Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Kendale and Clarksburg environmental damage linked

A community leader has linked the Seven Locks "replacement school" project on Kendale Road with the Clarksburg scandal, saying the county has ignored the environmental implications of both.

Ginny Barnes, President of the West Montgomery County Citizens Association, writes in the Potomac Almanac that county leaders use the word "inevitability" to "justify just about anything, especially growth and really bad development projects. Like the the new Kendale School, which is too large for where it is sited with environmental implications that ought to embarrass the School Board — which fostered it. Or, Clarksburg, as the wild west, where we just had to grow larger by building a town far from any public transit and threatening the most pristine watersheds left in our county."

School board chews up family summer vacations (again)

The Montgomery County school board has voted again to force families to cut short their summer vacations by starting the 2006-07 academic year before Labor Day.

School gets out this spring on June 14, and resumes in the summer on August 28. Click here for the official county calendar.

Duncan budget would delay school construction; no word yet on Seven Locks

Gubernatorial candidate Doug Duncan has submitted a six-year capital budget for Montgomery County Public Schools that could delay 45 construction projects by as much as two years, the Washington Post reports.

While the Post named several schools to be affected, it did not mention Seven Locks Elementary or its Kendale Road replacement.

After ignoring PTA of Seven Locks, Duncan now says he wants to work with PTAs

County Executive Doug Duncan's spokesman says the candidate for governor wants to work with Montgomery County Parent-Teacher Associations (PTAs) on the modernization of existing schools and the construction of new ones.

Duncan's proposed six-year capital budget for county schools has alarmed PTA leaders. "This impacts everybody, because once you throw the schedule off, everyone who's in the queue knows it's going to affect everyone else," said Montgomery County Council of PTAs President Cindy Kerr.

Duncan's spokesman, David Weaver, tells the Washington Post, "This isn't the final word on the schools budget. We want to work with the PTAs and the council and the state delegation."

This is news to the Seven Locks Elementary School PTA, which has voted repeatedly against Duncan's plan to shut down the school and build a more expensive replacement on Kendale Road in Potomac.

"If Duncan is serious about working with local PTAs and making his budget more realistic," one Seven Locks PTA member tells this blogger, "he should heed the wishes of the Seven Locks PTA, which will save taxpayer money while improving the interests of county kids."

Friday, January 20, 2006

Inspector General investigates forgeries

County Inspector General Thomas Dagley suspects that documents and signatures pertaining to the Clarksburg scandal are forgeries, adding to speculation that the murky decisions to build the Kendale Road school in Potomac might have criminal connections.

According to the Gazette, Dagley told the County Council that he is investigating whether "false, misleading or altered entries appear on public records and whether property was wrongly transferred."

Councilman Denis wants to 'warn' agencies not to 'blow off' citizens

County Council member Howard Denis thinks the county government is out of control and that it should hold a public hearing on the issue of reimbursing taxpayers who uncover official corruption and wrongdoing.

He told the Frederick News-Post, "It would serve as a warning to all other agencies in county government everywhere that you just don't blow citizens off."

National authority calls county zoning laws 'a mess'

Former Montgomery County Planning Board Chairman Royce Hanson, a nationally recognized expert and the father of MoCo's land-use policy, calls the county's zoning laws "a mess" and says they must be changed. He also urged the council to update the zoning laws.

(Note: County officials reportedly have waived the building height and density restrictions on the Seven Locks Elementary School yard on the corner of Seven Locks and Bradley Boulevard in Bethesda, in apparent preparation for a long-planned but officially unacknowledged high-density housing project. Under the still-secret plan, the land would be re-zoned despite neighborhood opposition.)

'Unconscionable dereliction'

The County Council's development scandals are partially the result of "an unconscionable dereliction of responsibility" by successive planning boards, and that the Council itself was had failed to monitor development.

That's what former County Planning Board Chairman Royce Hanson, a nationally-recognized planning expert at George Washington University told council members.

"There is no disciplined system through which either the council or the board establishes priorities or assesses performance," he said in comments covered by the Washington Post.

Many top staffers have left the planning agency in recent years, and those who remain "report little or no sense of common purpose or comprehensive context for their work." Hanson based his report on a six-week investigation that included interviews with politicians, planners and developers.

Planning board 'a development production agency'

"Montgomery County's planning department, once a national model of efficiency, has fallen into disarray, with morale at an all-time low and staff members complaining that they are under pressure to approve projects quickly, a nationally recognized expert told the County Council," the Washington Post reports.

"There is some concern among the staff that they have become a development production agency," Royce Hanson, who chaired the planning board from 1972-1981, told council members. "There are strong feelings that they were expected to move projects expeditiously and get stuff built. . . . . There is currently a morale crisis."

Ex-planning chief calls Clarksburg 'symptom of serious systemic problems'

A former Montgomery County Planning Board Chairman calls the Clarksburg scandal "a symptom of serious systemic problems."

Royce Hanson, who chaired the planning board in the 1970s, told County Council members his "opinion with the bark off."

The Sentinel reports that Hanson said that the board's "lack of institutional and intellectual leadership" has made scandals like Clarksburg possible.

Hanson's blunt comments add fuel to Seven Locks Elementary School parents who allege wrongdoing in the decision to build a "replacement" school on Kendale Road after school Superintendent Jerry Weast complied with County Executive Doug Duncan's request to hand over school land for the construction of a high-density housing project.

Report echoes Inspector General's criticism

Former Planning Board Chairman Royce Hanson's harsh report to the County Council "echoed criticism from County Inspector General Thomas J. Dagley in a Jan. 12 memo to Council President George L. Leventhal, County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and Planning Board Chairman Derick P. Berlage," the Gazette reports.

"In the memo, Dagley detailed his investigation of problems, including possible criminal action, at the Planning Department stemming from the summer’s revelations that hundreds of height, setback and amenities violations were found at the Clarksburg Town Center."

Nancy Floreen blames citizens who uncovered scandal

County Council member Nancy Floreen blames the citizens who uncovered the Clarksburg Town Center scandal, and says they should be stuck with the bill.

A former Planning Board member, Floreen opposed reimbursing the Clarksburg Town Center Advisory Committee, the citizens' group that unmasked the official county wrongdoing. The Frederick News-Post quotes Floreen as saying, "The community members chose to use their time. Any costs that are associated should not be borne by the taxpayer."

Suddenly, council members realize the money belongs to the taxpayers

Look at how the debate on county planning and construction has changed. Montgomery officials usually say the money they spend belongs to the "county," and they spend it freely.

But in giving excuses for not reimbursing citizens who exposed official county wrongdoing, the officials say that the reimbursements are unfair to the "taxpayer."

County Council member Marilyn Praisner: "We should not be introducing taxpayer money into the process."

County Council member Nancy Floreen: "Any costs that are associated should not be borne by the taxpayer."

County Council member Steve $ilverman: "I'd like to get it resolved without taxpayer money, but I don't know how that happens."

Council: Citizen investigation 'wasn't worth anything to us'

"When the Montgomery County Council failed to give a quick nod to Clarksburg citizens seeking reimbursement for their expenses in exposing building violations, a leader of the group said she might not participate in mediation with the developer and builders," the Frederick News-Post reports.

"Amy L. Presley, who has represented the Clarksburg Town Center Advisory Committee since it launched an investigation into the Clarksburg Town Center Project, said the message she got from councilmembers Tuesday was, '"You did a great job. Thanks for uncovering this stuff, but it wasn't worth anything to us. You will have to get it from the developers."'

"'This is certainly cause for serious evaluation of what we do next,' she said."

Council votes not to reimburse citizens who fight illegal decisions

After much debate, the Montgomery County Council has voted not to reimburse citizens who uncover and fight illegal county decisions that harm neighborhoods but benefit developers.

The Clarksburg Town Center Advisory Committee (CTCAC), the citizens' group that spent more than $500,000 in legal costs to expose the malfeasance, has been seeking reimbursement.

"CTCAC asked the county to pay for more than $267,000 in current legal expenses and an estimated maximum of $200,000 more in future legal fees as well as $35,691 in direct expenses," the Business Gazette reports.

"The requests do not include more than 7,000 hours that CTCAC members have spent searching through an often contradictory and incomplete paper trail at the Planning Department and ferreting out how the process and development regulation went awry, said Amy Presley, a CTCAC founder."

The Council did decide to pay for a third of the mediation costs to settle the matter quietly, behind closed doors.

County Executive candidate Silverman wants to pay citizen investigators

The county council member most responsible for the development planning scandals now says the county should reimburse the citizens' group that unearthed the corrupt relations between Clarksburg Town Center developers and county officials.

Steven A. Silverman, chairman of the council committee that oversees planning, said that Montgomery County should pay the Clarksburg Town Center Advisory Committee, a citizens' group, for its detective and legal work.

Silverman is under fire for allegedly enabling corrupt development deals with taxpayer dollars. He has also been criticized for attempting to raze the Seven Locks Elementary School in Bethesda and turn the schoolyard into a high-density subsidized housing project.

He is also facing criticism for putting forth cosmetic reforms to cover up the scandals before the November elections. Silverman is running to succeed Doug Duncan as County Executive.

"It seems to me that the government should step up and be accountable," Silverman told the Business Gazette.

He added that any time a citizens' group uncovers "government malfeasance," it should be "knocking on our door" for legal fees.

Candidate Silverman, a Democrat, finds himself siding with Republican Councilman Howard Denis, who has long sought to reimburse citizens for legal costs incurred in fighting county negligence.

Seven Locks School advocates hope to use a Clarksburg reimbursement as a precedent to enable a full investigation of the decisionmaking behind the Seven Locks/Kendale school scandal.

Dept of Permitting services called a 'closed organization'

The Montgomery County Civic Federation is resisting county attempts to centralize control of authority to shape and enforce land-use decisions.

Civic leaders argue that county officials are too tight with developers, citing the Clarksburg development scandal. Proposals to centralize enforcement under the Department of Planning Services (DPS), which is controlled by the County Executive, will only protect corruption and other wrongdoing, advocates say.

According to the Gazette, "The County Civic Federation strongly opposes moving enforcement to the Department of Permitting Services, chiefly because the DPS enforcement process is not open to the public and because DPS lacks planning expertise, President Daniel L. Wilhelm told the Planning Board last week."

"Basically it’s a closed organization," said Wilhelm, in reference to the DPS. "They enforce certain things they are interested in, and they don’t enforce other things."

Civic leaders: County seeking to 'skirt' investigation

By pushing flawed reform proposals, Montgomery County officials are seeking to "skirt the investigative stage" into corruption and other improper development decisionmaking.

So says Jim Humphrey, chairman of the Montgomery County Civic Federation’s planning committee.

The Gazette reports, "If they succeed, he said, problems uncovered at Clarksburg Town Center may appear resolved when voters go to the polls this fall."

Leading the charge of the flawed reform proposals: Steven A. Silverman, chairman of the council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee.

Silverman wants to be elected this fall as the next Montgomery County Executive.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Is Duncan ready to save school land for school kids?

A community leader has challenged County Executive Doug Duncan to prove his commitment to save school land for school kids.

Janis Sartucci, MCCPTA Churchill Cluster Coordinator, followed up her January 4 question to Duncan (see posting below) with a formal letter and copies of letters that Duncan sent to Superintendent Jerry Weast in 2003, which initiated the Seven Locks controversy.

In her letter, she says to Duncan,

"If you are now committed to preserving school land for school children I would request that you correspond with Dr. Weast as soon as possible and rescind your original requests.

"Your rescission will allow our community to advocate for the urgent needs of our public school children without having to compete with other proposed uses for our dedicated public school land."

Local school leader asks Duncan to rescind request

A local school leader has publicly asked County Executive Doug Duncan if he would rescind his request to remove 30 acres of land owned by public schools and turn them into housing developments.

"Two years ago you wrote to Superintendent Weast and asked him to declare 30 acres of Churchill Cluster dedicated public school property surplus to the needs of school children," Janis Sartucci, MCCPTA Churchill Cluster Coordinator, told Duncan at a public meeting in Potomac on January 4.

"Meanwhile, in the last 10 years the number of classroom trailers have tripled to where we now have 17,000 students being educated outside," she said. "In the last 10 years over 140 acres of dedicated school land has been moved out of the school system's inventory. Are you ready to rescind your request for 30 acres of Churchill Cluster school land and push for new schools to put our school children in buildings?"

Duncan's response could either be a crack in his position or simply a campaigning politician's answer to please everybody. He told Sartucci that school land is a "precious" resource that the county must preserve, and that while the county seeks to expand affordable housing, he would follow up on Mrs. Sartucci's request to keep school land for school children.

Weast supports budget-busting Kendale school bid

Superintendent Jerry Weast has selected a contractor to build the "Seven Locks Elementary Replacement School," even though the bid is 20 percent higher than budgeted.

In a resolution he submitted to the Board of Education for consideration January 10, Weast gave no indication of cost-consciousness and asked the board to appropriate the extra money to build the school.

The bidding opened October 25 - coincidentally Doug Duncan's 50th birthday.

Henley Construction won the low bid at $15,978,300, even though it is 20 percent higher than the county had budgeted, and it does not meet the county's minority participation requirements.

Losing bidders include: Dustin Construction, $16,071,500; Tuckman-Barbee Construction, $16,793,000; and William F. Klingensmith, Inc., $17,351,444.

White winning bidder wants waiver against minorities

Does the school superintendent want to bend the public school system's own rules on promoting minority business?

It looks like he's sweeping minority businessmen under the rug to build a school for mostly white kids in Potomac.

A Board of Education resolution for the January 10 meeting accepts the low bidder for the "Seven Locks Elementary Replacement School" on Kendale Road - even though it recognizes that the bidder "has not met the 25-percent goal for Minority Business Enterprise participation and has submitted a waiver request."

The resolution adds that the MCPS staff "is working with" the low bidder "to increase minority participation on the projects and recommends that the Board delay approval of a waiver for not meeting the goal."

But it says nothing about requiring the contractor to comply with the 25 percent rule.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

It's working! Citizen action groups end school board impunity

The Montgomery County Board of Education can no longer act with the imperial impunity it once enjoyed, thanks to citizen-based advocacy groups that have placed the board under unprecedented scrutiny.

The trend is expected to continue, the Gazette reports.

Mark Adelman of the Montgomery County Civic Federation expects pressure from citizen groups to deepen divisions on the eight-person elected board.

Over the past year or so, the school board has suffered several defeats to what some call secretive and deceptive policies:

1. A federal judge ordered the board to withdraw a sexually explicit video curriculum that included an attractive young woman inserting a condom on a banana;

2. Citizens in the Seven Locks area put up a scrappy and, for the moment, apparently successful fight to prevent Superintendent Weast and the board from turning a thriving elementary school into a high-density housing complex, and

3. The new Montgomery County Inspector General began an investigation into allegations of official corruption in school demolition and construction.

"It’s going to be interesting because the whole board is subject to a lot more scrutiny than it has been in a number of years," Adelman told the Gazette.

Splits in the politburo: School Board breaks into factions

After six years of near-unanimity, the Montgomery County Board of Education is splitting into factions, with Superintendent Jerry Weast losing control of the elected body that should have been controlling him.

That's what the Gazette reports in an informative story with on-the-record comments from several board officials.

"There is definitely a split, an ideological split," said board member Valerie Ervin (Dist. 4) of Silver Spring. "The superintendent is no longer in control of the board the way he was the previous five or six years."

Ervin says that board members Steven Abrams, Sharon Cox and Gabriel Romero "see their role as protecting Jerry Weast."

Members Nancy Navarro and Ervin, as well as student member Sebastian Johnson, from the second main bloc.

Patricia O'Neill and Charles Haughey are considered swing votes, for a 3-3-2 factional balance. Cox denies the existence of factions.

Reporter Sean R. Sedam writes, "This board is different than those of recent years. Members occasionally interrupt each other or trade terse one-line jabs. The digs are subtle. The ideological differences are deep-seated, and unanimous votes, a frequent occurrence in years past, are less common."

Haughey, Navarro, O'Neill and Romero face re-election late this year; student Johnson must step down in June.

School board seen as not serving mandate to oversee superintendent

"I was not elected to be cheerleader for the superintendent," school board member Valerie Ervin of Silver Spring tells the Gazette. "I was elected to an oversight body that asks tough questions that are designed to make a good system an even better system."

"There are some people who believe the board is not performing the mandate of supervising the superintendent," added Mark Adelman, head of the education committee for the Montgomery County Civic Federation.