Calvert BOCC suspends planning chair, vice chair

By TAMARA WARD

tward@somdnews.com

The Calvert County Board of County Commissioners suspended Planning Commission Chairman Maurice Lusby and Vice Chair Michael Phipps this week. The decision was based on what the board described as violations of county fiscal procedures, failure to hold a meeting in public and refusal to address a zoning amendment dealing with drive-up facilities during a public hearing, according to a news release issued Nov. 3.

“Based on recent actions by the Planning Commission, the BOCC is working to re-establish procedural order and preserve public funds collected from our hard-working taxpayers,” stated Commissioners’ President Evan Slaughenhoupt (R) in the release.

Letters, dated Nov. 1 and signed by three county commissioners, Commissioners Steve Weems (R) and Pat Nutter (R) did not sign, were delivered to Lusby and Phipps notifying them of their suspension.

The recent action is the culmination of several months of mounting contention between the BOCC and the planning commission on issues dealing with the length of time to triage planning text amendments, the accelerated spending of allocated legal funds and the use of the county attorney’s legal services instead of outside counsel.

The suspension decision was made during an executive session Tuesday, and was made under the authority to consider a personnel action with removal pending an opinion from Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh on the issue of the BOCC’s right to impose spending authority and whether it is a conflict of interest for the planning commission to use the same counsel as the county.

According to County Attorney John Norris, the commissioners have statutory authority to remove members of the planning commission for the three offenses, but deferred in the best interest of parties involved.

“By delaying the decision and requesting the opinion of the attorney general to determine ‘commissioners, you are wrong, or commissioners, you are right and do have the authority on imposing conditions on spending public money’ — by deferring that decision, it gives the people the opportunity to learn the attorney’s position before the removal becomes effective,” said Norris in an interview with The Calvert Recorder.

Norris said the attorney general is not required to render an opinion on local matters. If Frosh decided to do so, it potentially could be six months to a year before his position is known, because Maryland legislators and state agencies have priority. However, a decision to decline offering an opinion may be known within a month from the attorney general.

In that event, the suspension will ultimately result in removal, according to the release. Once removed, the chair and vice chair have the right to call a public hearing, in which they can be reinstated.

Slaughenhoupt has publicly admonished the planning commission on multiple occasions for the alleged offenses, most recently for the commission not adhering to the condition to use legal services of the office of the county attorney. During a public hearing, Slaughenhoupt declared the planning commission had violated the Maryland Open Meetings Act for not holding a meeting in public, which Lusby has indicated was a contract matter dealing with legal counsel.

Longtime planning commission attorney John Yacovelle, who died in October, became severely ill earlier in the year, requiring the planning commission to hire additional counsel to address business as usual and legal matters necessitated by a controversial BOCC resolution to streamline zoning changes. Norris said he was uncertain if the BOCC factored the events related to Yacovelle’s absence into its decisions leading up to the suspension.

The BOCC has come under fire from the public during multiple joint public hearings on planning issues for what have been considered heavy-handed measures. Until an opinion or a decision to decline an opinion is rendered by the attorney general, Lusby and Phipps must abide by the conditions of the suspension, which include not acting on any planning measures. Doing so will result in immediate removal.

Lusby, Phipps and members of the planning commission and Community Planning and Building Director Mark Willis were unavailable to comment on the record at press time.

Twitter: @CalRecTAMARA
Twitter: @CalRecTAMARA