The Montgomery County inspector general says there is no basis for investigating Council member Valerie Ervin’s attempt to interest colleagues in hiring an organizational consultant with real estate interests in Wheaton to help overhaul planning and land use policies.
Inspector General Edward Blansitt issued the finding Thursday in response to a request last month from Gino Renne, President of the Municipal and County Government Employees Organization. Renne accused Ervin (D-Silver Spring) of acting unethically in arranging a series of private meetings with council members for Chris McGoff, founder of The Clearing, a D.C. firm that helps public and private sector organizations resolve difficult issues. McGoff presented a proposal to council members outlining how his firm might work to help develop a consensus in the county on growth and land development.
McGoff, who lives in Ervin’s council district, is also a partner in a real estate venture that has been seeking county approval to build townhomes near the Westfield Wheaton Mall.
Ervin has said that the meetings were a series of informal conversations in no way intended to privately steer a contract to McGoff or to help benefit his real estate dealings. County officials say such a contract would almost certainly have to be opened to competitive bidding prior to council approval.
McGoff’s 12-page proposal said the firm could work with key community stakeholders to form what it called “an inspiring narrative” for change. The document said The Clearing’s goal was to make Montgomery “an example of a vision driven, intentional county that works relentlessly to make today’s decisions for tomorrow’s citizens.”
In his Jan. 31 letter to Renne, Blansitt said what McGoff presented to council members was more of a “concept paper” than an actually contract. “It does not identify any specific process changes or actions that would benefit any developer, and would not appear to benefit one developer more than another,” he wrote.
Blansitt concluded: “If Councilmember Ervin promoted the concept because she believed it to be a good idea, or because her constituent wanted her help in presenting the concept to Councilmembers, such usual and customary constituent services are not prohibited by ethics law.”
Tensions between one-time allies — Ervin, a former labor organizer, and Renne, whose union represents about 5,000 county employees — have been high in recent years. As council president in 2011, Ervin led a successful effort to overhaul the county’s disability retirement system over bitter union opposition.