St. Mary's County Board of Commissioners President Julie B. Randall is taking a political drubbing over the formation of a group of builders and developers that some county residents are saying she convened secretly to review proposed land-use regulations, a voluminous zoning document called the ULDC, or the Unified Land Development Code.
Randall (D-At Large) said last week that she did not form the committee but learned of it during one of her many recent conversations with county residents, including builders, about the draft of the new zoning regulations.
But news of the so-called ad hoc committee or "Randall's Task Force," as it is called in some circles, circulated last week after Randall told the other commissioners about it in telephone messages.
"The public perception was that, perhaps, government was being less than neutral on this issue because of the dominance of builders in the group," said Commissioner Joseph F. Anderson (D-Drayden), who is vice president of the board.
"The perception was that the board was convening a group representing special interest [developers]," said Anderson, who said that he received a number of calls from citizens concerned about the group.
Anderson said he had no knowledge of the group's formation until he was called by Randall.
John K. Parlett Jr., who owns CMI General Contractors Inc., a building firm based in Charlotte Hall, is the unofficial leader of the ad hoc committee. He said he and other business owners in the county formed the group to look at the document "because we're the ones who would have to deal with it on a day-to-day basis."
Other members include Sonny Burch Jr., owner of Burch Oil and a commercial developer; Tom Waring, a hotel owner from whom the county recently purchased a piece of property for almost $1 million; Ford Dean, builder and developer; Herb Redmond, co-owner of a local engineering and surveying firm; Frank Gerred, former county planning director; Ed Thomas, a businessman; and Ed Wettengel, a builder.
"We're just a bunch of businessmen getting together," Burch said.
Burch said two commissioners--Anderson and Shelby P. Guazzo (R-Chaptico)--erroneously thought that the group was formed by Randall. But that view was challenged by others.
"That's a face-saving spin that's being put on this now that she's catching hell for it," said Vernon Gray, who has been active in anti-sprawl efforts.
"If we're going to solicit input from the public, let's do so publicly. Let anybody and everybody be a member of a task force. But when you solicit secretly, it puts a different connotation," Gray said.
Gray said the fact that many of the people on the ad hoc committee contributed to Randall's successful election campaign last year raises questions. Gray, a Republican, lost his own 1998 bid for a county commissioner's seat.
Randall said in an interview that her connection with the committee is just to seek input. "Everywhere I've gone to in the county I've asked people to get involved, to give input to the commissioners," she said. "Certainly that has included folks among the building community."
"Perhaps that is the cause for the thinking that this is my committee--because I did encourage them to do this. I'm still frankly perplexed by the concern," she said.
Randall said she learned on her own of Parlett's group and finds it "ironic" that her sharing her discovery with the other commissioners--she called them and left voice mail messages--has caused such a stir. Her intention, she said, was to broaden the scope of citizen participation in an important document that is before the county commissioners.
"Perhaps it was misconstrued. But if I was in receipt of a voice mail from another commissioner I would have expressed that concern by phone," she said.
"The concern has been expressed and the manner it has been expressed leaves me very perplexed," Randall said.
Randall was alluding to the release of transcripts of her phone message to reporters. In the message, she told commissioners, "I asked some folks in the community to get together an ad hoc committee, very informal, but the purpose of it is to take a look at the draft unified land development code and give us input."
At Tuesday's commissioner's meeting, Randall was emphatic that she herself did not form the committee of builders and developers.
"No, no, no. I have not formed a committee. I have not commissioned anyone [to form a committee]," she said.
The board celebrated the 50th birthday of Commissioner Daniel H. Raley (D-Great Mills) at Tuesday's meeting, but toward the end, during the commissioners' comment period, the discussion became tense and at times heated when the subject turned to the developers committee.
"Everyone seems to be making something out of nothing," said Parlett, who is also a Board of Education member.
"It's absolutely, positively not true [that the group was formed by Randall]. I've put together a group of people, same as any civic organization or environmental organization or citizen group, and I told her that she can expect to receive some input from us.
"She's accused of something that she didn't have anything to do with," Parlett said.
Robert Lewis, vice president of the Potomac River Association, said he, too, does not object to the developers group coming together to review the ULDC in the same way that environmental groups such as his association would review it.
"I don't see this as necessarily something that's heading the ULDC in the wrong direction at all. If they were formally appointed by the county commissioners or if they were convened [by Randall], that would be problematic because it's a special interest group," Lewis said.
But, like Gray, Lewis said he thought it is "interesting" that some members of the ad hoc committee contributed to Randall's election campaign.
CAPTION: JULIE B. RANDALL