The county's Planning Board, part of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, meets on Dec. 1, 2022. Credit: Steve Bohnel

The County Council signaled its opposition of two state bills proposed by State Sen. Ben Kramer (D-Dist. 19) on Monday, in a fiery meeting where Kramer interrupted council members multiple times, but ultimately was unable to convince them to support his proposals.

Kramer’s bills focus on the state’s Maryland–National Capital Park and Planning Commission, a bi-county agency serving Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. He loudly criticized what he called mischaracterizations of the bills, and what they aim to accomplish. Council Members were unconvinced, and in turn condemned his lack of professionalism during the meeting. 

One of Kramer’s bills 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.”

The Council voted 10-1 to oppose recommending that the Montgomery County’s state delegation should support that bill. Council Member Laurie-Anne Sayles (D-At-large) was the lone vote against that decision. 

Kramer said Monday that the bill’s intentions have been misrepresented, including by Council Member Andrew Friedson (D-Dist. 1), who called Kramer’s bills a “power grab” for the executive branch. 

Monday’s meeting was, at times, contentious. Kramer interrupted council members at multiple points, including Council President Evan Glass (D-At-large). Kramer said that he would not be “bullied” for defending the merits of the bills, and asked each council member to review the task force bill to see where it was explicitly stated that it would shift land use authority from the County Council to the county executive’s office. 

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The point of the bill, Kramer argued, was to look at an institution that is nearly a century old and see if there are ways for it to better serve the community. 

“The task force can change nothing, nothing in law!” Kramer said at one point. 

Many council members were not convinced. 

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One of them was Natali Fani-Gonzalez (D-Dist. 6), who served as former vice chair of the county’s Planning Board. Fani-Gonzalez said that the task force bill would create further stress on the M-NCPPC’s staff, especially given the last year.

In October, the County Council asked the entire Planning Board to resign, after multiple scandals were uncovered at the Planning Department. Casey Anderson, the former Planning Board chair, had alcohol in his office, and allegedly used vulgar language in staff meetings.

But Fani-Gonzalez said that Kramer’s bills would not solve underlying problems.

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“While the most recent Planning Board had its problems, that was with individual members, not the structure itself … This is the first week having this as a council member, and having this now after all the trauma that just happened, it’s really heartbreaking. We’re better than this,” Fani-Gonzalez said.

Friedson and Will Jawando (D-At-large) verbally sparred with Kramer multiple times during Monday’s meeting. But although he opposed the bill, he agreed with the idea that the M-NCPPC should be reviewed. 

“I don’t think the way you comported yourself today was the appropriate way to do so, and I actually am sympathetic to the bill,” Jawando said. “I think … there are no sacred cows here, we should re-evaluate 100-year-old institutions. And I think it would be more appropriate for us to look into it, and work with the state.”

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Glass said Monday’s discussion would only be one of many about M-NCPPC’s overall role.

Jeff Zyontz, acting chair of the county’s Planning Board, said in an interview that this isn’t the first time that legislation has tried to break up the commission. He said he had two inches of documents with the background history of those attempts.

“Those reports have said the commission is worth keeping,” Zyontz said of his research and documents. “Now, whatever the council would like to do, we’ll try to help them along.” 

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The commission does, however, merit further review, and he said he welcomed Glass’ recommendation to have further discussions.

The County Council voted 11-0 against recommending Kramer’s second bill, which involves transparency and appointment processes involving the M-NCPPC.

Kramer had left by the time that legislation was discussed, but council members said they had concerns about certain aspects of the bill, including allowing the county executive to appoint the chair or vice chair of the commission. Balcombe said there would be “geographic issues” if one person were allowed to appoint the county’s Planning Board chair, instead of the current 11 council members.

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“I can’t imagine going from 11 people to one identifying who that Planning Board chair [is], I don’t think my geographic needs would be considered,” Balcombe said. 

Public hearings for both bills are scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 15.