This story was updated at 1 p.m. on Feb. 7, 2022, to correct a reference to the agency that investigated claims of inadequate lobbyist registration regulations.
Two local government planning entities are revising their policies following criticism that the organizations didn’t enforce lobbyist registration requirements or provide clear access to some virtual meetings.
Montgomery County Council President Gabe Albornoz last week sent a letter to Casey Anderson — who leads the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission and is chairman of the Montgomery County Planning Board — outlining concerns that he said “creates the impression that the Planning Board’s procedures are lacking in transparency and participation.”
In response to the letter on Thursday, Anderson said the Planning Board is implementing several changes, including updating and enforcing its lobbying disclosure requirements, beginning to live stream certain meetings and “clarifying” some rules about public testimony.
“We take transparency and openness seriously, and whenever anyone points out gaps, we don’t hesitate to make improvements,” Anderson said, adding that the changes should be in place “within the next week or two.”
Albornoz’s letter said that in November, Del. Al Carr (D-Kensington) filed a complaint with Maryland’s Open Meetings Compliance Board alleging that the Planning Board’s Development Review Committee violated the law by “failing to provide the public sufficient information to access meetings online.”
In a Jan. 3 opinion, the compliance board agreed and ruled that the meetings must be recorded and that clearer information must be posted on the planning website about how to access the meetings in real time.
The ruling said that the committee was in violation of the law because it did not keep meeting minutes prior to March 2020 and did not provide enough information about how to access its virtual meetings in real time.
The Development Review Committee meetings, which moved to a virtual format during the COVID-19 pandemic, include planning department staff and others, who meet with the applicants before plans are presented to the Planning Board.
Anderson said that in response to the compliance board’s ruling, the meetings are now being live streamed. He added that Planning Board members are not allowed to participate in those meetings, which are led by people from other agencies.
The letter also said that the M-NCPPC Office of the Inspector General recently found that the M-NCPPC lacked adequate lobbyist registration regulations. It said that the inspector general confirmed “the lack of lobbyist registrations” and recommended that the commission “immediately implement registration procedures while completing a review of its policy.”
Anderson said that state law has required a lobbyist registration system for 39 years, but “no Planning Board implemented it, and no one has ever asked.” He said that’s likely because state and county lobbying registration rules “require overlapping information” and “because everyone who testifies before the Planning Board is asked who they represent when they sign up to speak.”
Regardless, he said, the department will implement a new registration system as soon as the website is rebuilt to include it.
The third problem raised in Albornoz’s letter concerned the public testimony process at Planning Board meetings.
Albornoz said he believes items listed on the Planning Board’s “consent agenda” fit the “legal definition of a ‘major amendment’ on its Consent Agenda and would therefore legally require a public hearing.” But, he continued, consent agenda items do not require public hearings, and it is not clear in the board’s procedures that people can sign up to testify about those items.
Anderson said that the “consent agenda is for uncontroversial items” and anyone who wants to testify about something on the consent agenda can request it be moved to the regular agenda. Then, they can testify about it.
“We are clarifying our rules to make this as straightforward as possible,” Anderson said.
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at email@example.com