- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 6, 2005

Two Maryland lawmakers are talking about creating legislation that would improve oversight of Montgomery County’s planning agency, which is coming under intense scrutiny in the wake of a building-code violation scandal in Clarksburg.

“State legislation is certainly a possibility,” said state Sen. Rob Garagiola, Montgomery County Democrat. “That’s something worth looking at, to be honest with you.”

Delegate Charles Barkley said amending state law is “something we probably need to come back and look at,” but he also urged caution.

“I don’t want to make changes to the state law if it’s not necessary,” the Montgomery County Democrat said.

Montgomery County planning officials last week approved the first outside audit of their agency in at least 15 years, as part of their response to the discovery of hundreds of building-code violations in Clarksburg.

“If there has been a performance audit of [the Department of] Park and Planning, I can’t remember it,” Planning Board Chairman Derick P. Berlage told a county council oversight committee.

Under state law, Montgomery County’s Planning Board and its Department of Park and Planning — which serves as the board’s staff — are under the authority of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (MNCPPC), a state agency that oversees a similar operation in Prince George’s County.

Montgomery County planning officials report to the county council, which appoints the five-member board and allocates its budget. However, that is the extent of the council’s oversight.

“It’s a state agency, so they report to us, kind of,” said Democratic council member Michael Knapp, who represents Clarksburg. “It’s not a direct relationship.”

The Maryland Office of Legislative Audits, which conducts performance and financial audits for more than 200 state agencies, is allowed to audit the MNCPPC only if the General Assembly’s Joint Audit Committee, the Prince George’s County executive or Montgomery County Council requests it.

Bruce A. Myers, director of the Maryland Office of Legislative Audits since 1997, says no one has sought such an audit in the 28 years he has worked in the office. The issue of authority over Park and Planning has become critical because the county inspector general has said planners have not been cooperating in his investigation of the Clarksburg scandal. The inspector general has no legal authority to subpoena employees in the agency.

Mr. Berlage has said county planners are cooperating in the investigation.

The state special prosecutor and Montgomery County Council also have been investigating the Clarksburg violations.

The council’s Office of Legislative Oversight will issue a report on its investigation tomorrow. Mr. Garagiola said he waiting to see that report and the other investigations.

“Clearly, there need to be changes, and I want to make sure we make those changes properly,” he said.

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