- The Washington Times - Monday, October 31, 2005

Montgomery County planning officials yesterday approved the first outside audit of their agency in at least 15 years, as part of their response to a development scandal 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.

Management Partners Inc. of Cincinnati will assess how to “improve the efficiency and accountability” of the Department of Park and Planning, which oversees county development as the Planning Board’s staff.

The study will cost about $125,000, Planning Board spokeswoman Nancy Lineman said. She did not say when Park and Planning was last audited by an independent agency.

Acting Park and Planning Director William Mooney also didn’t know when the last outside audit was conducted.

Clarksburg residents uncovered hundreds of building code violations this summer, and a county planner has admitted altering documents to cover up the violations.

The county inspector general, the state special prosecutor and the County Council’s staff are conducting separate investigations into the violations.

However, neither the inspector general nor the County Council has legal authority over Park and Planning because it is part of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, a state agency.

The council appoints the Planning Board’s five members and allocates taxpayer funds — $113 million in fiscal 2006 — to Park and Planning, but neither the council nor the inspector general has the authority to obtain information or subpoena employees of Park and Planning.

“No one is more upset than I am about failures in our system that made it possible for developers to build structures different than those approved by the Planning Board,” Mr. Berlage told council members.

The Planning Board chairman said he and his staff are doing what amounts to a self-audit in the wake of the Clarksburg scandal and have reassigned 64 of 121 Park and Planning staffers to help with Clarksburg-related work.

Mr. Berlage provided the most detailed information to date on what each of the reassignments is accomplishing.

Planners are reviewing all site plans approved in the past two years and all proposed construction in Clarksburg, where more than 14,000 homes are planned, he said.

Park and Planning has designed checklists to ensure that all plans and permits are approved in order and with proper inspection.

Mr. Berlage plans to submit to the council by January a request to hire more personnel, to post all current planning documents online and to have better control over current files.

Still, council member Michael Knapp said the planners’ problems and solutions are not clear enough.

“The problem is it’s not clear what the context is in which those things are being done,” said Mr. Knapp, Clarksburg Democrat. “What’s the problem we’re trying to solve? Until we know, we can have all kinds of activity and not know if we’ve fixed the problem.”

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