Effort to replace Prince George's Planning Board chairman faces resistance

By Jonathan Mummolo and Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 26, 2010

An effort by Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson to replace the county's chief planning official is being met with resistance from some local officials, who say the move would unfairly tie the hands of the next executive.

Last week, Johnson (D) nominated his deputy chief administrative officer, David J. Byrd, to replace Samuel Parker Jr. as chairman of the Planning Board. If Byrd is confirmed by the County Council, the next executive would be forced to keep him on for the rest of his four-year term.

With a role in approving much of the county's development, the board chairman is one of the most critical appointments the county executive can make. The chairman also alternates as chairman of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.

The recent nomination was unusual because Johnson appointed Parker and because he knows what it's like to retain a previous executive's appointee. As a new county executive in 2003, Johnson was forced to allow Elizabeth M. "Betty" Hewlett -- appointed chairwoman under Wayne K. Curry -- to finish her term. Johnson unsuccessfully pushed state legislation at the time, nicknamed the "Betty bill," to remove her.

Johnson has not responded to requests for comment on the matter. He is term-limited and in his last year of office but appears to be trying to force the next county executive into the same position he was in. In response, Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George's) said he plans to introduce a bill Friday similar to the 2003 measure that would allow the next executive to nominate board members early next year.

Davis said that because county executives are held responsible for planning and development, they should be allowed to choose a chairman when taking office.

"I totally disagree with what the executive is trying to do," Davis said. "I agree with his original position and his original reasoning. . . . Now that he's on his way out the door . . . he's had a change of heart."

Del. Justin D. Ross (D-Prince George's), who voted for the 2003 measure and said he intends to support Davis's bill, put it another way: "This is the same as if President Bush got to decide who President Obama's secretary of state would be."

The County Council must decide whether to confirm Byrd and will vote on the matter next month, officials said this week. Council members Samuel H. Dean (D-Mitchellville) and Tony Knotts (D-Temple Hills) are running for county executive and might want to appoint their own chairman if elected, sources said. Dean did not return a call seeking comment Thursday.

Knotts said that he has not decided how he will vote but that his main focus is deciding whether Byrd is qualified. He said that Johnson has the authority to make the nomination late in his term but that he has been inundated with calls from residents on the issue, many expressing support for a program Parker has shepherded called Envision, which seeks to involve the community in crafting plans for the county's future.

Council member William A. Campos (D-Hyattsville) said that he "doesn't have a problem with Byrd" but that he knows others oppose the nomination. Campos said he did not know whether there are enough votes to block the appointment.

"I'd bet Sam Dean is against it and anyone else he can pull on board," Campos said. "That's not necessarily against David Byrd. That's strictly political."

Council Chairman Thomas E. Dernoga (D-Laurel), who met with Byrd this week, said he has not decided on the nomination.

"I think the process has to play out," Dernoga said.

The council will hold a public hearing on the nomination Tuesday, and Byrd is scheduled to appear before one of its committees March 3.

A county source familiar with the nomination said that if the vote had been held this past Wednesday, Byrd probably would not have been confirmed. The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the confirmation process was ongoing, said the two main reasons are: the sentiments that the next county executive should be able to make his or her own selection and that there is "no compelling reason to remove Sam at this point."

News of Johnson's plans leaked over the weekend, and Parker, who has remained in the post since his term ended in June, said he felt a lack of respect because he learned of the move secondhand.

"My issue is not that it was done. It is how it was done," Parker said recently. "We have to get to a point where personality doesn't drive decisions or how you treat people."

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