Seven Locks debate breaks down into spat

Abrams renews questions of conflict over Ervin’s County Council job; Leventhal defends his aide

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

There was shouting, finger-pointing and general contention on display at last week’s normally businesslike school board meeting.

The ongoing controversy over the Seven Locks Elementary School project has frayed the nerves of school board members to reveal simmering tensions over what some have called an ideological split.

Thursday’s discussion of the project led to a heated exchange between Valerie Ervin (Dist. 4) of Silver Spring and Stephen N. Abrams (Dist. 2) of Rockville.

Abrams renewed questions about a potential conflict of interest for Ervin, who is a confidential aide to County Council President George L. Leventhal.

Ervin asked why a task force of County Council staffers and school planners was formed to review the project when it appeared to her that the board had already decided to recommend rebuilding the school on Kendale Road in Potomac.

‘‘Was this a monkey court that we had the County Council put together with [board President] Charles [Haughey] and you, Dr. Weast?” Ervin asked Superintendent Jerry D. Weast.

‘‘No, it was a kangaroo court at the County Council, Mrs. ... Valerie,” Abrams interrupted.

‘‘You have had your time ad nauseam [to] address this board,” Ervin shot back.

‘‘Mr. Abrams, you are out of order,” Haughey said.

‘‘It was a kangaroo court, with the inspector general,” Abrams continued.

‘‘When the IG’s report came out, had you not done what you did, Mr. Abrams, we might not be sitting,” Ervin said, referring to a letter that Abrams wrote questioning the county inspector general’s authority to audit the school system’s handling of the Seven Locks project.

‘‘Are you speaking as a staffer, or are you speaking as a board member?” Abrams asked Ervin in a loud voice.

‘‘And I knew you were going to go there because that’s the way you are,” Ervin shouted as Haughey tried to maintain order.

‘‘I am a member of this board and I have right and responsibility to address the board, which I am doing,” she continued. ‘‘But to hear from you ad nauseam ...”

‘‘But you also have to avoid any conflict of interest,” Abrams shot back.

Ervin’s job has been a point of contention since board member Sharon W. Cox (At large) of Germantown asked in January 2005 that the school board’s ethics panel look at possible conflicts of interest that might arise from Ervin’s council job and her job as a board member.

The panel declined to issue an opinion at that time, saying it would rule only on specific questions of conflict.

Asked Friday whether he thought Seven Locks presented a specific conflict that he could ask the panel to consider, Abrams said, ‘‘I think we wait and see how this plays out. I did not make the comment lightly or casually.”

Ervin received a waiver from the county’s Ethics Commission addressing restrictions on her council job.

‘‘It’s already been decided,” she said Monday. ‘‘I’m not breaking any laws by serving on the board or working as a public servant.”

Ervin said the issue has been kept alive by a ‘‘whisper campaign.”

Abrams said he was not sure how Ervin was approaching the Seven Locks issue.

‘‘What I heard Ms. Ervin say sounded a lot more like, ‘I know the outcome, guys, and I’m a player in that outcome,’” he said Friday. ‘‘The question is where is she a player? Is she a player on the board or a player on the council staff?”

Ervin said it was clear she was speaking as a board member.

Leventhal (D-At large) of Takoma Park said he sees no conflict of interest.

Leventhal aide Patti Vitale, who was a member of the Seven Locks task force, is assigned to school matters. Ervin does no work for him on schools, Leventhal said, adding that if he talks with Ervin about school issues, it’s the same as when he talks with any other school board member.

‘‘I think Steve Abrams wants to shut up a strong colleague who just doesn’t agree with him,” Leventhal said.

Both Ervin and Leventhal questioned whether Abrams has a conflict in running for state comptroller while sitting on the board.

‘‘Here’s a very partisan, ambitious Republican seeking attention for himself,” Leventhal said. ‘‘Others can judge whether that’s a conflict. This whole conflict over the [inspector general] has been very profitable to the Steve Abrams publicity campaign.”

Abrams denied any conflict.

‘‘I think it’s interesting that the two people who have a direct conflict are trying to brush aside the conflict of interest charge against them by trying to gin up a conflict of interest charge,” he said.

Abrams pointed to Leventhal ally County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), who is running for governor, to Councilman Thomas E. Perez (D-Dist. 5) of Takoma Park, who has been raising money for a run for attorney general, and to Blair G. Ewing, who ran for the County Council while he was a school board member.

‘‘In none of those cases is there either a real or perceived conflict of interest because in none of those cases are they working for two different masters at the same time,” Abrams said.