Plans to end a requirement that political minorities serve on Montgomery County's Planning Board are on the table in Annapolis and drawing fire from some county officials, including planning board members.
Del. Tom Hucker (D-Dist. 20) of Silver Spring said he is sponsoring the legislation because he believes the requirement is unnecessary and ending it would free the Montgomery County Council to make appointments based on merit.
“To me there is no Democratic or Republican way to run a planning department or make land-use decisions,” Hucker told members of the Montgomery County House delegation at a bill hearing this week in Rockville.
The proposal would not affect the terms of current planning board members.
Nonetheless, the Montgomery County Planning Board has voted unanimously to oppose the legislation.
Specifically, the bill would eliminate a mandate that no more than three members of the five-member county planning board may be from the same political party.
The membership requirement is set in a state law that governs the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, which Montgomery and Prince George's counties' planning boards jointly direct.
“Commissioners believe it adds to impartiality and independence,” Adrian R. Gardner, the commission's general counsel, said in testimony at Wednesday's hearing.
Gardner said planning board members believe their work is improved by a diversity of viewpoints and that although they agree the appointments should be nonpartisan, without the requirement there's no guarantee.
“The worst-case scenario is that appointments would be made without balance” and that decisions could be too political, Gardner said.
Members of the Montgomery County Council, which appoints the county's planning board and whose members are all Democrats, also expressed concern about removing the minority membership mandate.
“I think the political reality is we council members mostly interact with Democrats, [and] since the people we know are Democrats I think now and forever the people we would appoint would be Democrats,” Montgomery Councilman George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) of Takoma Park said Thursday.
The Montgomery County Planning Board makes land use decisions including reviewing and deciding whether proposed development projects may be built. It also oversees the county's parks and planning departments.
As it is, there are few outlets for Republicans to serve in much of the Democratic-dominated state, Leventhal said.
“As a citizen, I think a lack of a constructive, responsible Republican Party in Maryland is not good for democracy,” he said.
Hucker said the proposal is not a commentary on any commissioner.
“The County Council should not be making the argument that party registration or political consideration should come into play; I think it's a weak argument,” Hucker said.
Leventhal said he understands the argument that appointments should not be partisan, but “in practice, it wouldn't work that way.”
The proposed change would not remove the mandate for minority party membership on the Prince George's County Planning Board.
But any change in how planning board members in either county are appointed must be approved by both the Montgomery County and Prince George's County delegations before it can go to a vote on the House floor.
“At first thought I don't know why party would matter at all in that appointment,” Del. Shane Robinson (D-Dist. 39) of Montgomery Village said Thursday.
Robinson said he still is exploring the implications but is not convinced that the minority member requirement is needed.
“I'm sure there will be a lot of discussion over the next few months” on the issue, Robinson said.
All Montgomery and Prince George's senators and delegates are Democrats, as are the county executives and councils of both counties.
Montgomery County Republican Party Chairman Mark Uncapher said the proposal “to end the balance requirement suggests an intention to have a more politicized and more Democrat-dominated planning process” and “is contrary to the interests of what has been a successful non-politicized planning process.”
“Good urban planning has been one of the hallmarks of Montgomery County and having diversity of input has been an important part of that success,” Uncapher said.
Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) still is considering the proposal and has not taken a position, his spokesman Patrick K. Lacefield said.
Prince George's County Delegation Chairman Jolene Ivey (D-Dist. 47) of Cheverly did not return calls for comment.
In Montgomery, the council's appointments to the planning board are subject to the county executive's approval.
In most Maryland counties, the county council members or county commissioners appoint the planning board, but in some, including Prince George's, the county executive makes planning board appointments.
The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission — the water and sewer utility that serves 1.8 million customers in Montgomery and Prince George's counties — has a similar minority member requirement written into state law for its three Montgomery County commissioners. No more than two Montgomery WSSC commissioners may be from the same party.
Hucker said he is considering offering legislation that would repeal that requirement for the WSSC.