Ex-Attorney For Agency Faults Effect Of Politics

By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 2, 2006

The former top attorney for Montgomery County's planning agency says she resigned because the agency, which has been blamed for building violations, has become "dysfunctional" and increasingly politicized.

"I could not get access to the Planning Board anymore," said Michele M. Rosenfeld, who unexpectedly announced her resignation March 31 and left the agency two weeks later after working there for almost 17 years.

"I could not give the kind of candid advice I had always given on an as-needed basis," she said during an interview last week. "I could not represent the members of the Planning Board as I felt ethically I had the obligation to."

Rosenfeld, 44, was particularly critical of the Planning Board chairman, Derick P. Berlage, who is lobbying hard for appointment to a second four-year term. Several County Council members said they are looking for other applicants to lead the board, which has come under heightened scrutiny because of problems in Clarksburg and elsewhere.

Rosenfeld said that she plans to apply for the job but that once she made her interest known, council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) tried to dissuade her. Rosenfeld said Floreen told her, "This deal will be made in advance, and it won't be transparent, even though we will pretend it is."

Floreen would not discuss the specifics of her conversations with Rosenfeld but said in an interview that anything she told her was intended to remain confidential.

Rosenfeld's comments come at a time of escalating tension and backroom negotiating over the selection of a leader for Montgomery's Department of Park and Planning, whose once-stellar reputation has been tarnished in the past year. The council has conducted its search largely in private, holding a long closed-door session two weeks ago to discuss strategy and prospective applicants.

Rosenfeld would not describe specific instances in which she had been prevented from giving legal advice to the Planning Board, but she said problems escalated in recent months after Berlage took charge of setting the board's weekly agenda, a job previously handled by the agency's top staff member.

Rosenfeld said she was no longer given time to provide closed-door advice to the five-member board, something she had done routinely for several years. Consequently, she said, there was no opportunity for candid discussion of legal options.

Told of Rosenfeld's comments, Berlage said the agency was "focused on being a model of transparency, accuracy and accountability. We have implemented 28 new reforms. We are focused on reform, and we are making tremendous progress."

In the past year, Berlage's management of the agency has been under scrutiny since the discovery of height and setback violations in the Clarksburg Town Center development. Staff morale is described by many inside the agency as low, and some say they are being blamed for management problems related to understaffing and turnover among supervisors.

In recent weeks, the council has made several public pleas for more applicants for the chairman's job. But Rosenfeld said she received several phone calls from Floreen in recent days, discouraging her from applying. Floreen, a former Planning Board member, has been one of Berlage's most vocal critics.

Rosenfeld, who said she kept extensive notes on three phone conversations with Floreen, said the council member urged her to be "realistic" and described the behind-the-scenes political maneuvering. According to Rosenfeld, Floreen said that Rosenfeld could well be highly qualified but that she would not get the job partly because replacing Berlage with a former staff member would be too difficult politically for the council.

Rosenfeld said Floreen told her that the council was more concerned about "getting through an election" than about helping the agency run efficiently, improving staff morale or dealing with the building industry's problems. All nine council members are seeking reelection or higher office this year.

Floreen described council members as trying to figure out how to "justify not reappointing a [former] colleague," Rosenfeld said.

Berlage resigned from the council four years ago and was almost immediately appointed chairman of the Planning Board.

Floreen also offered to help Rosenfeld find "any other job" in the county, according to the lawyer, who described herself as "stunned" by the phone calls.

In an interview, Floreen said she thought she and Rosenfeld were having an "off-the-record conversation. Any conversation I might have had with Michele was because I consider her a respected friend. I have no comment on whatever Michele might have told you."

Council President George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) said he was unaware of the conversations between Floreen and Rosenfeld. He said he would withhold support for any candidate until the May 31 application deadline.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company