Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Montgomery County residents overwhelmingly favor funding Office of the People's Counsel

Peggy Dennis and Ruben Meana Paneda
testify before the Montgomery County Council

Ten of the eleven residents who testified before the Montgomery County Council yesterday urged councilmembers to restore funding for the Office of the People's Counsel in the FY-2024 operating budget. All ten also spoke in strong opposition to the bill that was the subject of the public hearing, a legislative move to permanently eliminate the office, which the Council has failed to fund since 2010. Bill 18-23, introduced by Councilmember Andrew Friedson (D - District 1), would kill the position of People's Counsel, an attorney who could advise residents and civic associations on land-use and zoning issues, and represent their interests in administrative hearings. Friedson's bill would replace the People's Counsel with a toothless resident advisor, who would not have to be a licensed attorney, and who would not be allowed to participate in administrative hearings, would be unable to call or cross-examine witnesses, and would be forbidden to introduce evidence or point out violations of zoning law in those hearings.

Resident Sue Present said Friedson's developer-friendly bill "keeps the fat cats fat, and throws neighbors and neighborhoods under the bus." Friedson has received extensive campaign contributions from development interests, and developers have hosted fundraisers for him. 

The only resident to testify in favor of Friedson's bill to eliminate the People's Counsel was Jane Lyons-Raeder of Silver Spring, who has previously been employed as a lobbyist by the developer-funded Coalition for Smarter Growth. Lyons-Raeder said the quiet part out loud, expressing concern that a restored People's Counsel "could quickly turn into a free lawyer for people who oppose development in their neighborhood." She argued that Friedson's proposed advisor position would be preferable, as it would not "allow for free legal representation" for residents.

But the small way in which the Office of the People's Counsel takes a tiny step toward leveling the playing field with development interests who can afford high-priced lawyers is precisely what the 90% of residents who testified in favor of restoring the position yesterday see as its central appeal. Resident Max Bronstein pointed out that in a land-use dispute he was engaged in from 2007 to 2012, the developer had two lawyers, and a team of five land-use specialists. Montgomery County government has over 100 attorneys who represent it, he added. "Should not the 1 million people of the county have 1 lawyer representing them?" Bronstein asked the Council.

Bronstein said the Office of the People's Counsel was "a great aid" in his case up until 2010, when the Council defunded the office. He pointed to the Office of Legislative Oversight report on the OPC, which recorded that the People's Counsel participated in an average of 44 land use cases per year, and provided information on zoning and land use to residents an average of 347 times per year before being defunded.

Nowhere in the OLO report was it recommended the Office of the People's Counsel be closed, Bronstein noted. He said the People's Counsel will be particularly needed in the coming years, as the Council attempts to implement the controversial Thrive 2050 plan, which will allow attached housing and small apartment buildings to be constructed in existing single-family home neighborhoods.

Rick Meyer of the MoCo Coalition for Control of Cell Towers concurred that expert advice is needed for zoning text amendments, and not just for residents, but for the Council itself. A Council ZTA to allow 5G antennas to be placed in locations that were off-limits to such equipment at the time was later found to be in violation of the County's own laws. If even the five-year head of a Council committee couldn't understand the zoning laws, Meyer suggested, it indicates the need for just such a knowledgeable land-use attorney as the People's Counsel. In fact, one of the People's Counsel's duties and powers is the ability to point out when a developer or the County itself is in violation of the law during adminstrative proceedings.

Elizabeth Joyce of the 
Montgomery County Civic Federation

Elizabeth Joyce and Alan Bowser of the Montgomery County Civic Federation both recalled that several of the sitting councilmembers had promised their organization that they would restore funding for the Office of the People's Counsel during candidate interviews the federation held last June. Joyce said money is not the issue, because the funds Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich has earmarked for the office in his proposed FY-2024 budget amount to only .0004% of the total budget.

Given the recent scandals that ended with the resignation of the entire Planning Board, Bowser questioned why Friedson would suggest eliminating a tool of equity and transparency like the Office of the People's Counsel. "Why in this moment of broad distrust, why would any of you want to exacerbate this situation" by proposing to eliminate the OPC? Bowser asked. Comparing Friedson's OPC-killing bill to a similar one that failed to pass seven years ago, Bowser concluded, "This was a bad bill in 2016; it's a terrible bill in 2023."

Resident Susan Labin pointed out that Friedson had ironically recently complained that a state bill that would have increased the County Executive's authority over planning and zoning was "a power grab," while Friedson is now attempting to grab power away from residents by killing the Office of the People's Counsel. "It seems like at every turn the real power grab is by the special interests," Labin said.

Nicole Williams

"I'm speaking from painful experience," Potomac resident Peggy Dennis said at the beginning of her testimony against Friedson's bill, and in favor the Office of the People's Counsel. She spoke of the many hours residents in her community spent fighting a gigantic assisted-living development that was in violation of the area's sector plan and County law, which was proposed by "a well-heeled developer." Had the OPC been in operation at that time, Dennis argued, "all of that time would have been saved...That person could have introduced evidence in a hearing, called witnesses, pointed out" illegal violations. 

Such time investment is beyond the means and availability of most residents, Nicole Williams said. "We shouldn't have to" spend time trying to interpret zoning and land-use laws while developers have the advantage of expensive attorneys. After 13 years of failing to fund the People's Counsel, Williams said, it's "time to stop giving residents the runaround."

The reality, as Bronstein noted during his testimony, is that there are hardly any land-use attorneys who will represent residents, even when wealthier neighborhoods have the money to pay them. This is absolutely true. For years, Norman Knopf would take such resident and civic association cases. After he retired, his partner David Brown continued in that role. But Brown refused to represent the Westbard residents who sued Montgomery County over illegal actions during the approval of the Westbard sector plan. Michele Rosenfeld took the residents' case. With her victory on Kensington residents' behalf in the Costco gas station case, and partial victory in downsizing the density of the Westbard Square development, Rosenfeld is now the preeminent land-use attorney representing residents and civic associations in court and in administrative proceedings. 

But that can only help if you can afford to hire an attorney. With the large number of newer residents in the County either being low-to-moderate in income, and many not speaking English as their first language - as Present noted in her testimony, a public resource and representative like the Office of the People's Counsel becomes more vital every day. And with the Planning Board and County Council increasingly ruling against majority sentiment and ignoring resident and civic association testimony, it can be argued that - if anything - the role and power of the People's Counsel should be expanded and made more muscular.


Anonymous said...

Claiming "Montgomery County residents overwhelmingly favor" something based on the opinion of ten people is ridiculous. If county residents "overwhelmingly favored" spending taxpayer dollars on a lawyer for NIMBYs then the position wouldn't have been defunded for the past 14 years.

Anonymous said...

I applaud your continued and detailed coverage of this important issue, but that headline is misleading.
What you've actually written is that an overwhelming proportion/percentage of the residents *testifying* at this proceeding took a certain position.

Anonymous said...

Come on now. Residents testifying at a public hearing are always going to be skewed heavily towards opposition to something. Residents in support of something aren’t going to be motivated to show up because they are already content with the way things are.

Anonymous said...

This is the first I've heard of the People's Counsel but it sounds like a worthwhile entity.
It makes me question the motive to eliminate it.

Anonymous said...

"Montgomery County residents overwhelmingly favor funding Office of the People's Counsel... Ten of the eleven residents who testified before the Montgomery County Council yesterday urged councilmembers to restore funding for the Office of the People's Counsel"

10 may be 91% of 11, but it is only 1/100,000 or 0.001% of Montgomery County's population of 1 million.

Anonymous said...

in addition, according to Ms. Lyons-Raeder's public LinkedIn profile, she formerly worked for the Moco Council:

Specifically, it appears she worked on a project for Jeff Zyontz, current chair of the planning board. see bottom of page 2:

Anonymous said...

How specious of you, 10:02. Yes, it's well known the Council adheres faithfully to voter sentiment, the will of the people.

Robert, have you no shame? Your illuminating posts on these matters are clearly upsetting the gossamer constitution of the region's builders and their retinue of courtiers on the Council, as affirmed by the facile comment at 10:02 --quick to respond, quick to condemn, slow to perceive or give a fig how overwhelmingly at odds they are with public sentiment.

Anonymous said...

She is against free legal counsel for NIMBYs and I am against free legal counsel for "undocumented" immigrants. Council used MoCo tax dollars for that however. Like most "progressives" they favor the interests of immigrants over their own fellow citizens.

Anonymous said...

4:07 completed their right wing bingo card by somehow managing to twist this issue into an attack on immigrants. Kudos!

Elizabeth Joyce said...

As Woodside's Cheryl Gannon pointed out, "Developers have lawyers, the Council has lawyers, the Planning Board has a General Counsel and so does the MNCPPC. Wealthier neighborhoods and HOAs can raise the money for a lawyer when needed and they do so. Ordinary citizens, particularly if they are not wealthy, are the only parties without this help."

And Max Bronstein noted that "Montgomery County government has over 100 attorneys who represent it, he added. "Should not the 1 million people of the county have 1 lawyer representing them?"

Council Vice President Friedson, who introduced this bill, and new Councilmember Dawn Luedtke who cosponsored it have collected significant donations from developers, who have an army of expert attorneys working for them. It is sad to see such blatant, unapologetic opposition to the interests of most constituents.

Anonymous said...

710, do you think your tax dollars, if any, should have been used to provide free legal representation to people who broke the law to get into this country?

Anonymous said...

What a joke. The rich downcounty NIMBYs (who don't come close to representing "the majority" of taxpayers by the way) want TAXYPAYERS to fund their own private lawyer to oppose development that they simply don't like? Absurd.

Let's be clear. This isn't about reasonable opposition to development that violates zoning codes or developments regs or whatever.

It's purely about selfish desires to ban new housing (ESPECIALLY apartments) or anything else that "adds traffic" or "overcrowds schools" or, the favorite dog whistle: changes "the neighborhood CHARACTER". As if they themselves were not guilty of all that when they decided to move in.

Anonymous said...

So obsessed with immigrants he fabricates hypothetical non sequiturs in his free time. Have your caretaker push you outside, sir. It's a beautiful day!

Elizabeth Joyce said...

How do you conclude that those who need the OPC are undocumented immigrants? That is preposterous. The vast majority of residents are citizens, and "anonymous" bigotry does not deserve anyone's attention or respect.

But as to using tax dollars to help the majority of residents, heck yes! We have an amazing Office of Consumer Protection that has been operating for 50 years, providing invaluable help to residents harmed by irresponsible businesses and corporations. That is the kind of work good government does. OPC is the same kind of agency, and it is shocking to oppose it on such biased and inaccurate grounds.

Anonymous said...

@11:18 "...selfish desires to ban new housing (ESPECIALLY apartments) ..." I'm not sure if you know the county and planning board have approved thousands of new apartment units over the last 5 years or so, mostly *very expensive* high rises, and continue to do so.

In a lot of communities, this is overkill, and the residents aka taxpayers would like a pause or a different, more balanced approach.

One recent update on 32 new projects from this month:

"32 Montgomery County development projects to watch this year"

From high-rise towers in Bethesda to new transit-oriented construction along the Metro line, here’s a roundup of some major developments

Anonymous said...

It's just another example of resources squandered promoting the Democrat's self serving agenda, all at the cost and peril of citizens.

Anonymous said...

And if you notice, but conveniently NOT mentioned in this article, MOST of the new housing projects listed for SILVER SPRING are PUBLIC HOUSING UNITS, certainly NOT in RICH AND WHITE Chevy Chase/Bethesda!!!! Ms. Dale

Ms. Dale Barnhard said...

Where's the RACIAL EQUALITY AND SOCIAL JUSTICE with the refusal to REinstate The Office of People's Councel by depriving EQUAL representation on important quality of life issues such as land use and zoning changes that could potentially impact the more MODEST neighborhoods that DON'T have the resources to hire land use attorneys? We, of LOW AND MODERATE INCOME have been without this valuable service for 12 years now!!! This is Hypocrisy in its full form!!! Ms. Dale

Anonymous said...


Most of the "thousands" of new apartments approved don't get built for many years..decades even..if at all.

How many new apartment buildings have began construction in the county so far this year? Two? Three? In a county of 1.1 MILLION residents.

The reasons that apartments are so expensive is ironically because of the limited supply due not only to market forces but also the county's onerous restrictions on development (yes shocking I know given the imaginary developer free for all narrative that constantly gets repeated here).