Former council member Norman L. Christeller was named chairman of the Montgomery County Planning Board yesterday over the objections of a coalition of civic groups which said the council had never seriously considered anybody else for a job second in importance to that of county executive.
A lawyer, Christeller, 57, succeeds Royce Hanson, who in eight years as chairman played a major role in the development of the county and was often at odds with civic groups as well as developers. Christeller received four votes for the $58,000-a-year position, John Menke, two votes, and Frederick Gutheim, one. Nine other applicants for the job did not receive any votes.
Christeller, business manager for the Washington law firm of Leva, Hawes, Symington, Martin and Oppenheimer, served on the County Council from 1972 to 1978. He is known in the county as a fiscal expert and an advocate of moderate-income housing.
In his new job, he is one of five planning board commissioners and represents the board's position before the council. The chairman's duties are not defined by statute, and the influence wielded by Hanson for eight years as liaison for the board, council and staff has led civic groups to accuse the council of giving the board and staff too much power over planning and zoning decisions.
Council members respond that after wresting the power to make planning board appointments from the county executive in 1972, close ties and similar planning philosophies with the planning board are not only inevitable but desirable.
"The planning board does not dominate the County Council," said Neal Potter, who characterized the Hanson years as one of a "high degree of harmony and productivity." He said that some of the attacks on Hanson's record were "outstanding examples of misunderstanding and misinformation" about the planning process.
Christeller, like Hanson, has reservations about the extent of citizen participation in government and both have written memorandums or articles that address the negative effects of the confrontation atmosphere in generates.
Many liken Christeller to Hanson as someone who is articulate, in control of the facts and persuasive.
"My style will be different from him," said Christeller. "I'm not an academic. I've been a manager all my life."
"The vote says that it's business as usual," said Priscilla Benner of the Greater Laytonsville Civic Association. "It didn't make any difference what we did. We went to a great deal of effort to give the input and it had no effect."
At the request of civic groups, the council heard public testimony for two evenings on the need to spend more time in selecting a chairman and to make planning more responsive to citizens.
"In the next month I will work toward improving communication between the planning board and the community and the planning board and the executive branch," said council president Ruth Spector.
Elizabeth Scull, one of Christeller's strongest supporters on the council, attended her first meeting in several weeks in a wheelchair in order to vote for him. She had been hospitalized after suffering a reaction to chemotheraphy treatment.
"We have spent untold hours working on the county's growth policies so that there is neither runaway growth nor no growth," said Scull before the vote. "We think we've done a good job. As the appointment is made today, I hope it can be looked upon as a planning appointment and not a political appointment."