationships on the County Council, and I didn’t think that putting my colleagues on the spot for a symbolic defeat was the right thing to do,” Marks said.
Since the vote that jettisoned the East Towson neighborhoods from the 5th District, Gross said Marks has “held out the olive branch.”
Both Marks and Bevins have since been to a meeting of the Loch Hill Community, and Marks said the affected neighborhoods will have two council members championing its causes going forward.
But for those who will be represented by Marks in the coming years, the councilman hopes that the seeds of communication sewn in his first year will pay bigger dividends in the years to come.
The councilman points to projects both large and small, such as a the quadrennial rezoning process, establishing a community plan for the Satyr Hill area of Towson and creating a dog park in Rodgers Forge, as his top priorities for the coming year
Kosak hopes Marks will collaborate with the GTCCA on several initiatives, including building a better relationship with Towson University under incoming president Maravane Loeschke and developing the “Golden Triangle” between West Burke Ave, York Road and West Towsontown Boulevard.