The upheaval in the planning agency’s governance has shocked even longtime political observers in a county accustomed to intense development spats. It follows a trail of scandals and leaks that has dogged one of Montgomery’s most influential institutions since mid-September.
“The 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 acting with deliberate speed to appoint new commissioners to move Montgomery County forward. We thank the commissioners for their service to our county.”
The resignations came from board Chair Casey Anderson, Vice Chair Partap Verma and members Gerald R. Cichy, Tina Patterson and Carol Rubin.
The council said it would seek their replacements “swiftly” and will select “temporary acting” members on Oct. 25 to serve until it appoints new permanent members. It’s unclear how much the shake-up might delay pending development applications.
Controversy mounted recently in confidential emails between board members, planning department employees and the county council that steadily leaked to the public. Escalating allegations of board members’ misconduct flew, first in August, when an anonymous tip triggered an investigation that found Anderson kept and shared alcohol in his office.
Anderson, Verma and Rubin were reprimanded by the county council in October for consuming or accepting drinks and had their pay docked as punishment. Anderson faced further scrutiny after the county council received a complaint alleging he had used misogynistic language in the workplace. The complaint led the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission to open another investigation.
Montgomery council docks pay of official 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 recusing himself, 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 most concern about the board.
On Monday, a complaint sent to the council by Deputy Parks Director Miti Figueredo accused Verma of misconduct in both investigations, including improperly soliciting allegations about Anderson’s language and firing Wright in retaliation. Albornoz told The Post on Tuesday those allegations would be investigated as well.
On Tuesday evening, Verma wrote to The Post that he was taking a medical leave of absence due to stress. He expressed confidence in Montgomery’s future in a text message Wednesday, saying, “It’s been an honor and pleasure to serve this amazing county.”
The five-member planning board is appointed by the county council. Members are part-time except for the chair, whose job pays more than $200,000 and is considered highly influential in a county where development issues often dominate the political discussion.
The board approves individual development proposals and recommends to the council detailed master plans that determine where and how quickly communities should grow. It also manages the county’s park system and recommends to the council sites for historic designation. Members are term-limited after two four-year terms.
Asked about the planning board controversy 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 about possible resignations but added, “I do think there is certainly a need to do something.”
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 long-term and has sparked controversy among opponents seeking less density and slower growth.
The board unanimously approved a draft of the plan to send 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 controversy, Albornoz said Tuesday.
“The amount of growing controversies could have potentially clouded some of the decisions that the board would make,” Albornoz said Wednesday of the resignations. “With the competing controversies that were mounting, we thought this was the best course of action.”
The council governs a county that continues to transform from a once majority White and affluent bedroom community into a suburb of more than 1 million people who are 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, also will make the county more equitable for lower-income residents and communities of color harmed by previous planning policies that led many neighborhoods to become, and remain, segregated by race and income.
This is a developing story and will be updated.