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Piling allegations, plummeting morale drove Montgomery board upheaval

Montgomery’s entire planning board resigned Wednesday at the insistence of the county council

The former members of the Montgomery County Planning Board, from left: Vice Chair Partap Verma, Tina Patterson, Chair Casey Anderson, Gerald R. Cichy and Carol Rubin. (Montgomery County Planning Board (M-NCPPC))
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Montgomery County Council members decided to fire the county’s entire planning board when seemingly fleeting personnel issues escalated within weeks, deepening fault lines that impeded the board’s ability to work together, the council’s president said Thursday.

First came an internal investigation that found board chair Casey Anderson had kept a liquor cabinet in his agency office and shared drinks with colleagues after-hours. Then, allegations leaked to the press that Anderson had created a “toxic” workplace at the planning department by making misogynistic comments. The next day, the board abruptly fired the county’s nationally recognized and widely respected planning director, three months before she was set to retire.

Other developments soon followed, leading Council President Gabe Albornoz (D-At Large) and his colleagues to decide: “We can’t contain this anymore. It’s just gotten out of control,” he said.

Montgomery planning board resigns amid scandals, at council's urging

The quick-moving events in a county where development often dominates political discussion have left many wondering what happened. Some officials say they are concerned about damaged public trust and dwindling confidence in an agency that helps determine how communities look and how the county will continue to grow.

“This came as a complete surprise,” Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) said in an interview Thursday. “I didn’t expect whatever happened with Casey and alcohol was going to turn into this mess. It looked like a Game of Thrones show with people trying to sabotage each other rather than do their jobs.”

Council members, several of whom declined to detail the choice to overhaul the board, said they will be looking to install members who represent the county’s diversity. Albornoz expects a public hearing for interim candidates to be held on Oct. 25, with appointments tentatively slated to be made Oct. 27.

“I’ll be looking for diversification in every way — racially, ethnically, geographically, ideologically — and for technical expertise in planning and land use,” said council member Will Jawando (D-At Large). “We need the type of body that can deal with the challenges of a county with four of the top 10 most diverse communities in the nation.”

Allegations against vice chair deepen Montgomery planning board controversy

The council, which appoints the planning board, held closed-door meetings that culminated in a unanimous vote Tuesday to ask the entire board to resign, despite the fact that two members were not named in any complaints and two others contest the allegations against them.

“I think there were final straws for each of my eight colleagues and I at various points of this,” Albornoz said. “But by the end, we were unanimous in feeling that the entire board had just lost its ability to be able to do its work.”

On Monday, a top parks department employee told the council that Vice Chair Partap Verma had targeted Anderson with false accusations of making vulgar comments because Verma wanted his job — a charge Verma denies. Anderson also has said the allegations about the crude comments are false.

Then on Wednesday, Anderson and the rest of the five-member planning board resigned after the county council told them they could quit voluntarily or face a public hearing seeking their removal.

After the alcohol investigation became public in mid-September, Anderson said he accepted responsibility and apologized. Earlier this month, the council docked him four weeks’ pay. The council also docked one day’s pay each for Verma and member Carol Rubin after the investigation found that they had accepted a drink in Anderson’s office.

Montgomery council docks pay of board chair who kept alcohol in his office

But before the punishments came, the complaint about the alleged misogynistic comments had already reached the county council.

“It was another shot across the bow,” Albornoz said of the new allegations. “It further dissolved some general trust in the organization and the entity.”

Verma said he sent the complaint about the toxic work environment based on his own observations and reports he heard from employees. In interviews this week, he said he felt a duty to report the allegations despite his relationship with Anderson.

“It’s well known that Casey was a mentor and a good friend,” Verma said. “And it’s unfortunate that his bad choices and false characterizations have led to this.”

Montgomery official apologizes for keeping alcohol in his government office

Meanwhile, the council was putting the final touches on Thrive 2050, a plan that would set policies to guide growth in the county over the next 30 years. The plan, which laid out how the county would add housing, attract economic development and improve parks, among other matters, had faced vocal opposition from residents who said it would allow too much dense development that would overwhelm schools and roads while not providing enough affordable housing.

Much of the opposition surfaced after mid-2019, when the planning staff began putting the plan together and the board solicited public feedback. Some opponents complained that too many residents hadn’t been able to provide input, let alone pay attention, to a countywide growth plan during the pandemic.

The planning board sent its draft of the plan to the county council in April 2021. After more hearings and public meetings, the council was gearing up to approve the plan Oct. 25. The turmoil at the planning department became a distraction, some said.

“It confused things,” Jawando said. “It made it harder to focus on the substance [of Thrive] because of all this going on. That was unfortunate.”

Albornoz, the former head of the county’s recreation department, said he became concerned when he began hearing from planning department employees upset about damage to the agency’s reputation.

“There was pressure that was being felt by people to come forward with evidence that there was a toxic work environment,” Albornoz said. “Some of the staff members were being approached directly by planning board members. And then there were some staff that felt pressured to support the chair. They were being brought into the middle of all of this.”

The board’s firing of planning director Gwen Wright this past Friday after she defended Anderson in a media interview also caused alarm, he said. Planning staff told him that when Wright was escorted from the agency’s headquarters in Wheaton by security guards, as is commission policy when someone is terminated, employees looking on were shaken, Albornoz said.

“Seeing the director of the department, somebody who had just received a national award just a few months before that, that was a very sad moment in the history of the department for sure,” Albornoz said.

Montgomery board terminates county planning director in closed meeting

Several council members said they were confident the planning department’s staff can keep work moving and quickly bring interim planning board members up to speed on issues.

“The knowledge is there,” said council member Sidney Katz (D-District 3).

The new council elected next month will select the permanent board. The chair, who is full time, makes $215,000. The rest of the members, who are part-time, make $30,000 annually.

Council member Evan Glass (D-At Large) said his cellphone has been “overwhelmed” since news of the resignations broke, with residents expressing interest in being appointed.

“I’m looking for someone who can start on day one with a wealth of knowledge,” Glass said.

Elrich said the council needs to focus on people who won’t be divisive or cause controversy to allow the leadership to get back to the job of planning.

“I think the council has to look really hard at making sure they don’t appoint people who become flash points the moment they’re appointed,” Elrich said. “That would not enhance the public trust.”