Pr. George’s Baker wants to fill 3 jobs crucial to development in wake of pay-to-play scandal
By Ovetta Wiggins,
Eight months after former Prince George’s county executive Jack B. Johnson was arrested in a bribery scandal that rocked the development community, County Executive Rushern L. Baker III has asked the council to consider three key appointments that he hopes will help burnish the county’s tarnished reputation.
Baker said the nominations of the chairman of the Planning Board, the director of Housing and Community Development and the director of Environmental Resources are some of the most critical appointments he will make because of the crucial role each plays in development projects.
The County Council is scheduled to hold public hearings Tuesday on the three posts.
Baker has been watched closely as he decided how to deal with the county’s housing department, which was at the center of the pay-to-play scandal involving Johnson, his wife, Leslie, and former housing director James Johnson.
“There is a lot of stuff to fix in the [housing] agency and we have expectation that he can do that,” said Cheryl Cort, policy director for the Coalition for Smarter Growth. “We are hopeful that we can move forward.”
Meanwhile, Baker said he wanted to ensure that the Department of Environmental Resources would have an experienced leader because rumors were swirling that the agency, which issues building permits, was also part of the ongoing federal investigation.
“Some of these agencies have been neglected for eight years,” Baker said. “That’s why we’ve paid the most attention to these appointments.”
Baker has nominated Betty Hewlett, a land-use lawyer and former chairwoman of the Prince George’s County Planning Board, to head the Planning Board; Eric C. Brown, the former executive director of the Annapolis Housing Authority, to take the reins of the housing department; and Samuel E. Wynkoop Jr. to return as head of the Department of Environmental Resources. Wynkoop, who has been working at the department in an interim capacity since Baker was sworn in, held the post nearly a decade ago.
The council has spent the past couple of weeks meeting privately with the nominees.
“These are clearly positions where there needs to be a lot of dialogue because they are so important to the future of the county, whether it’s permitting or approvals of developments or enforcements,” Vice Chairman Eric Olson (D-College Park), chairman of the environment and housing committee, said.
Baker said he expects the three appointees to work closely with his economic development team, which is involved in working to stimulate development around the county’s 15 Metro stations.
It is not a coincidence that the approval of the three appointees will be considered on the same day, Baker said. He views the three nominations collectively, he said, and he expects they will focus their efforts on transit-oriented development, redevelopment inside the Beltway and increasing the county’s affordable housing stock.
“I think it’s a golden opportunity to pursue transit-oriented development,” Hewlett said. “We’re perched as the market rebounds to achieve the long-awaited transit-oriented development. And I believe my planning board and [Metro] experience will help bring that to fruition.” Hewlett, the co-chair of Baker’s transition team on environment, transit and sustainability, recently stepped down as a Maryland representative to the Metro board.
Wynkoop, who received criticism from council members about whether he could be the change agent the department needs, said he stepped into an agency that was in chaos, and because of his experience he has been able to rectify some of the problems.
Wynkoop’s nomination received an 8-1 vote in committee on Monday, including an affirmative vote from Council Member Leslie Johnson (D-Mitchellville). It was the first voting session Johnson has attended since she resigned from the council last week.
Council Member Mary A. Lehman (D-Laurel) voted against Wynkoop during the straw vote. She could not be reached for comment. Council Chairman Ingrid Turner (D-Bowie), who raised questions about Wynkoop’s selection, said she would back Baker’s nomination because she wanted to support Baker’s “personal request for Mr. Wynkoop . . . to move Prince George’s County forward.”
“I have had to reenergize the workforce and reevaluate how we are doing everything,” said Wynkoop, who served as director of the department from 1995 to 2003. “The criminal activity was atrocious; what was happening to the government’s ability to deliver service was also affected.”
Brown said he has had to mend relationships with state and federal housing agencies since the pay-to-play scandal. Last year, the county was forced to return $2 million to the federal government after failing to meet a five-year deadline for distributing money to create affordable housing in the county. Brown said he is putting monitoring systems in place to ensure that that county does not fail to meet future deadlines for federal housing programs.
The council will also consider the nominations of A. Shuanise Washington and Dorothy F. Bailey for the Planning Board; Monica J. Johnson as director of Central Services; and Marc S. Bashoor as chief of the Fire and EMS Department.