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Government & Politics

Controversies at Montgomery Co. planning agency lead to resignations of all 5 commissioners

The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission headquarters in downtown Wheaton. Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission photo.

Will the last person at the Montgomery County Planning Board please turn out the lights?

A county whose leaders revere the planning process now has zero members serving on its all-important Planning Board.

Capping a stunning three weeks of developments, the Montgomery County Council announced Wednesday afternoon that it has accepted the resignations of all five Planning Board members – Board Chair Casey Anderson, Vice Chair Partap Verma, and Commissioners Gerald Cichy, Tina Patterson and Carol Rubin. The resignations are effective immediately.

“The Montgomery County Council is united in taking the steps necessary to ensure that the Montgomery County Planning Board can serve its critical functions and oversee the Planning and Parks Departments’ important work for our community,” Council President Gabe Albornoz (D) said in a statement. “The Council has lost confidence in the Montgomery County Planning Board and accepted these resignations to reset operations. We are acting with deliberate speed to appoint new commissioners to move Montgomery County forward. We thank the commissioners for their service to our County.”

In a separate statement, Council Vice President Evan Glass (D), who is likely to take over as president in December, said, “My colleagues and I have lost confidence in the board and we have determined that this decision is in the best interest of the community.”

The county council appoints the Planning Board members and oversees its operations.

Montgomery County Council President Gabe Albornoz (D). County Council photo.

Albornoz’s statement said the council is scheduled to select new temporary acting Planning Board commissioners on Oct. 25 and is seeking individuals with expertise in land use, planning, economic development, transportation, and environmental and park issues to apply for the vacancies. Montgomery County residents who are interested in filling these acting positions should apply to the Council by next Tuesday at 5 p.m.

The public controversy over the Planning Board began last month, with revelations that Anderson had kept a well-stocked bar in his office at the Planning Department’s headquarters in downtown Wheaton and had occasionally shared after-hours drinks with colleagues – a violation of county personnel rules. That publicity resulted in the council docking Anderson a month’s pay and docking Verma and Rubin a single day’s pay.

But it’s clear that there are deeper controversies at the agency, involving everything from opinions about Anderson’s consequential 11-year tenure, which was due to come to an end next year, to allegations of workplace harassment and misconduct, to the egos and ambitions of other Planning Board members and various county leaders, to the fate of a comprehensive and controversial planning document known as Thrive Montgomery 2050 that the county council could vote on in a matter of weeks.

There have been other noteworthy developments in recent days: Last Friday, the four Planning Board members, minus Anderson, fired Gwen Wright, the agency’s longtime planning director who was due to retire in December and was an ally of Anderson’s. She had led the agency since 2013 and worked there since 1987. And according to The Washington Post, Miti Figueredo, the Parks Department’s deputy director who is a well-connected figure in Montgomery County politics and was also a close ally of Anderson’s, recently filed a complaint against Verma.

How these all get resolved could depend on the actions of the council and the new interim Planning Board over the next several weeks.

“The Council is confident that the Planning Department’s newly appointed Acting Director Tanya Stern will provide steady leadership in the weeks ahead,” Albornoz said. “The Council also appreciates and supports Park and Planning staff.”

Stern has been the agency’s deputy director since 2018 and spent 14 years working for the Washington, D.C., government before that. In a statement of her own Wednesday, she promised continuity at the agency.

“Our commitment to Montgomery County and our planning work remains steadfast during this transition,” she said. “The Montgomery County Planning Department will continue to move forward on our robust master planning and regulatory work program as the County Council appoints new Planning Board members.”

More information about the process of filling vacancies can be found on the council’s webpage. The council will separately conduct a formal application process for individuals wishing to be appointed to serve out the terms of the officially vacant seats.

Montgomery County Planning Board commissioners are council appointments and generally serve four-year terms. The Planning Board serves as the council’s principal adviser on land use planning and community planning. Additionally, Planning Board members serve as commissioners of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, the bi-county agency that works alongside Prince George’s County on regional matters.

County Executive Marc Elrich (D) does not have any formal role in appointing or oversee Planning Board members, but he expressed hope that the mass resignation of commissioners would change the culture and focus of the agency.

“It is clear that new people and new voices are needed on the Planning Board,” he said. “Park and Planning has been run by a group of insiders for far too long. There needs to be a respectful balance of the views of developers and those of the community. I hope that the new Planning Board appointees reflect the demographics of this community and are committed to our residents, community input, and an efficient and transparent process.”

In a tweet Wednesday afternoon, Alan Bowser, the president of the Montgomery County Civic Federation, expressed the bewilderment and sorrow of many county leaders over the multiple controversies surrounding the planning agency.

“Where do we go to get our reputation back?” he wrote.