SILVER SPRING – A bill that gives the Office of the Montgomery Inspector General oversight over the much-maligned Housing Opportunities Commission of Montgomery County (HOC) gained the unanimous support of a county delegation subcommittee Jan. 18.
The bill now goes to the full county delegation on Jan. 25. If approved there, it will be presented to the General Assembly.
Not only did the local legislators support the bill, but the HOC also is backing it. A letter from Executive Director Stacy Spann stated HOC’s support, noting that the inspector general’s office previously had been involved with the HOC for the past six years.
“Under the Montgomery County Code, the County Inspector General retains the authority to conduct investigations, budgetary analyses and audits of independent county agencies such as HOC,” Spann wrote. His letter to the county delegation noted that the “HOC works closely” with numerous state and county agencies “to ensure proper administration of state and county programs.”
The proposed bill “reinforces HOC’s history of cooperation with the inspector general’s office and will help clarify and codify the inspector general’s oversight authority moving forward,” Spann wrote in the Jan. 16th letter.
“This is an issue that I have been working on for some time,” said Sen. Ben Kramer (D-19), the bill’s sponsor, noting that his other bills have brought the Maryland National Capital and Parks and Planning Commission and the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission under the arm of the inspector general’s office.
“It took a lot of work, but they both passed,” Kramer said.
If the bill becomes law, oversight of HOC will begin in October.
As a quasi-Montgomery County office, the HOC “doesn’t answer directly to the people,” the newly-elected senator said. When there are problems, the county executive doesn’t have the authority to mandate changes, he added.
The subcommittee vote passed quickly, with little comment.
“It was surprisingly very quick and efficient,” said Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, chair of the social justice ministry at Macedonia Baptist Church, which has been in a two-year dispute with the HOC to memorialize Moses Cemetery, the historically black cemetery that lies beneath the parking area of the Westwood Tower apartments in Bethesda.
Since realizing their ancestors, many of whom were slaves, were buried on the site, members of Macedonia Baptist Church have tried to set up a memorial there.
Coleman-Adebayo believed the quick vote was due to the number of complaints by those who have had “a very difficult and deteriorating relationship with HOC,” she said, adding, “I think legislators have heard enough horror stories.
“I think most people who are paying any attention realize there is a problem at HOC,” Coleman-Adebayo said.
During the monthly HOC meetings she has attended, Coleman-Adebayo said she has heard much frustration and anger from residents who came before the commission to complain about health, safety and gang problems at their residences.
“I think the reason they get away with this is they are not held accountable,” she said of the HOC commissioners.
Green Party member Mary Rooker also attended last week’s delegation regarding the subcommittee vote.
Both women still await notice for their day in court, after being cited by the county police for disorderly conduct during the January HOC meeting.
The Moses Cemetery activists who attended the meeting in Annapolis chose not to disrupt the meeting. They did hold up signs and a cardboard tombstone with names in red crocheted letters of those buried in the cemetery.
“They really didn’t have a whole lot of debate,” Rooker said, explaining that Kramer and his aide summed up the situation. “They were just saying, ‘Look, we need oversight,’” she recalled, adding, adoption of the bill “is looking good.”
Kramer also said he expected the bill to become law.
There is a need “for greater transparency,” he said. HOC oversight will ensure that the county is “getting the benefits for our dollar.”
If adopted, “There will be someone both the [HOC] employees and the public” can speak with when problems arise, Kramer said.
Currently, “the fox is guarding the chicken coop,” he said, noting that anyone with a complaint must “report the problem to the people who are the problem.”
When asked if the situation concerning Moses Cemetery was a factor in his decision to propose oversight of the HOC, Kramer replied, “It was a factor, and I think very legitimately so. I just don’t think the HOC has been responsive. I find this to be disconcerting. There seems to be a level of disrespect, almost bordering on arrogance.”