COLLEGE PARK, Md. —
It’s Thursday morning at the Starbucks in College Park– perhaps the main thoroughfare for college students in this 30,000-person city. He walks in quickly. If you’re not looking up at the time, you’ll miss him. A hand shoots out.
“Morning, Mayor,” says a man from a lounge chair.
“Hey, how are ya doin?” says Fellows.
Mayor Andrew Fellows’ profile picture on the city website belies, what in real life, is a more cordial face. It takes me a minute to recognize him. Today he has agreed to meet me for one of the first interviews since he won reelection in early November. We meet at a table by the window.
To the uninformed, myself included, what are the executive powers of mayors of small city municipalities like College Park?
Mayor Fellows: Almost none. This a council-manager form of government which means that the city council sets policy. I have a vote on council matters but only if it’s a tie. Then we have a city manager (that’s the manager part of council manager) who is full-time– basically who runs the city, and implements the policy that we settle. I appoint the mayor pro-temp. There are a number of committees that I appoint people to. Council members appoint people to those committees as well. It’s not really my authority, but it’s my ability to meet with leaders. When I was sworn in I said that I wanted to improve the relationship with the University of Maryland and also with Prince George’s County. So I spend a chunk of time meeting with people and talking with people about ways we could work together and improve relationships. So, I’m a little bit of an ambassador for College Park.
Does it pay?
Mayor Fellows: Yeah. I’m currently being payed $7,500 a year. It’s not a very livable wage. I, along with the rest of city workers, just got a raise so I’m going to be paid, starting next year at $10,500.
Is it a full-time gig?
Mayor Fellows: No. It’s part-time. My full-time job is being the regional director for Clean Water Action.
Could you tell me a little about your work there?
Mayor Fellows: Clean Water Action is a national organization. We have about a million members around the country. I coordinate our program in Delaware, Maryland, the District of Columbia and Virginia. Our mission is both to make democracy work and get people involved in the decision-making process on environmental issues, and also to implement the Clean Water Act, which is to make the water of the United States more fishable and to make sure there’s safe and affordable drinking water. It’s partly political because we do endorsements and we do election work, and it’s also education and outreach.
It seems College Park is a bit of a hotbed for non-profit environmental work, especially with the Maryland Chapter of the Sierra Club right upstairs from us in this building. Did that activity and organizing attract you to the city in the first place?
Mayor Fellows: It’s part of being a college town where those types of groups tend to be here. In a sense it did attract me. But then again I didn’t really work in environmental work at first. I worked at Citizen Action, which did do environmental work but they worked with other issues as well. I’ve attempted to make it a point not to bring my Clean Water agenda to being the mayor at College Park, but it overlaps in the sense that I’m a green mayor. I’m an environmentally minded mayor. So I want to encourage as much sustainability as possible.
What are some of the ways you’re doing that?
Mayor Fellows: We, not just me, but the whole environmental community is really working to make the Anacostia watershed a restoration priority. University of Maryland and College Park are sort of in the heart of the watershed. So there are lots of thing to do here.
Are there any specifics to that agenda?
Mayor Fellows: As you may know, University of Maryland has created a very ambitious carbon-footprint reduction and sustainability plan. That’s a multi-faceted approach.
Here in city of College Park, I’m a founding mayor of Sustainable Cities and am a Sustainable Maryland mayor. That’s an effort with Maryland Municipal League for municipalities to work with environmental and green issues. that includes improving recycling, reducing our pollution in air or water, doing low-impact development, doing energy efficiency, reducing energy use, and getting people engaged. We have a group that’s called the Green Team and we have a group called the Committee for Better Environment.
What are some of the challenges that are unique to College Park instead of other D.C suburban municipalities?
Mayor Fellows: I think the unique opportunity we have, and in some ways the challenges, is being home to the flagship campus to the state of Maryland. Because of that we have a lot of count-down issues. Sometimes it’s the tension of people who are renting and living short-term and maybe have a different lifestyle than their neighbors: partying and noise.That’s a lot of what the Quality of Life Workgroup does is address some of those issues.
But also with planning, transportation, and economic development issues. The university has a lot of power and the city does’t have final authority on land use; the county does. So, our focus is on coordinating our efforts with the university and the county to make sure that we’re working together.
What are some of your personal challenges that you’ve faced since 2009 when you first became mayor?
Mayor Fellows: My personal challenge is probably time. I end up working 60 or 70 hours a week. And it’s work I love doing. So it’s figuring out, ‘how do I prioritize and get things done in a way that’s effective, but doesn’t drive me crazy?’ Laughs.
Also… being patient– which is somewhat of a strength of mine because I’m a pretty patient guy–but some things don’t happen overnight or really quickly. The most sustainable things are the ones where people take a lot of community ownership or a lot of people involved in the project to get people going together. It’s bottom up and not top down. And that also takes time.
What are you proud of having accomplished?
Mayor Fellows: Well a lot of the university faculty don’t live here in town and so one of the things that we recognize for the university to be more sustainable is having them living closer to the university so that they can bike or walk to work. The reason they don’t is education. The public schools of Prince George’s County don’t have a good reputation, so education has always been a top priority of mine. But the city of College Park didn’t run education. We do now that we are helping to run a new charter school called College Park Academy that just opened this fall.
To me that’s a really concrete accomplishment of getting the university, the city, and the county to work together to improve public education opportunities for kids.
How many students?
Mayor Fellows: I think it’s around 300 students now, but will be 700 eventually because they’re going to keep opening grades up. Right now it’s on Adelphi Road just outside the campus. It’s in a former catholic school called St. Mark’s School. We will be creating a full-time location for the College Park Academy, but we’re still in the process of doing that.
Where does affordable housing rank on the list of the city’s priorities?
Mayor Fellows: It’s pretty high but affordable housing is one of those issues that’s mostly related to students. Of course, that’s not true in a lot of parts of Prince George’s County. I think for us in College Park, we’ve got a pretty good amount of diversity of income and affordable housing. We imposed rent control and rent stabilization to address what we felt were student being ripped off by landlords who were charging really high rates. A lot of the parents of students can afford high rates. So the rents around here in the group houses were going up. So we did two things: one, we put rent stabilization in place, and then we went to war with the landlords which took a while to get going.
When it did happen, what were some of the provisions of your rent control?
Mayor Fellows: You could only raise the rent a certain percentage of the value of the property.
Are student advocacy groups active on this front?
Mayor Fellows: The Student Government Organization and the Graduate Student Government have somewhat engaged in housing issues. Their big issue is getting more housing. Because, the market says, in theory, that if you have enough housing, the prices will come down because of supply and demand.
Where does smart growth fit into all of this?
Mayor Fellows: Smart growth for me is the more we can build around transit areas, areas with transportation infrastructure, so that people aren’t as dependent on cars. And for us it’s working. We’re actually decreasing the amount of vehicle trips on Route 1 because of the fact that students living so close to campus don’t have to drive to campus, which reduces cars on the road.
Okay, let’s switch gears and talk about the real hard-hitting stuff here. What’s the strangest thing a constituent has ever said to you?
Mayor Fellows: Furrows brow, thinking. Well, the first thing that comes to my mind… I’m not really sure if it’s strange, but it’s strange to me. We put up speed cameras a few years ago, and sure enough people got caught speeding. But I was amazed that people would call me up, the mayor, and complain about being caught for speeding. Basically, their attitude was, “How dare you put up a speed camera ad how dare you fine me for breaking the law.” It was so weird to me.
Ok. Another whopper here: how similar is your political life to that of the mayor in the HBO series, The Wire.
Mayor Fellows: Oh, I love that show. And not at all.
Fair enough. Are you friends with any of the other Maryland mayors?
Mayor Fellows: I’m friends with a lot of mayors.
Do you all have poker night?
Mayor Fellows: We do not play poker. I play poker, but not with other mayors.
Who’s your favorite?
Mayor Fellows: My favorite mayors?
Yes, do you have any?
Mayor Fellows: Yes. But I think it would make sense just to say I love all of the mayors.
A little like picking a sibling, I suppose. Have you been following the governor’s race in Maryland? Specifically, the drama and theatre with The Post’s articles on Attorney General Doug Gansler?
Mayor Fellows: Yes, I have been following it.
Mayor Fellows: No. Well I think it’s politics in a unique way. I was going to say politics as usual, but every campaign is different. This campaign seems to have an unusual amount of drama in it. I don’t know if it will continue but it’s been an interesting campaign so far. I kind of love politics, I’ve been doing it for quite some time now. One thing that I’m really impressed with was just the pure theatre or drama, which is what made The Wire so interesting.
The interest value in being engaged politically is really a good thing for us. People who care about making the world a better place and who think about how we make it interesting. And sometimes it’s very clearly interesting. But sometimes it’s less clear, with long boring meetings. But when you look at the big picture, it’s a huge issue. And local politics really does have a relationship to state politics, state politics have a relationship to national politics, and national politics have a relationship with the world. We’re lucky in the United States to have the opportunity to be as politically engaged as we can.