- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Considering the Charles County Planning Commission “broken,” the president of the Charles County board of commissioners “called for the Board to intervene” during a closed session about five months ago, she wrote in an email newsletter distributed Sunday.
Members of the planning commission are ignoring land use facts and fighting constantly with one another, preventing the body from functioning, county commissioners’ President Candice Quinn Kelly (D) said in an interview Tuesday. She referred to the board of commissioners’ authority under state law to remove members of the planning commission under certain circumstances, but wouldn’t say if that’s what she proposed during the spring meeting because the discussion was confidential.
Whatever she suggested during the meeting, “my call for action has been met with reticence by some of my colleagues,” she wrote in the message to her email list. “Week after week our staff and the public are subjected to a circus-like atmosphere where science, data and information are held in disdain. Four Planning Commission members have determined that they know more than any expert on land use planning and that the 2006 failed [comprehensive] Plan is a great template to extend into the future.”
Kelly’s critiques are reasonable, planning commission Chairman Courtney Edmonds said, while Vice Chairman Joe Richard and member Lou Grasso laid any problems at Edmonds’ feet.
“I can understand how someone would think that relevant information isn’t being considered” by the planning commission, Edmonds said.
He cited a state study about the health of the Mattawoman Creek watershed and public and consultants’ input about the revision of the Charles County Comprehensive Plan, the county’s chief zoning document, as examples of information ignored by some of his colleagues.
Richard, who had not seen Kelly’s letter, said the planning commission’s largest hurdle was a “leadership issue.” Kelly called out him and Grasso by name in her letter, saying their “personal ideology” was getting in the way of their job. Richard retorted that Edmonds was failing to compromise with opponents on the planning commission while county commissioners’ publicly flaring tempers give Kelly no room to complain about how planning commissioners conduct themselves.
“There’s nothing in [Maryland zoning code] 66b that suggests that members of the planning commission cannot have a point of view. I’m an advocate of property rights. I make no secret of that. The farmers need to be protected. We’re doing the best we can of making sure we’re not putting them in the unenviable position of not losing the one value they have, that is, their land. That’s pretty much in the mainstream, to be perfectly frank with you,” Richard said.
The planning commission is functioning well overall, Richard said, but Grasso agreed with Kelly that it is “broken.” But he disagreed about how and why.
Interference by the board of commissioners would be inappropriate, Grasso said.
“There is a big difference between the county commissioners trying to influence the planning commission’s decisions and the county commissioners standing up and speaking out when an appointed board is broken,” Grasso said, even though Kelly wrote that the two were the same. “What she’s trying to do is attempting to bully the planning commission into agreeing with her opinions.”
Edmonds uses his position as a bully pulpit to “pontificate,” and he’s the one who needs reining in, Grasso said.
“The planning commission just recommends things, OK? The final say on 90 percent of what the planning commission does is in the board of county commissioners. ... We’ve done everything we can to try to conduct the business of the planning commission in a professional manner. Just watch and see who incites a riot and see who is insulting week after week after week. It’s tiring,” Grasso said, referring to Edmonds.
Commissioners Reuben B. Collins II (D) and Debra M. Davis (D) declined to comment about the discussion because it was held in closed session, while Commissioner Ken Robinson (D) said, “It does, it definitely rings a bell. We obviously are aware of their dysfunctionality. We’ve gotten lots of emails and phone calls asking us to intervene. It’s a slippery slope; they are independent of us, though the commissioners do appoint them. Obviously they are dealing with some heavy issues right now.”
Commissioner Bobby Rucci did not return a call seeking comment.
Could it be done?
Kelly believes that she and her colleagues could remove someone from the planning commission before the end of a term, but the other commissioners were not convinced.
Maryland Code Article 66B, which governs land use decisions in Charles County and others, allows county lawmakers to remove planning commission members after a public hearing “for inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office. The local legislative body that removes a member of a planning commission shall file a written statement of reasons for the removal.”
Planning commissioners’ conduct might meet the standard of malfeasance, Kelly speculated.
“It [the law] gives us a tool. Those tools are available to us for a reason. There’s a lot at stake here. The future of our county will be determined by how we condition and finalize the comprehensive plan as well as our transportation future is tied directly to that,” Kelly said.
But Robinson, while praising Kelly for tackling the issue, didn’t see removal as a politically viable option, considering it a probable “circus.”
“Honestly, I don’t know what’s appropriate for us as commissioners in terms of intervening other than, when people aren’t happy with the commissioners, they can wait four years to vote us out. There are planning commission members up for reappointment,” Robinson said.
Edmonds’, Grasso’s and Joan Jones’ terms expire Dec. 31, Charles County government spokeswoman Crystal Hunt said. Edmonds and Jones are eligible for reappointment while Grasso, who is in his second term, cannot reapply.
Collins said the planning commission should be left alone to compile a new draft of the comprehensive plan, and that he was not aware of any conduct that rose to the level demanded by the law for removal. In any event, throwing around words like “malfeasance” is dangerous.
“To even begin making discussions and allegations like that you have to have credible evidence. And I guess, because I’m an attorney, I’m very careful with the language I use. You can’t just loosely make comments like that. That could be libelous,” he said.
The Maryland Attorney General’s Office does not comment on specific cases, spokesman David Paulson said. The board of commissioners could request an opinion from the office and receive a reply within two or three months, he said.
Should it be done?
Residents grilled Davis about options for disciplining the planning commission during an informal meeting Aug. 9 in La Plata, saying planning commissioners have ignored citizens’ input and embarrassed themselves by constant sniping at one another. The commissioner responded with calls for civility from both sides.
A majority of the body wants to avoid changing the 2006 comprehensive plan, which currently governs the county, despite changing knowledge and circumstances, some attendees said.
“They want to keep it the same,” opined Rosemin Daya of Waldorf, who also said planning commission members were “humiliating” themselves with their own rudeness.
Davis asked listeners for patience.
“I hear those complaints and I hear those complaints on the other side. I think that is coming from [the fact that] they decided to tweak the old [plan]. That, I understand, is the way it’s been done in the past. But the recommendation from staff was to scrap the old one, was to start from scratch. I’d like to see [the draft update]. I’m not going to prejudge and step ahead. I understand there’s issues about people being cordial all over, and I was against that. That is a pet peeve in there. … We have to give better and demand better. It’s tough to scream at somebody to tell them to stop screaming,” Davis said.
Tara Carlson of Waldorf wanted specifics.
“How do we demand better?” she asked.
“First of all, give better. Don’t disrespect people when you go to talk to them,” Davis replied. Carlson objected that she had never been disrespectful; Davis said she hadn’t meant her in particular.
Carlson was not appeased.
“It sounds like ‘demand better’ is just words because there’s no accountability,” she said.