By Miranda S. Spivack and Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, November 12, 2005
Its 200-plus pages are written in pure bureaucratese. And it avoids identifying any major player by name.
But this week's report from the Montgomery County Council's investigative arm still manages to make clear that the county's planning system is ailing and that three officials watched as it grew weaker: Planning Board Chairman Derick P. Berlage, County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) and County Council member Steven A. Silverman, who heads a key committee with oversight of the planning process.
Berlage, Duncan and Silverman (D-At Large) face career crossroads as they try to shake the stigma of Clarksburg. Duncan is seeking the 2006 Democratic nomination for governor, Silverman hopes to become the next county executive and Berlage is fighting to keep his $129,000-a-year job as board chairman.
None of the three is accountable for all that went wrong at Clarksburg Town Center, where construction problems cited in the report were largely the responsibility of the Department of Park and Planning. The Office of Legislative Oversight concludes that a systemic breakdown began years ago, long before Clarksburg residents pressed complaints that what was built in their northern Montgomery housing development was not what was promised by developers or the county.
Council investigators conclude, however, that the long-festering problems at the planning department -- sloppy record-keeping, indifference to the public's concerns and a culture in which staff and developers work together closely with little supervision -- all worsened as those three officials rose to power.
Duncan, who does not have direct responsibility for the planning department, won his first term as executive in 1994 as a pro-business, pro-growth Democrat. His election marked a dramatic departure from the tenure of Neal Potter, whose measured approach to growth Duncan disdained as "paralysis by analysis." Duncan quickly spread the word that developers would be treated as friends and partners and that construction permits should be expedited.
The sign in his office spoke to the tone Duncan tried to establish: "When will it be done?"
William H. Hussmann, chairman of the Planning Board from 1994 to 2001, said: "The atmosphere in both the county and the [Planning Board] have drifted over time to support growth, development, development interests and projects. As that has happened, staff has sort of followed that point of view."
In 1996, Duncan made good on a campaign promise to create a one-stop shop for builders and developers to obtain permits. They had complained for years that the process was cumbersome, requiring too many approvals from agencies spread through the bureaucracy.
Robert Hubbard, director of the new Department of Permitting Services, also made clear to the building industry that the Duncan administration was an ally.
In 2001, he wrote a memo recalling a recent dinner with the members of the Montgomery County Builders Association. The memo referred to builders as his "clients" and "friends" and "customers."
Duncan pushed for a series of major projects, including the revitalization of Silver Spring, the construction of a controversial convention center in Rockville, and Strathmore Hall, a concert venue near the Grosvenor neighborhood.
Although Duncan did not directly control the major planning agency, the Department of Park and Planning, which reports to the County Council, his pro-growth message resonated through the government.
"The culture is one I would call subservience to developer interests," said former council member Blair G. Ewing (D), whom Duncan helped oust in 2002. Working with Silverman that year, Duncan used several hundred thousand dollars, some of it raised from developers, to help elect a council more attuned to his agenda.
Silverman, over Duncan's objections, was also instrumental in getting Berlage appointed chairman of the Planning Board. Before Berlage took the job, he was a member of the County Council and was Silverman's predecessor as chairman of the land-use committee.
Under Berlage, according to the council report, the Department of Park and Planning operated on "autopilot," indifferent and at times hostile to the entreaties of the public.
During his 3 1/2 -year tenure at the 900-employee planning agency, Berlage has been praised as a visionary with a strong interest in mapping the county's future development and paying attention to transit and aesthetics. But his management style has also been regarded as hands-off and at times inattentive. That, in turn, led to a leadership vacuum, a casual system of record-keeping and a culture that ceded considerable power to staff -- and the benefit of the doubt to developers, community critics say.
At a Planning Board hearing Feb. 10, when planner Wynn Witthans came to discuss changes in plans sought by one of Clarksburg's builders, Berlage appeared to underscore what the council report found.
"Just give us whatever presentation you think we need to have," Berlage told Witthans as she began to outline changes in plans for Clarksburg Town Center.
In June, Witthans resigned after admitting that she had recently altered a site plan to bring it in conformance with other documents. She said the mistake was brought on by heavy workload.
Silverman's committee controls land-use policies and is charged with overseeing the planning department. But it didn't pay sufficient attention, investigators concluded.
"The Council's approach to overseeing the Planning Board's activities did not identify the underlying structural problems," the Office of Legislative Oversight report said.
Although he is a longtime Berlage backer, Silverman in recent weeks tried to set a course to show that he is taking a hard line on problems at the agency.
"It is the Planning Board that is ultimately responsible for their own internal procedures and regulatory processes. If they didn't think they had enough personnel to handle certain things, or if they needed changes in the law, they had an obligation to come to us," he said.
Berlage has acknowledged deficiencies and used an extensive chart this week to show that the agency has been addressing them, even before the report was issued.
"We are focusing relentlessly on improving the quality of the development review process," he said. The agency has instituted 19 changes in processes and is looking at 25 others, he said. "We will leave no stone unturned in our effort to restore the quality of the process and the credibility of the agency," he said. "We need the support of the county executive and the County Council."
The political stakes are enormous. Berlage, Duncan and Silverman all have moved to try to limit the damage. Duncan and Berlage this year put in place a moratorium on building permits as they tried to sort out the problems. Duncan also has proposed merging all enforcement into the agency he oversees, the Department of Permitting Services. Berlage set up checklists and outlined extensive plans for staff responsibilities, and Silverman has been holding frequent council sessions with planning officials.
Duncan has continually tried to distance himself from the problems at the planning agency, pointing out in an interview this week that the report focused most of its criticism on the agency he does not oversee.
"There is a culture of dysfunction at Park and Planning," he said. "It is a creature of the County Council. Where is the oversight?" He said the council, on which he has many allies, "is taking far too much time to solve the problems here."
Silverman, in turn, pointed to the planning agency for failing to alert the politicians that there were problems.
But some suggest that as the 2006 election season heats up, the fallout from Clarksburg could linger.
"I think the pendulum is swinging," said former county executive Sidney Kramer (D), who, like Duncan, was known for his pro-growth policies. "As I talk to my friends and neighbors, they say, 'Maybe we are growing too quickly.' . . . That may be a factor in the coming election."