Prince Frederick, MD – Just hours before the shortest day of the year, many Calvert County residents experienced one of the longest nights ever. A public hearing intent on gathering input about charges leveled against two longtime members of the Calvert County Planning Commission was held Tuesday evening, Dec. 20. The session lasted over five hours. The accusations that planning commission chairman Maurice Lusby and vice chairman Mike Phipps acted incompetently and were guilty of misconduct plus violated Maryland’s Open Meetings law yielded a large turnout, many of them lifetime residents who were enraged by the majority of the commissioners’ allegations. Those allegations prompted the suspensions and pending removals of Lusby and Phipps from the planning commission.
Commissioners’ President Evan K. Slaughenhoupt Jr. [R – District 3], anticipating a high volume of input that would defend the characters of Lusby and Phipps rather than address the validity of the charges, declared the hearing was “not about how nice people are. It’s not about how long somebody has served.”
County attorney John Norris also tried to assure the audience the allegations were not about “the character of the individuals. They [Lusby and Phipps] are above reproach. The purpose of removal is not to punish these two.”
The allegations leveled against Lusby, who has served on the planning commission for 32 years, include conduct in direct contradiction to the commissioners regarding the expenditure of public funds, three incidents where the state’s open meeting laws were violated when the chairman failed to provide a written reason for entering the panel into a closed session along with a list of items to be discussed and inclusion of staff in the closed session; and denying due process in the handling of a zoning text amendment case.
Allegations leveled against Phipps cite his failure to intervene in Lusby’s allegedly improper allocation of public funds and conducting a discussion among planning commission members that was not open and unadvertised.
Three of the five commissioners—Slaughenhoupt, Mike Hart [R – District 1] and Tom Hejl [R – At large] also felt it was improper for the planning commission officers to seek an opinion from the Maryland Attorney General’s Office regarding the appropriateness of hiring independent legal counsel rather than allow the county attorney to fill that role.
During his testimony, Lusby, who was represented at the hearing by attorney Robert S. Crum, recalled that when he first served on the planning commission the county attorney did, in fact, provide legal counsel to the panel as well as the county commissioners. A new county attorney during the mid1990s determined that arrangement could pose a conflict of interest. Attorney John Yacovelle then began serving as planning commission attorney. “There never was a contract with Mr. Yacovelle,” said Lusby, who added the attorney “was superlative” in everything he did. Yacovelle notified the planning commission back in January that he was ill. In March when his condition worsened he suggested the panel find a new lawyer, which they subsequently did. Yacovelle died in October.
During his portion of the hearing, Phipps stated that the letter notifying him of his suspension had been left on the storm door of his home. Describing his occupations as “farmer and musician,” Phipps stated he was asked to serve on the planning commission to represent the agriculture community. “I’m guilty until proven innocent,” was how Phipps described the litany of charges leveled at him by the commissioners. Adding that he had hoped to end his tenure on the planning commission when his current term expires in 2018, Phipps said he sought legal counsel “to overturn this decision.”
Phipps denied having any knowledge of the expenditures related to the hiring of an attorney for the planning commission. He admitted he would never “commit mutiny on the chairman.” Phipps assumed temporary chairmanship when the panel discussed the controversial Prince Frederick Town Center issue since Lusby—who owns and operates a hardware store near the county courthouse—recused himself on the issue to avoid a conflict of interest. Additionally, Phipps said the “meetings” of planning commission members he conducted were “email sessions” and under Roberts’ Rules of Order are not considered official meetings.
Despite Slaughenhoupt’s earlier calls for public testimony to focus on the written allegations, many members of the public who spoke praised Lusby and Phipps, and offered criticism of the commissioners.
“You guys changed the rules in midstream,” said Dan Fones, addressing the commissioners. “Are some backroom deals going on?
“The context of this has been left out,” said Prince Frederick resident James Winship. “The county commissioners have recreated a planning commission more to their liking.”
“I voted for all of you,” Dale Norfolk told the commissioners. “I’m so disappointed.”
“These actions go against the people,” said Prince Frederick business owner Mike King, who drew applause when he told Slaughenhoupt, Hart and Hejl, “resign tonight.”
Rich Romer of North Beach requested that all the charges “be rescinded. No evidence has been presented of any violations.”
One speaker—home builder Anthony Williams, did speak out in favor of the commissioners, saying he and many other business people supported their actions. “We’ve been stuck in a rut a long time,” said Williams, who added the planning commission “has cost me a lot of ill-will and pain. The planning commission has stepped outside its charter.” Williams’ development, Prince Frederick Crossing, has a lengthy history of interaction with the planning commission.
Retired county employee Randi Vogt indicated the commissioners used Yacovelle’s illness as a way to wrest control from the planning commission. “[You were] taking advantage of a very unfortunate situation,” said Vogt.
Perhaps the most strident message came from Port Republic farmer and former Maryland Agriculture Secretary Buddy Hance (pictured, right). “I believe the wrong people are on trial here,” said Hance, prompting a rebuke from the commissioners’ counsel, attorney Kevin Karpinski, who indicated to the speaker his tone would not be tolerated.
The commissioners twice voted unanimously to close the public record on the hearings.
A decision will be rendered pending consultation with counsel.
Afterwards, when asked how he felt, Phipps said, “relieved that it [the hearing] is over.”
When asked the same question Lusby replied, “I’m ready for Christmas.”
Contact Marty Madden at firstname.lastname@example.org