The County Council interviewed finalists Tuesday for temporary seats on the Planning Board. Credit: Ginny Bixby

Eleven candidates for five temporary seats on the Montgomery County Planning Board on Tuesday shared their work experience and views on regaining the public’s trust during interviews with the County Council.

The council is seeking temporary acting board members after accepting the resignations of former Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson and board members Gerald Cichy, Tina Patterson, Carol Rubin and Partap Verma on Oct. 12. The council accepted the resignations, saying it had lost confidence in the board after weeks of controversy involving its members. More than 128 county residents applied to the council for the vacant seats and 11 finalists were chosen.

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 (M-NCPPC). Board members receive an annual salary of $30,000 and the board chair is paid $227,891, according to the council.

“For members of the public, there are some conspiracy theories out there and I just want to allay those,” Council President Gabe Albornoz said during Tuesday’s meeting, addressing the issues surrounding the board. “This has been an unusual process to say the least, but it’s a necessary one.”

Last week, several local advocacy groups demanded the council delay the hiring of temporary or permanent Planning Board members until the county can conduct a third-party investigation into the activity of both the board and the M-NCPPC, and voiced concern that the temporary positions would become permanent.

Albornoz reiterated Tuesday the council would be making temporary appointments to the Planning Board and the incoming council, to be elected in the Nov. 8 general election and sworn in during December, would choose permanent members. 

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“That does not exclude [the temporary members] from the opportunity to apply for the full-term positions, which will be advertised shortly after the next council takes office,” Albornoz said.

The council asked the same questions of each applicant, including about their qualifications for serving; how they would restore trust among Planning Department staff and the public; their thoughts on how to achieve racial and social equity through the implementation of Thrive Montgomery 2050, the updated general master plan approved Tuesday by the council; and whether they were interested in serving as board chair.

The 11 finalists under consideration for the positions are Raj Barr‐Kumar, Cherri Branson, Francoise Carrier, Norman Dreyfuss, Barbara Goldberg Goldman, David Hill, William Kirwan, Vincent Napoleon, Roberto Piñero, Amy Presley and Jeff Zyontz.

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Of the 11, only Barr‐Kumar, Carrier, Dreyfuss, Napoleon and Zyontz said they were interested in serving as board chair.

Candidates were asked how they would help restore confidence in the Planning Board and support staff while serving as an interim member. Many candidates reiterated the importance of creating a safe space for staff and the public to feel heard and represented.

“I think the best way to restore confidence is to make the staff understand that people are listening, but unfortunately I do not think it is just about staff. It’s also about the public,” said Branson, a former director of the county’s Office of Procurement.

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“As to the staff, the staff does have to understand that there’s a place for them to go. There are people for them to talk to … it’s not my way or the highway … and it is really important to make sure that they are heard, to make sure they are respected, to make sure that they understand the absolute value of their contribution,” said Branson, who was previously appointed to an interim term representing council District 5 from January to December 2014. In the 2018 Democratic primary, she ran unsuccessfully for a council at-large seat.

Piñero, a former senior analyst focusing on financial markets and community investments for the U.S. Government Accountability Office, echoed the sentiment.

“I think the way to be on different boards is that you really have to respect the staff. You have to listen to them. You have to have a sort of empathy and this is kind of an awkward situation where we’ll be walking in,” said Piñero, a member of the county Board of Appeals since February 2022 and a former member and chair of the county Housing Opportunities Commission.

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David Hill, a senior systems analyst for Westat and a longtime civic activist who served 10 years on the City of Rockville Planning Commission, emphasized the need for clear communication of work expectations to planning staff.

“As professionals, as board members, we need to communicate our expectations,” he said. “Expectations for staff are often vilified when it comes to public processes.”

Carrier, a former Planning Board chair who served from 2010 to 2014, said the best way to restore confidence was to stick to the tried and tested ways of doing things and not making any major changes.

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“I think that this board would best serve the process by not trying to make any big changes or big policy decisions,” Carrier said. “It may be appropriate to look into some of the actions of the prior board, board members, [and] interactions between board and staff.”

Carrier, who also served nearly nine years as a county zoning hearing examiner, is an attorney with a Bethesda law firm where she advises clients on land use, zoning and development matters.

While most candidates commended planning staff for their work, Goldberg Goldman, founder of the Affordable Housing Conference of Montgomery County, implied members of the staff could be involved in the issues that have recently beset the Planning Board.

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“We need to make a change,” she said. “It won’t be easy because there are always people in the background that need to create trouble, they need to stir something up. We need to work as a team, not just among the board members but a team with staff, working together.”

Some of the finalists concurred that the council’s unanimous adoption Tuesday of Thrive Montgomery 2050 was a step in the right direction toward attaining the county’s social justice goals.

“I’m very happy to see …. that as a result of the passing of the Thrive 2050 resolution this morning, that we now can begin the process of addressing some of those racial injustice, equity issues,” said Napoleon, a lawyer and business executive who has worked with local and federal governments and numerous industries.

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Barr-Kumar, an award-winning architect with decades of experience, spoke about the need to ensure quality of life and fair access to services and support for all residents. He served in 1997 as the national president of the American Institute of Architects.

“Social justice is built into the system and what we have to do is to make sure that we’re really fair by everyone, that there is full access, full availability of all services,” Barr-Kumar said. “The aspiration is that we would have a vibrant, livable society which provides the most amount of support, [and] enriches the quality of life.”

Apps Bichu reports on growth and justice. She can be reached at apps.bichu@bethesdamagazine.com