March 19, 2012

MONTGOMERY COUNTY has a fine tradition of clamorous debate — and woe to the public official whose forbearance might waver in the gale of dissent that attends any hot topic. Rollin Stanley, the county’s planning director, now finds himself in the eye of such a storm, partly of his own making, having let slip an unguarded, foolishly dismissive remark about his critics.

Those critics now want Mr. Stanley’s head, or rather his job. In fact, removing him would be a piteous overreaction, for Mr. Stanley, whatever his shortcomings as a diplomat, is a nationally renowned planner, and excellent at his job.

The tempest over Mr. Stanley has its roots in years of fiercely contentious debate in Montgomery about the pace and shape of growth; the demands that can or should be made of developers; and the character of changing communities. Mr. Stanley, formerly a top planning official in St. Louis and Toronto, arrived in Montgomery four years ago and promptly set the county on a course toward preparing for rapid urbanization, particularly in places served by mass transit.

That riled a group of opponents and longtime activists, many of them veterans of decades of such battles in the county. These are not garden-variety community watchdogs, but lawyers, former planning commissioners and others with a knack for dogged, even relentless, advocacy.

They express indignation at being branded as “slow-growthers,” although to many officials, developers and politicians, that’s what they are. At the least, these residents want developers to compensate the county more generously — by improving local roads, parks, schools and the like — in return for permission to build high-rises and other dense projects.

In comments to Bethesda Magazine, Mr. Stanley, under fire and evidently exasperated at the flak directed at him, dismissed a small group of his most vocal critics as “rich white women” who “spread fear” and “sow discord” by “stalking” his appearances before civic groups.

His remarks were rash, impolitic, obnoxious and arguably sexist. After all, it’s probably more relevant that several of the women in question (while they do happen to be white and wealthy) are also lawyers with long experience in the county’s zoning battles.

Still, the slur was hardly of Limbaughian proportions. And Mr. Stanley’s critics have been battling not just him but also the county planning staff for several years. They contend the planners are arrogant and deaf to citizens’ concerns; in fact Mr. Stanley and his staff have conducted scores of community meetings all over the county.

Mr. Stanley’s detractors have seized on his ill-considered comments as a means of getting him fired. But one errant interview does not add up to a firing offense. And if Mr. Stanley sometimes seems to lack humility in the face of criticism — well, he’s not exactly unique among prominent officials. He should guard his comments in the future, and stay in his job.