After the resignation of the entire Montgomery County Planning Board and the firing of Planning Director Gwen Wright, it’s critical that the County Council move quickly to find qualified people to fill the empty seats, former county planning leaders said Thursday.
“Until there is a board and a permanent planning director, everything grinds to a halt because no decisions can be made until the board is in place and ready to conduct public business,” said Gus Bauman, a former Planning Board chair who also ran unsuccessfully for county executive in the 1994 Democratic primary.
Bauman, who served as chair from 1989 to 1993, noted that both the current council and the members who will be elected in the Nov. 8 general election will wield a strong influence in the future of planning in the county because they will be appointing an entirely new Planning Board.
“You have to understand that whoever is chosen for the interim board – some of those people, if not all, could very well be on the permanent board,” said Bauman, who also was the chair of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, the regional land use and parks authority for Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. Planning Board members also serve as M-NCPPC commissioners.
The council announced Wednesday that it had accepted the resignations of all five members of the Planning Board, saying it had lost confidence in the board.
The announcement followed weeks of controversy involving the board, including the reprimand of board Chair Casey Anderson and two commissioners after revelations that Anderson kept a full bar in his office against Planning Department rules, allegations against Anderson about the Planning Department workplace, the board’s abrupt firing last week without cause 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 this week that board Vice Chairman Partap Verma violated ethics laws during recent investigations involving Anderson.
The council accepted the resignations of Anderson, who was in his second term as board chair; Verma; and Commissioners Gerald Cichy, Tina Patterson and Carol Rubin. The resignations were effective immediately, the council said in a press release.
Council Vice President Evan Glass and Council Member Hans Riemer told Bethesda Beat on Wednesday that the council is working to appoint an interim board as soon as possible. The council appoints the board members, known as commissioners, who serve four-year terms. Board members also serve as commissioners of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.
The council is set to select Oct. 25 new temporary acting board commissioners. Applicants with expertise in land use, planning, economic development, transportation, and environmental and park issues are encouraged to apply by the deadline of 5 p.m. Oct. 18, according to a council press release.
In the meantime, the Planning Department will continue its work on major projects such as the Thrive Montgomery 2050 master plan, the proposed update to the county’s general master plan that will guide development for decades, the council said. The council is expected to voter whether to approve the proposed plan later this month.
After the resignations were announced, M-NCPPC announced the cancellation of county Planning Board meetings scheduled for Thursday and Oct. 20. “Agenda items scheduled to be reviewed on those dates will be rescheduled to a later meeting,” said a statement from the commission.
Nancy Floreen, a member of the County Council from 2002 to 2018 and a member of the Planning Board from 1986 to 1990, says that while the Planning Department has a functional staff that can get work done in the meantime, only the Planning Board can act on proposals.
“There are things called subdivision plans and project plans that are on a technical schedule, so that is one thing that they need a Planning Board for,” said Floreen, who ran unsuccessfully for county executive in the 2018 general election.
Bauman, currently the long-time chair of the Infrastructure & Land Use Committee of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, said nothing can be voted upon or approved without a sitting board.
“Applications can be processed by the Planning Department and they will continue their reviews and processing of all applications. It just means there is no board to place them in front of for action,” Bauman said. “No applications, no plans, no policies can be put before a planning board for review, public hearing and action until the council names the Planning Board and swears them in.”
Bauman and Floreen both said it is important to find the right people to fill even interim positions.
“They need to find people who have experience and judgment and the respect of the staff and the community as well as the council,” Bauman said. “There are people in the county who have a deep understanding of the role and functions of the Park and Planning Commission, and understand the need for high staff morale. There are people who possess that knowledge and that background and that experience. I can only expect the County Council will seek those people out as the council makes its appointments.”
Floreen said it is also important to find people who are committed to holding an interim position even if they don’t have the opportunity to stay on permanently.
“We need credible people who understand that this is an interim position. I know there are people interested in planning for the Planning Board, but really are interested in planning for the [permanent] Planning Board position. This is not an easy situation for the council to be in right now,” Floreen said.