Montgomery County lawmaker pushes 'secret' contract with consultant

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A Montgomery County lawmaker is pushing a $1.3 million no-bid county contract that has colleagues on the County Council concerned about a potential conflict of interest.

County Councilwoman Valerie Ervin, D-Silver Spring, is lobbying for the contract with real estate investor Chris McGoff, to "transform" the way the county greenlights developments. But several council members are raising their eyebrows at the fact that McGoff is also seeking approval to build dozens of townhouses -- and could directly benefit from changes he has proposed.

"They're not a neutral party," said County Councilman Hans Riemer, D-at large. "It would be easy to find a change management consultant that didn't have an economic interest that's contrary to the public interest."

A no-bid contract like this is only appropriate if the firm is considered to be the "sole source" that can provide the services, said county Inspector General Edward Blansitt, and several council members have asked why the county should not accept bids from competing firms.

Lawmakers have also criticized the secrecy shrouding the proposal, including closed-door meetings and the warning on the front of the proposal to not disclose it outside of the council.

"The secrecy around this is really weird," said County Councilman George Leventhal, D-at large. "We don't appropriate secret dollars, and we don't issue secret contracts. ... We're not the Pentagon."

Neither Ervin nor McGoff returned calls for comment.

McGoff proposed the contract through the Clearing Inc., his Washington-based consulting firm.

Meanwhile, he and residential real estate developer and broker Sterling Mehring are seeking county approval to build 39 townhomes next to Westfield Wheaton Mall. The team plans to submit a site plan application to the county Planning Board on Wednesday or Thursday for 25 of the houses, Mehring said.

Mehring and McGoff initiated the development before the start of the economic recession, and the years they have spent getting approvals from the county has cost them -- particularly McGoff -- substantially, Mehring said, though he declined to specify how much.

"He'll never get his money back ... because it's taken so long," Mehring said. "We just have to try to minimize our losses."

With help from Ervin, McGoff has met with several County Council members in the last month to pitch a 14-to-15-month contract with the Clearing, multiple council sources said. If approved, the contract would grant the firm a hands-on role in shaping the county's planning processes, with the ability to "intervene" in decision-making, according to a written proposal obtained by The Washington Examiner.

The contract would cost the county $105,000 over the first two or three months and an additional $100,000 for each of the next 12 months.

The county would also have to hire employees to support the contract, said Riemer, who was briefed by Ervin and McGoff.

"[Ervin] insisted that it should be done rapidly, that it should be done in a hurry with [the current fiscal year's] dollars," Leventhal said. "The cost is out of this world."

rbaye@washingtonexaminer.com

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Rachel Baye

Staff Writer - Education
The Washington Examiner