Montgomery County’s state lawmakers are considering legislation that could give the county’s inspector general the authority to investigate the Housing Opportunities Commission to ensure greater transparency.
Sen. Ben Kramer said he introduced a bill in the Maryland legislature after receiving complaints from constituents and HOC employees alleging waste, fraud and mismanagement in the department.
“There tends to be a sentiment that HOC rides roughshod over the community. And I have heard with enough frequency that this was something we should take a closer look at, and it seems the best way is to empower Montgomery County’s inspector general over HOC in the same way they do over county government,” said Kramer, a Democrat who represents parts of Rockville, Aspen Hill and Wheaton.
Some employees, Kramer said, were worried about speaking out publicly for fear of retribution.
Kramer said some complaints have been over the long-running dispute between the HOC and members of the Macedonia Baptist Church, who have spent the last two years pushing for a way to recognize and honor a historically-black cemetery in Bethesda’s Westbard neighborhood near an HOC project.
“I think it’s part of that discussion as far as the total lack of transparency with HOC, and what I have heard repeatedly with HOC and a lack of concern from their executive director with regard to the public,” he said. “I certainly understand their [the church’s] concerns and there just seems to be a measure of disinterest from the executive director with regard to community concerns, and I think that’s troubling.”
The chairwoman of the HOC, which runs affordable housing programs and properties in the county, said Thursday the commission took “no position” on Kramer’s bill, and she didn’t understand the motivation behind it.
“We already are audited by a variety of institutions and organizations, so I don’t know what he is possibly basing this on,” said Chairwoman Jackie Simon.
Asked about the alleged complaints by workers, Simon said she wasn’t aware of any.
The county’s inspector general, Kramer said, can provide additional oversight by examining the commission’s finances and internal operations, and sharing the information with the public. He passed a similar bill two years ago allow the office to monitor the Park and Planning Commission. The County Council also would have to approve the oversight.
The bill, being discussed in Annapolis today, comes amid sustained tensions between the HOC and a church group.
Four protesters supporting the church were arrested for allegedly disrupting last week’s HOC meeting and could face fines and jail time after they were given criminal citations for disorderly conduct and trespassing.
Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, Tim Willard, Mary Rooker and Lynn Pekkanen were removed from the proceedings after failing to adhere to three warnings by a Montgomery County police officer. They were among a host of residents advocating for the memorialization of the site of a historically-black cemetery in Bethesda’s Westbard neighborhood.
The HOC addressed the situation with a news release the next morning, outlining the details of the event and reiterating its stance in support of a memorial.
“We are encouraged by Macedonia Baptist Church’s desire to work with HOC and discuss memorialization,” Simon, the HOC chairwoman, said in the release. “The Commission is available and willing to engage when a meeting is arranged with all interested stakeholders, including the Parks Department. We welcome County Executive Elrich’s assistance and desire to move this issue forward.”
The HOC was notified by the county police on Jan. 2 that members supporting the church’s efforts would be attending the Jan. 9 meeting and had made a direct request to be arrested and removed from the public meeting by police, the release said.
In an attempt to separate misunderstandings from facts regarding the memorialization debate, the HOC distributed a staff report at the meeting.
Pekkanen said following her removal that she had reached out to police via email prior to the event.
County Executive Marc Elrich has supported the group since November, and said he plans to meet with the HOC.
“This is a blemish on the county,” Elrich said. “Arguing with people about whether you should be allowed to further desecrate on a cemetery is not the best PR move in the world, particularly when they’ve got other options. That just frustrates me.”
In an interview Tuesday, Simon said she plans to reach out to Elrich once he has fewer tasks in front of him, having only assumed office last month.
“We are at his call, so he is most welcome to meet at whatever time he’s available,” Simon said.
Simon said she wasn’t fazed by the county executive’s comments critical of the way the Westbard matter has been handled.
“We don’t feel that. When things have calmed down enough for him to give it some attention, he’ll give it some attention and we’ll do what we can to cooperate,” she said.
The commissioner said she didn’t agree that the site had been “desecrated” since the site existed long before the HOC took possession.
Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.firstname.lastname@example.org