The upheaval in the planning agency’s governance has shocked even longtime political observers in a county accustomed to intense spurts of development. It follows a trail of scandals and leaks that have dogged one of Montgomery’s most influential institutions since mid-September.
“Council has lost confidence in the Montgomery County Planning Board and accepted these resignations to reset operations,” said Montgomery Council President Gabe Albornoz (D-At Large). “We are moving with deliberate speed to appoint new commissioners to move Montgomery County forward. We thank the commissioners for their service to our county.”
The announcements came from board chairman Casey Anderson, vice chairman Partap Verma and members Gerald R. Cichy, Tina Patterson and Carol Rubin.
The council said it would seek their replacement “quickly” and will elect “interim acting” members on October 25 to serve until it appoints new permanent members. It’s unclear how much the shake-up might delay pending development applications.
Controversy recently grew in confidential emails between board members, staff in the planning department and the county council that were steadily leaked to the public. Escalating allegations of misconduct by board members first flew in August when an anonymous tip sparked an investigation that found Anderson kept and distributed alcohol in his office.
Anderson, Verma and Rubin were reprimanded by the county council in October for consuming or accepting drinks and had their wages docked as punishment. Anderson faced further investigations after the county council received a complaint alleging he had used misogynistic language in the workplace. The complaint prompted the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission to open another investigation.
Montgomery Council appeals pay to officials who kept alcohol in office
On Friday, the board voted to fire Planning Director Gwen Wright in a closed session by a 4-0 vote, with Anderson resigning, a day after Wright defended Anderson in an interview with WJLA. The board did not give a reason for Wright’s dismissal. Residents active in planning issues said it was the abrupt and unexplained firing of Wright, a nationally recognized planning expert, that caused the board the greatest concern.
On Monday, a complaint sent to the council by Deputy Parks Director Miti Figueredo accused Verma of wrongdoing in both investigations, including improperly addressing allegations about Anderson’s language and firing Wright in retaliation. Albornoz told The Post on Tuesday that those allegations would also be investigated.
On Tuesday evening, Verma wrote to The Post that he was taking sick leave due to stress. He expressed confidence in Montgomery’s future in a text message Wednesday, saying, “It has been an honor and a pleasure to serve this great county.”
The planning board of five members is appointed by the county council. The members are part-time except for the chairman, whose job pays more than $200,000 and is considered highly influential in a county where development issues often dominate political discussion.
The board approves individual development proposals and submits to the council detailed comprehensive plans that determine where and how quickly the local communities will grow. It also manages the county’s park system and recommends sites to the council for historic designation. Members are term-limited after two four-year terms.
Asked about the planning board’s disagreement at his weekly media briefing Wednesday, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) called the situation “a bit of a mess.” Elrich said he had only heard rumors of possible layoffs, but added, “I definitely think something needs to be done.”
The upheaval comes as the council finalizes the county’s 30-year growth plan, known as Thrive 2050, based on the planning board’s recommendations. The plan sets broad policies for how the county should develop over the long term and has sparked controversy among opponents who seek less density and slower growth.
The board unanimously approved a draft of the plan to be sent to the county council in April 2021. The council is scheduled to move forward with the plan’s expected approval Oct. 25 despite the planning board’s disagreement, Albornoz said Tuesday.
“The amount of growing controversy could have potentially clouded some of the decisions that the board would make,” Albornoz said Wednesday of the resignations. “With the competing controversies growing, we believed this was the best course of action.”
The council governs a county that continues to transform from a once-majority white and affluent bedroom to a suburb of more than 1 million people that is increasingly lower-income and more racially diverse. Planners have said Thrive 2050 will help the county attract jobs and economic development while becoming more environmentally resilient.
The policies, planners say, will also make the county fairer for lower-income residents and communities of color that have been harmed by past planning policies that led many neighborhoods to become and remain segregated by race and income.
This is a developing story and will be updated.