Illegal attorney, councilmen meeting comes to light just days before primary

Silverman, Knapp met on zoning change but plan to recuse themselves from vote

Friday, Sept. 8, 2006






A zoning attorney apologized Thursday for a closed-door meeting in July with two Montgomery County councilmen to discuss development around Damascus, a violation of county rules.

‘‘I made a mistake, and I’m sorry about that,” attorney Timothy Dugan told The Gazette. Dugan is chairman of the zoning and land-use department at Shulman Rogers Gandal, one of county’s most prominent law firms.

He said he was unaware the county code prohibited private meetings between council members and development parties on certain zoning matters. Dugan had scheduled meetings with all nine council members.

He had already met with County Councilmen Steven A. Silverman and Michael J. Knapp when he found out from staffers for Councilwoman Marilyn J. Praisner (D-Dist. 4) of Calverton that the meetings would be illegal.

‘‘As soon as I was notified of the statute, I canceled all other meetings [with other council members],” he said.

Dugan said that in most zoning matters, meetings with council members are common and usually allowed. In this case, the short meetings were held to reinforce a presentation made to the council.

But county law specifically forbids private meetings over rezonings in sectional map amendments. The subject of Dugan’s meetings were zoning changes in the Damascus Sectional Map Amendment. Dugan’s clients own the land to be rezoned.

On July 25, Dugan appeared before the council and apologized publicly for the meetings. The apology went unreported until a Montgomery County blog this week posted the video of the apology as well as a memo from a county aide describing the prohibition.

The blog, MoCo Progressive, is condemning Silverman and Knapp for holding the meetings.

The council is scheduled to vote on the amendment in the fall. The council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development committee — headed by Silverman (D-At large) of Silver Spring — is scheduled to hear the matter on Sept. 18.

‘‘In these cases the decision must be based on a record of evidence and all council members must see the same record, which includes verbal communication,” said Marlene Michaelson, senior legislative analyst for the County Council.

In a July 20 memo to council members, Michaelson, on advice from the county’s legal staff, advised Silverman and Knapp (D-Dist. 2) of Germantown to incorporate the details from the ex parte meetings into the public record, and declare whether they would consider those comments in the council’s deliberations on the zoning matter. The letter does not identify any council members by name, but Dugan identified Silverman and Knapp while apologizing for his actions during remarks at the public hearing.

Silverman, who is running for county executive, has decided to recuse himself from future council deliberations and will not vote on the matter.

‘‘I’m taking a different approach [than that suggested in the memo], and going beyond what the law says. It’s a noncontroversial amendment. It will pass unanimously by the council. It’s just a technical requirement as part of the master plan. SMAs are routine,” Silverman said. ‘‘Due to staff error, it was a meeting that was not OK. In eight years on the council, I have never had an ex parte meeting because of a great staff.”

Knapp could not be reached for comment, but he is expected to recuse himself as well, Silverman said.

Silverman blamed the airing of the incident on the campaign of former county councilman Isiah ‘‘Ike” Leggett, who is also running for county executive. No one from the Damascus community has criticized him about the meeting, Silverman said.

The posting from the blog (www.mocoprogressive.blogspot.com) was e-mailed Thursday by several civic groups in the upcounty. It is unclear from the blog why Dugan’s apology is coming to light now. On the blog entry containing the recorded apology, the blogger thanks ‘‘J.S.” and a ‘‘certain councilmember.”

MoCo Progressive is published anonymously. The user profile of the blogger says only that the person is male and works in the technology industry.

Dugan said he and his clients have not considered the effects of the recusals.