Natali Fani-Gonzalez Credit: via Natali Fani-Gonzalez's campaign website

The County Council this morning named Natali Fani-Gonzalez to a vacant slot on the Montgomery County Planning Board, making her the first Latino to serve on the body that steers local land use decisions.

But the council’s unanimous vote masked nearly two weeks of behind the scenes jockeying over the appointment, during which council members were said to be privately split between appointing Fani-Gonzalez, a Kensington resident who runs her own public relations firms, and Dennis Kamber of Poolesville, a veteran civil engineer.

During interviews of four finalists for the job last month, Kamber was said to have impressed council members with his professional background – which included prior dealings with the planning board – and his grasp of key land use and planning issues facing the county. By comparison, Fani-Gonzalez, in her interview session, readily acknowledged that she lacked experience in planning and zoning. All but a small handful of appointees to the board in recent years have had a prior background in dealing with these issues.

However, a desire by the council to increase the ethnic and generational balance on the planning board appears to have ultimately won out. With Fani-Gonzalez’s appointment, two of the five board members will be members of minority groups; the current vice chair, Marye Wells-Harley of Silver Spring, is African-American.

In addition, the appointment of Fani-Gonzalez – who turns 34 later this month – adds a member of the millennial generation to the planning board, at a time when the county is eager to attract millennials to grow its future tax base.

“Natali, I think, is a special candidate, and for me represents the changing Montgomery County,” Councilmember Hans Riemer told his colleagues after the vote. “I think she will do a great job keeping us in tune with the newer generation and newer residents of the county, who are so important to our vitality. I’m excited about this direction for our planning efforts.”

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Fani-Gonzalez will serve a term through mid-2018 in a part-time position that pays $30,000 annually, and involves, on average, a couple of days of work per week. In addition to reviewing and approving the detailed plans submitted by private developers, the board’s numerous responsibilities include crafting changes to the “master plans” that govern growth and development in areas throughout the county.

Prior to the interview sessions with finalists for the planning board vacancy two weeks ago, Fani-Gonzalez had emerged as an early favorite for the appointment, picking up support from both local business and environmental groups – including the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, the Maryland Building Industry Association, the Montgomery County chapter of the Sierra Club, and the Montgomery Countryside Alliance.

Fani-Gonzalez, who unsuccessfully sought a nomination for state delegate from District 18 in this year’s Democratic primary, also had the backing of Casa de Maryland, for whom she formerly worked as a lobbyist. Casa’s interest in having an ally on the Planning Board comes at a time when the organization, which advocates on behalf of Latino and immigrant groups, is concerned about the impact on these groups from development along the Purple Line, a light rail system scheduled to begin construction next year.

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Fani-Gonzalez’s name was placed in nomination today by Councilmember George Leventhal, who sources said had worked actively behind the scenes to secure her appointment. Leventhal, a strong Purple Line supporter, lost the support of Casa in this year’s Democratic primary over issues related to the Purple Line, and his backing of Fani-Gonzalez was seen by insiders as an effort to mend fences. Leventhal is among several council members regarded as a potential contender for county executive in 2018.

Speaking in both Spanish and English after the appointment was confirmed, Leventhal paid tribute to Fani-Gonzalez as well as fellow Councilmember Nancy Navarro, both of whom are immigrants from Venezuela. “I want to congratulate Natali, who will represent all residents of Montgomery County well, but also, I want to congratulate the Latino community on this significant milestone,” Leventhal declared.

Of 25 applicants for the planning board vacancy, council members brought in two other finalists for interviews besides Fani-Gonzalez and Kamber: Charles Kauffman of Bethesda, an attorney who serves on the county’s commission on aging, and Victor Weissberg of Silver Spring, a long-time Democratic Party activist and transportation specialist who now works for the Prince George’s County Department of Public Works. One finalist, Mohammad Siddique of Montgomery Village, a telecommunications engineer, withdrew his name before the interviews were conducted.

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The vacancy to be filled by Fani-Gonzalez was created when former Planning Board Chair Francoise Carrier left office this past summer. Casey Anderson, who was already serving on the board, was then designated as the new chair, a full-time position with a $200,000 annual salary. That still left the board short a member.

Former Planning Board member Meredith Wellington, a Chevy Chase resident, was among the finalists interviewed for the chair’s slot that went to Anderson; she subsequently expressed interest in the latest vacancy. But Wellington was not among those included in the latest round of interviews two weeks ago.

Sources said that Wellington did not attract sufficient support from council members to be included in the most recent interviews. It generally requires a significant minority of the council – three to four of the nine members – for a Planning Board applicant to be designated a finalist and brought in for an interview.

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It remains unclear why Wellington failed to obtain this level of support in the latest round. But several sources suggested it may arise from her political ties to Councilmember Marc Elrich, who irritated several of his at-large council colleagues by endorsing challenger Beth Daly during this year’s Democratic primary.