Ongoing drama involving the county’s Planning Board and other county officials took another turn this week, thanks to a few state bills sponsored by State Sen. Ben Kramer (D-District 19).
Kramer has drafted bills that impact aspects of how the executive and legislative branches interact with the county’s Planning Board, including the appointment process for commissioners.
County Council Member Andrew Friedson (D-District 1) has publicly called one of the bills a “power grab,” saying it would transfer many land use and planning powers currently vested in the council to the county executive. Jeff Zyontz, the county’s acting Planning Board chair, shares similar concerns.
But Kramer and County Executive Marc Elrich (D) pushed back on those criticisms on Thursday, saying the legislation was meant to improve operations within the Planning Board and Planning Department, and that their concerns stem back much further than any of the recent drama involving the Planning Board.
What led up to this point, and what do Kramer’s bills say?
A lot has happened in recent months between county officials and the county’s Planning Board. Casey Anderson, the former chair of the Planning Board, was found earlier this year to have alcohol in his office and to have allegedly used vulgar language in meetings with staff.
Then, the Planning Board fired Planning Director Gwen Wright in closed session in October. Less than a week after, the County Council asked the entire Planning Board to resign, and planning commissioners did. New temporary members have since been seated.
Kramer introduced two state bills this week related to the state’s Maryland–National Capital Park and Planning Commission, a bi-county agency serving Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. Montgomery Perspective, a local political blog, was first to write about the bills.
One bill would establish a task force to examine the possibility of restructuring the commission. According to the bill, the task force would “study the feasibility of transferring Montgomery County–specific duties of the Maryland–National Capital Park and Planning Commission to the Montgomery County government.” It also would “make recommendations on restructuring the Maryland–National Capital Park and Planning Commission to no longer include Montgomery County.”
It would consist of over a dozen members, ranging from picks from statehouse leaders to appointees from the county executive’s office, county departments and the County Council. The task force would have until Dec. 1, 2024 to submit a report to the county executive, County Council and state leaders from the county’s delegation.
Kramer’s second bill relates to transparency and appointment processes involving the Maryland–National Capital Park and Planning Commission.
It would change the number of votes required by the County Council to confirm commissioners to the Maryland–National Capital Park and Planning Commission from seven to eight — the council will soon be 11 members instead of nine, thanks to a ballot issue passed by county voters in 2020.
It also would require a unanimous vote of the County Council to pick a member over the disapproval of the county executive. Previously, that had been nine members (under the current council, a unanimous vote).
The bill also gives the county executive the ability to appoint the chair of the Planning Board, and chair or vice chair of the Maryland–National Capital Park and Planning Commission (both positions are served by the same person). Broadly speaking, it also would set discipline procedures and powers that allow the council to discipline commissioners or remove them with eight votes, with the approval of the county executive.
What do key players think?
County Council Member Andrew Friedson (D-District 1) called the bill a “power grab” by the county executive’s office earlier this week.
In a follow-up interview, he said that because of how many people on the task force would be picked by the county executive’s office or from offices and county branches working under the executive, it would shift many land use and zoning powers away from the legislative branch, and to the executive branch.
“If we were going to look at changes, I think we should look at changes in a much more even-handed way, not with task forces that are stacked with people who have specific political agendas and who have an outsized view of what their role in land use should be,” Friedson said.
“Is there room to look at whether or not a bi-county agency is the best [way to handle local land use]?” he added. “Sure, and we should have a better way to do that, in a way that’s practicable … but when you start an exercise with its conclusion, and stack the jury with people in your interest, this is not an even-handed approach.”
Kramer and Elrich refuted Friedson’s claims of a “power grab” in separate interviews. Kramer said he has heard from many constituents over the years about inefficiencies in the county’s Planning Board and staff, and that changes need to be made — and that’s what the impetus for the bills are.
He called Friedson’s response a “knee-jerk” reaction that doesn’t look at the heart of what the bills are doing. The MNCPPC has been around for about a century, and perhaps it’s time for elected officials to reconsider the structure to see if tens or hundreds of millions of dollars can be saved — and if so, see if that money can be put to better use, Kramer said.
“What I want to emphasize is that we shouldn’t be ostriches with our heads in the sand and ignore the world around us … I think as legislators, we have a responsibility to look at how we can improve how government functions … and that’s the entirety of what these bills are about,” Kramer said. “It’s, how can we improve services? And that’s as far as it goes … anytime we can save taxpayers money or expedite a process … we should be looking at it.”
Elrich said that he’s heard from developers for several years about how inefficient processes of the county’s Planning Board and MNCPPC. He strongly denied that he was stacking people on the task force to achieve more power in the executive’s office.
Issues with the county’s Planning Board and planning officials have existed long before the recent drama involving prior commissioners, Elrich said. Friedson and Zyontz have not spoken to him about the bills, he added.
“The status quo is broken here … how many people have talked about Virginia, and how [development] has been faster there versus here?” Elrich said about overall development and what the bills try to fix. “It’s not because of what or who controls the Planning Board, it’s what happens beyond the Planning Board.”
Zyontz, however, said after Thursday’s Planning Board meeting that he had concerns about the bills, particularly the one about the task force about restructuring the county’s Planning Board and bi-county commission.
Zyontz and Elrich have been involved in some capacity in local or county politics for multiple decades, political observers have noted during this feud. Zyontz said similar bills on how the commission is structured have occurred about every five years. He still has concerns about how the bills would impact hundreds of employees in the county’s Planning Department.
“There is a structure that the state set up in 1927 to create a separate commission,” Zyontz said of the history of the MNCPPC. “To undo that is a dramatic event that will be traumatic to the people here, so that’s what I’m focused on.”
Since the bills are state legislation, they need to go through the legislative process in Annapolis, given that they’re introduced in January.
Both the State Senate and House of Delegates need to pass any bill before it reaches Gov.-elect Wes Moore’s desk. Zyontz said he looks forward to fielding questions about the bills from stakeholders in the coming weeks. Elrich and Kramer said they’re prepared to explain the need for the legislation to other elected officials and the public.
The County Council will not vote on the bills, but will have input on them. Evan Glass, the incoming Council President (D-At-large)— given tradition and norms that the vice president ascends to the presidency the following year — said he wants to learn more about intent from Kramer and advocates.
“Rather than accepting Council Member Friedson’s take on the legislation, I would prefer to speak directly with its sponsor, and I’m withholding any opinion until I speak with him,” Glass said. “But I think we should have a public conversation about the [Maryland–National Capital Park and] Planning Commission, and whether there needs to be any modernization.”
The new County Council will be sworn in on Dec. 5. The county’s delegates and senators begin their work in Annapolis on Jan. 11.