- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 30, 2005

Montgomery County planning officials are voluntarily complying with an inspector general’s investigation into their agency, a spokeswoman said, though they technically are state employees and have no legal obligation to cooperate.

The county inspector general complained last week that he was not receiving cooperation from officials, including Charles E. Loehr, director of the county’s Department of Park and Planning, who is set to retire today after 26 years with the agency.

Inspector General Thomas J. Dagley is investigating possible fraud, waste or abuse at the department related to building-code violations in Clarksburg. He also has asked for information about how the department operates in general.

Montgomery County Planning Board Chairman Derick P. Berlage said the board’s staff and the department are cooperating fully.

Board spokeswoman Nancy Lineman would not say whether Mr. Dagley has oversight authority under the law, which would give him subpoena and other powers to acquire information.

She said, however, that the commission “has and will continue to fully cooperate.”

The Planning Board votes on land-use decisions. The Department of Park and Planning serves as the board’s staff and includes parks employees. Both agencies are under the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (MNCPPC), which also oversees a similar operation in Prince George’s County.

Montgomery County planning officials report to the County Council, which appoints their 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 council member Michael Knapp, Clarksburg Democrat. “It’s not a direct relationship.”

Council President Tom Perez, Takoma Park Democrat, said there are limits on what the council “can make them do.”

Mr. Dagley must rely on the Department of Park and Planning’s voluntary compliance with his probe.

The department’s budget for fiscal 2006 is $113 million, with most of the money coming from county taxpayers, though the department is a state agency.

Bruce A. Myers has been the director of the Maryland Office of Legislative Audits since 1997.

The office does a performance and financial audit every three years for more than 200 state agencies, from universities to the lottery commission to the comptroller’s office.

Mr. Myers said the law “is kind of unique” when it comes to the MNCPPC. The law, he said, allows the office of 109 investigators to audit the planning commission only if the General Assembly’s Joint Audit Committee, or the Prince George’s County executive, or County Council, requests.

Mr. Myers said nobody has sought such an audit in the 28 years he has worked at the office.

Montgomery County created the inspector general position in 1997.

“This community has to be very concerned about what the board is doing, because it has no governance. Who manages the board?” asked Amy Presley, co-chairwoman of the Clarksburg Town Center Advisory Committee. “That state has no direct authority, so you have an all-powerful agency.”

In August 2004, the committee began to uncover the building-code violations. When planner Wynn Witthans confessed to falsifying a site plan to cover up height violations, then resigned, Mr. Dagley’s office became involved, Ms. Lineman said.

State Delegate Charles Barkley, who is on the Joint Audit Committee and could call for an immediate audit, did not return phone calls.

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