From left: Planning Board candidates Paul Gaiser, Mitra Pedoeem, Donald Silverstein, Leanne Tobias, and Brian O'Looney are interviewed for Planning Board seats at a County Council meeting earlier this month. Credit: Steve Bohnel

Four candidates applying for an unaffiliated seat on Montgomery County Planning Board told the County Council on Tuesday that the board must work to improve transparency and outreach to residents and also review the county’s zoning codes in order to make development and planning more effective.

In addition to the four candidates, the council also interviewed Brian O’Looney for a Democratic seat on the board. The council will interview other Democratic candidates on Feb. 14. It is expected to select a Republican, a Democrat and an unaffiliated voter to fill a total of three vacancies by the end of February.

All four unaffiliated candidates have extensive experience regarding real estate, civil engineering and related planning issues. They are:

  • Paul Gaiser, an architect at Landis Architects/Buildings in Washington, D.C.;
  • Mitra Pedoeem, the county’s former director of permitting services, who also has worked for various county departments, and the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission;
  • Donald Silverstein, a civil engineer at Blake Real Estate Co. Inc. in the District; and
  • Leanne Tobias, a local real estate and land use consultant who specializes in environmentally friendly buildings.

Council President Evan Glass (D-At-large) and his colleagues peppered the four applicants with questions about what they view as the most pressing issues facing the Planning Board and Planning Department staff, and what qualities they’re looking for in the next planning director.

The county’s Planning Board is in charge of appointing a new director of the county’s Planning Department. Gwen Wright, the last director, was fired in October 2022 by the Planning Board, after a series of controversial events that began with the news in mid-September that former Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson had a full bar of alcoholic beverages in his office, a violation of county rules.

Less than a week after Wright was fired, the council asked the entire five-member Planning Board to resign, and its commissioners did so. Council members have since appointed temporary board members, and they are in the process of appointing three members to longer terms: a Democrat, Republican, and an unaffiliated member.


County law requires that no more than three commissioners of the Planning Board can be members of the same political party. That means that three of the five can be Democrats.

Tanya Stern, who served as deputy director under Wright, has been serving as acting director since her firing.

On Tuesday, council members asked the candidates how they would work to restore trust with the public, given the controversy over Thrive Montgomery 2050—the county’s new general master plan approved by the council in October —and the recent controversies.


In response to the question about pressing issues facing the board, Peodeem commended the efforts of Del. Lesley Lopez (D-Dist. 39) to get the county executive’s office to meet with the Planning Department and other partners to review the development review process. Pedoeem said she had suggested the idea to other county officials months earlier, and that the workgroup’s efforts must be respected and valued over the coming months.

Silverstein said the most time-sensitive matter facing the new board is the implementation of Thrive Montgomery 2050, particularly initiatives to increase the amount of affordable housing and address traffic issues. Tobias, who initially opposed the plan before it was adopted, conceded that its implementation must be thoughtfully executed. She mentioned the change in land use throughout the county, including more vacant retail and office space following the COVID-19 pandemic.

She also said that the board needs to avoid violating the state’s Open Meetings Act, which has happened in recent years. MoCo360 previously reported that there were revisions to the Planning Board’s practices, related to lobbyist registration requirements and clear access to some virtual meetings.


“We want the public to be confident that open meetings laws are followed scrupulously … and that the planning process is more accessible to the community,” Tobias said.

Gaiser said improving community outreach and restoring confidence in the board are important. Finding the right person to replace someone as experienced as former Planning Director Gwen Wright—who was fired last October by the Planning Board in closed session — is vital as well, he said.

Gaiser also said that county laws and zoning codes must be tweaked to make some development easier — particularly when it comes to expanding the use of accessory dwelling units (ADUs). He added, however, that the county should also adopt changes that make it harder for developers to tear down trees for building projects, especially in residential areas.


The candidates agreed there is a need to restore trust in the board and Planning Department. Silverstein said that good behavior and actions in public meetings will help to restore that trust.

“If the board is unable to accommodate comments from the community, we need to tell them why,” he said.

Pedoeem said the board and planning staff should continue to meet in person and online to increase public participation and should visit communities to reach people where they are. She also noted that planning documents can be difficult for laypeople to understand.


“A lot of time, we give information that is hard for the public to understand,” Pedoeem said.

Gaiser suggested allowing more time for public comment at meetings and noted that  board members and planning staff should make sure to follow local and state ethics laws and avoid conflicts of interest.