The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Montgomery County should be transparent about planning department problems

Opponents of the proposed Thrive Montgomery 2050 plan protest Nov. 4 outside the Montgomery planning board's offices in Wheaton. (Katherine Shaver/The Washington Post)
4 min

Miranda S. Spivack covered planning and development in Maryland for The Post for nearly two decades. She writes extensively about issues affecting government transparency.

The system in Montgomery County for overseeing land use and growth has long been fraught. Think back to Clarksburg in the early 2000s, where it took herculean efforts by local residents to unearth problems with the construction of what was then a new town perched near the northern tip of Montgomery County. Derick Berlage, the then-chairman of the Planning Board (now working for planning in Prince George’s County), abruptly retired. A staff member resigned for apparently allowing changes in official plans that had been urged on her by a development lawyer — a practice that is routine but often unseen. Then there was the auditor who questioned agency spending and was demoted in 2012.

A former planning director resisted efforts to investigate his expense account and other spending and made deals that allowed tree-cutting at a private school in exchange for scholarships but failed to include an enforcement mechanism.

That’s really just a short list of issues that have plagued the agency that has extensive influence over the present and the future in Montgomery County.

Despite occasional bright spots, for at least the past two decades, it has often not been a very pretty picture. Meanwhile, Montgomery County has seen a building spree of energy-inefficient mega mansions and given limited attention to affordable housing or public transit. Efforts to enhance public transit, a key goal of County Executive Marc Elrich (D), have been stymied, and developers, routinely the largest donors to county campaign coffers, did everything they could to defeat him in his second contest against David Blair, a former Republican with no experience in elected office and a murky business record that has been little scrutinized.

Maybe it’s time for the system to change.

Montgomery’s five-member Planning Board is filled with political appointees, many of whom over the years have had little to no experience in planning and are picked by the elected County Council, whose members also frequently lack planning expertise. The result is that the planning department has been allowed to operate with little expert oversight. That is not to say that many of the career employees there don’t know what they are doing; they can be an impressive group. But when problems arise, their overseers often seem to flail around and appear out of their depth.

The Montgomery County Council this past week apparently decided it had had enough. There had been a series of controversies affecting Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson, a lawyer who often seemed to thumb his nose at Maryland’s open-meetings law and was reprimanded for having alcohol in the office. His vice chair apparently was gunning for the top job and complained of a toxic workplace that he laid at Anderson’s feet. After Gwen Wright, the highly regarded planning director, spoke up in the media for Anderson, the Planning Board, sans Anderson, met in closed session and fired her, three months before she had planned to retire. That eventually led to the County Council taking action.

As reported Wednesday, all of the board members were forced by the council to resign or face a public airing of the council’s grievances against them.

But why hide the problems and not air the grievances? Did the council agree to a nondisparagement clause that would prohibit an open airing of problems at the Planning Board and within the planning department? All those involved — the council, the now-deposed Planning Board — are public servants, after all, paid with public funds. (Anderson’s salary is more than $200,000, according to published reports). A public airing would help the public understand what went wrong and would provide an opportunity for elected officials to gather ideas about how it could be fixed.

With so much at stake — the council is poised to vote on Thrive Montgomery 2050, a mega plan crafted by the Planning Board and staff that could design the Montgomery County of the future — airing out the dirty linen that might have influenced the design of that proposal would, at the very least, be a start at restoring some credibility to the county’s planning process.