- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
The final minutes of Monday night’s Charles County Planning Commission meeting might bear political effects well into the future.
During the Charles County commissioners meeting Tuesday, the board voted unanimously to take action on the expired terms of three planning members. Commission Chairman Courtney Edmonds and member Joan Jones may be reappointed and have applied for reconsideration for their posts, Commissioner Ken Robinson (D) said. Another commission member, Lou Grasso, has served two terms and cannot be reappointed.
The terms of all three members expired Dec. 31.
Robinson said the decision regarding Grasso’s replacement and the potential reappointment of the other two would be made by April 30.
As she did not watch Monday’s planning meeting, commissioner’s President Candice Quinn Kelly (D) said she was not sure why the majority of the county’s Planning and Growth Management staff showed up at the commissioners’ meeting Tuesday.
“One side of the room was filled with staff and I didn’t know why, but it became apparent that they were making a statement” after she watched a taped version of the Monday meeting, Kelly said Wednesday. “I’m just so disturbed that our staff could be treated in that way, and for over a year, things like this have been going on.”
Kelly was referring to the portion of the meeting during which planning commission Vice Chairman Joe Richard and Grasso singled out Steve Ball, PGM planning director, regarding a memorandum he wrote Monday regarding his role and that of his staff in a matter concerning the Piney Reach Business Park planned near the county landfill on Billingsley Road in Waldorf.
The preliminary plan for the development came under fire after a letter from St. Mary’s College of Maryland professor Julia King revealed that portions of the site contained purported Colonial-era dwellings, and thus were archaeologically significant. Richard and Grasso repeatedly questioned Ball and PGM staffer Cathy Thompson about how the staff overlooked the existence of the sites.
Ball maintained that he and the staff were unaware of their existence until shortly before the Feb. 26 meeting, when the issue was first brought up.
“There’s obvious significance to this archaeological find,” Richard said Monday night. “Clearly this plan would have been approved if not for [Joe Tieger]. I find it hard to believe that we just take plans off the shelf and don’t change them.”
Grasso joined Richard in questioning the staff’s competency. Toward the end of the meeting, when Richard moved to address the memorandum, Grasso said Ball had “lost the confidence of the majority of the board.”
“How many times have we passed a motion and asked him to come back and do certain things and he’s ignored us? These accusations, these acrimonies exist,” Grasso said. The statement prompted Ball to leave the meeting and not return.
Richard motioned for an agenda item to discuss Ball’s role and actions regarding Piney Reach, which was approved 4-3, including Grasso’s amendment to discuss the majority of the commission’s lack of confidence in Ball.
Fearful of losing the PGM staff, Kelly filed an emergency agenda request Wednesday to discuss the removal of Grasso and Richard from the commission.
Originally, Kelly intended to discuss the item at Wednesday’s scheduled commissioners’ meeting. However, commissioners’ Vice President Reuben B. Collins II (D) and Commissioner Debra M. Davis (D) did not attend the meeting, prompting Kelly to close the meeting early and table the item for Tuesday’s commissioners’ meeting. As Grasso’s term has expired, Kelly said he would be immediately removed from the board if the commissioners vote to do so. In Richard’s case, because his term is not expired, Kelly said a public hearing would be necessary.
In the agenda request, Kelly expressed frustration with how she believes Grasso and Richard “have more confidence in the judgment, guidance, and legal opinions of outside individuals rather than our staff,” and referred to complaints of “ex-parte conversations taking place on quasi-judicial matters,” discussions outside a regular commission meeting on matters where the commission acts in a judicial role, which are illegal.
In a phone interview, Kelly said the latter concern was raised at several of her town hall meetings.
During a Thursday phone interview, La Plata resident Barbara Talcott identified herself as one of the first people to broach this concern with Kelly two years ago. Around that time, Talcott said, she noted the planning members ostensibly engaging in text message conversations during official meeting proceedings. She said she had no information on whom they were texting.
Talcott said she was pleased with Kelly’s decision to take action.
“I do very much disagree with how Grasso and Richard treat the staff,” Talcott said. “They’re professionals, doing their job trying to follow the law of the county and the state. For them to question the staff’s integrity is not their job. There’s a hierarchy. I’m glad, at least, that someone in the commissioner’s office is trying to correct this.”
Neither Kelly nor Talcott would speak on the record any further regarding the alleged ex-parte conversations.
Kelly said during a Wednesday phone interview that the root of her ire was mostly toward the unprofessional treatment.
“For professionals to be treated that way ... I just can’t sit idly by,” Kelly said. “[Richard] probably isn’t really suited to that board. Our staff does not deserve to be treated that way. You just can’t ignore this. I don’t understand why we can’t make a change.”
Robinson took to Facebook on Thursday morning to defend Ball.
“The Charles County Commissioners cannot do the job for which we were elected without the guidance, expertise and assistance of the dedicated corps of county staff. Steve Ball is among those,” Robinson wrote in a status update. “He is tireless, skillful and most of all uniquely qualified to be the Director of Planning. He was not ‘our’ hire. He came to the county during the administration of the prior Board of Commissioners. Sometimes they did good. Dismissing and degrading an individual in a public forum by anyone who is in any way associated with Charles County Government is inexcusable behavior and should not be tolerated and I personally will stand up for someone who is treated in such a manner, whether or not I agree with their positions.”
Ball declined to comment Thursday.
In reference to both the commissioners’ decision Tuesday and Kelly’s request to discuss removing Richard and Grasso from the board, Nanjemoy resident Ted Baker, a member of the Smart Growth Alliance and Citizens for a Better Charles County, said it was high time for both maneuvers.
“I think the planning commission has been out of it for a long time. The four that vote as a bloc have not paid any attention to what the citizens have said for a long time. That they’ve let Grasso remain this long is terrible,” Baker said Wednesday. “I’m as frustrated with the planning commission and the county commissioners as I am with Congress. The whole way that this has been carried out has been so confrontational. The decisions being made are not for the best of the citizens. For [Kelly] to have to make an emergency agenda request to make it functional again makes me wonder.”
Grasso said Thursday that he had not been aware of Kelly’s actions, and declined to comment. Richard and Edmonds could not be reached despite calls seeking comment.
Davis, Collins and Commissioner Bobby Rucci did not return calls seeking comment.