Several local advocacy groups are demanding that the County Council delay the hiring of temporary or permanent Planning Board members until the county can conduct a third-party investigation into the activity of both the board and the Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission.
About 20 members of the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition, Parents’ Coalition of Montgomery County, EPIC Montgomery County, and the Poor People’s Campaign gathered Wednesday afternoon outside the County Council Office Building in Rockville to voice their displeasure with the activity of the Planning Board and the M-NCPPC and the groups’ opposition to the Thrive Montgomery 2050 plan, a proposed update to the county’s general master plan that the council is expected to vote upon Tuesday.
“Yesterday we sent a letter to the White House and the [U.S.] attorney general asking them to place Parks and Planning under receivership,” said Marsha Coleman-Adebayo of the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition. “We don’t believe that Montgomery County is willing or able to engage in a legitimate process around the Planning Board.”
The council is scheduled Tuesday to interview finalists to serve as temporary Planning Board members after accepting last week the resignations of the entire board including Chair Casey Anderson and members Gerald Cichy, Tina Patterson, Carol Rubin and Partap Verma.
The council said it had lost confidence in the board folllowing weeks of controversy including the reprimand of Anderson and two commissioners after revelations that he kept a full bar in his office against Planning Department rules; allegations against Anderson about the Planning Department workplace; the board’s abrupt firing this month of longtime Planning Director Gwen Wright, who had led the department since mid-2013 and was set to retire; and a published report of new allegations that Verma violated ethics laws during recent investigations involving Anderson.
More than 120 county residents have applied for the posts, including former Planning Board members, local officials and community activists. The council is expected to appoint the temporary members while a new council, to be elected in the Nov. 8 general election, will appoint permanent members to four-year terms.
The Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition is opposed to the way the Planning Board and M-NCPPC have handled an ongoing dispute over the preservation of the land where the Moses Macedonia African Cemetery once stood, thought to be on the parcel that houses the Westwood Tower Apartments at 5401 Westbard Ave. M-NCPPC is comprised of the members of the planning boards of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.
“The Montgomery County government has known for very long time that the Planning Board is corrupt” and does not consider community input, Coleman-Adebayo said. “So we now believe that it’s time for the federal government to step in.”
County Council Legislative Information Officer Sonya Healy said the council received a letter from the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition Friday. She provided the following statement from council President Gabe Albornoz:
“I understand the passionate advocacy from the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition to stop the pending sale of Moses Macedonia African Cemetery, and this case has been ongoing in the courts for many years. This litigation and moving forward with establishing continuity at the Montgomery County Planning Board are two separate and distinct issues,” Albornoz said.
“The designation of temporary acting officials is a longstanding and necessary part of government operations. Maryland law supports the Council’s actions to move forward with temporarily filling the Planning Board vacancies to enable government to function. I want to assure the public that the Council takes all workplace allegations seriously and allegations have been referred to the appropriate entities for investigation,” Albornoz said.
The group’s primary demands are for the council to halt the hiring of any members of the Planning Board or planning staff, to reimagine how planning works in the county, and to conduct a third-party investigation of the Planning Board and M-NCPPC.
“There is no rush, there is no immediate need to impanel the new commissioners,” Coleman-Adebayo said.
Throughout Wednesday’s event, participants voiced their skepticism of the job performance of Anderson, who was serving his second term as Planning Board chair. When asked about County Executive Marc Elrich’s vocal opposition to Thrive 2050 and his calls to delay the council’s vote, Coleman-Adebayo said she thinks Elrich is backing up his comments now that there is more opposition to Thrive.
“Marc Elrich said that he’s opposed to Thrive. But for the last seven years [Elrich] has done absolutely nothing to curtail the power of the Planning Board,” she said. “He renewed Casey Anderson’s contract, so that tells you just how much he really was opposed to what was going on in the planning department as well as Thrive.” In fact, the council hold the authority to appoint or dismiss Planning Board members.
Members of the Parents’ Coalition of Montgomery County said they are concerned that the temporary Planning Board members appointed by the council could then be appointed permanently to the posts.
“Let’s see the County Council follow the law and set the example they want the next Planning Board to follow because simply going rogue tells the next Planning Board members that they can go and do whatever they want to,” Parents’ Coalition member Janis Sartucci said.
The Parents’ Coalition is a group that typically focuses on issues related to public schools.
Green Party of Maryland gubernatorial candidate Nancy Wallace also attended the event in support of the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition.
“I think we need to turn away from the power and dominance of the past 100 years that has disenfranchised the Black community. We need to reach out with caring and compassion and rebuild our society with connection and in our communities. And that means being honest about what’s happened in the past. Montgomery County in fact was a breeding ground for slaves,” Wallace said.