Wednesday, March 03, 2010

On the Next Planning Board Chairman

Last week, Marc Korman wrote about the people who have served as Montgomery County Planning Board Chairmen in the past. The County Council will soon decide on the next occupant of that seat. We have a few thoughts on the qualifications of that person.

First, we should bear in mind the true functions of the position. Many people assume that the Planning Board Chairman sets policy for growth and development in the county. That is not entirely true. The Chairman certainly has a say on the Annual Growth Policy and, as one of five Planning Board Members, votes on zoning recommendations to the council as well as site plans. But the ultimate authority on growth policy is the County Council itself. The council votes on the Annual Growth Policy and sometimes changes it substantially from the wishes of the Planning Department (as they just did). They also vote on master plans, zoning text amendments and zoning changes. Changes in the County Council, not of Planning Board Chairmen, determine shifts in development rules.

The Planning Board Chairman has three critical functions.

1. Administration
The Montgomery County Parks and Planning Departments, which the Chairman oversees, have vast responsibilities. Their staff drafts Annual Growth Policy revisions and master plans. They review every new project for zoning conformance, traffic tests and site planning. They administer the county’s cherished park system. Their combined FY 2010 budget totals $115 million and they employ more than 1,000 people. The Planning Board Chairman must be a strong manager. That is particularly true in the wake of the Clarksburg scandal, after which Royce Hanson was brought in to establish law and order. The Chairman must also oversee the talented but tone-deaf Planning Director Rollin Stanley, who could flourish with steady guidance but will likely run wild without it.

2. Guardian of Process
In deciding on master plans, zoning recommendations, site plans and just about everything else, the Planning Board hears from a wide variety of parties including developers, property owners, civic associations and individuals. The board owes it to all of those parties to carefully consider their views regardless of its ultimate decision. The Chairman is the board’s leader and sets its tone. This is a very difficult job as parties who do not prevail before the board can become quite angry and hurl all sorts of irresponsible accusations. It takes a very secure and steady person to stand up to that pressure and treat everyone fairly under those circumstances. Weak personalities will fold.

3. Relationship with the County Council
The County Executive’s primary relationship with the Planning Department is in considering and proposing its budget to the County Council. The council, which sets that budget, votes on many recommendations by the board and appoints its members, is far more critical to the department. By all accounts, the council is rather fragmented at the moment and will stay that way at least through the 2010 elections. If all the incumbents return, their inability to work together could continue for a long time. Navigating the raging, shifting currents of Rockville will be a taxing but necessary task for the next Planning Board Chairman. The Chairman will have to know when to stand up, when to stand down and when to compromise – and with whom to do each of the above. Only a shrewd negotiator with stature and experience can get that done.

If the above requirements seem demanding, they are. But if the council does not find a truly exceptional person for the job, the entire county will suffer. The model for the kind of person it should not pick is Derick Berlage, a three-term County Council Member who applied to become Planning Board Chairman in 2002. The Chairman at that time was Arthur Holmes, who had assumed the position in 2001 due to the retirement of Bill Hussmann. Holmes wanted to serve as Chairman longer, but was disqualified due to term limits since he had served for almost two terms on the board. Berlage, who had already announced he was leaving the council, was a convenient pick in a contentious election year. According to the Gazette, five Council Members – Steve Silverman, Mike Subin, Blair Ewing, Phil Andrews and Ike Leggett – were “united by the theme that Berlage is the best they can do. Certainly in an election year, the fractionalized council would find it difficult to agree on any candidate clearly identified as either pro- or anti-growth.” Berlage turned out to have minimal management skills and was totally overwhelmed by the job. Three years later, the massive Clarksburg scandal erupted and the council had little choice but to bring back Royce Hanson to clean up the mess.

The problem is that Hanson’s job is not done. The Planning Department has been ravaged by turnover and budget cuts. Without strong leadership, it could easily lapse back into the drift and chaos of years past. The council must prioritize management skill, force of will and tenaciousness over mere likability or convenience. If the council takes the easy way out and finds another Berlage, it will only take the easy way back to Clarksburg.