Comment: Marilynn Bland's unanimous election, following in the footsteps of Camille Exum and David Harrington who also used county money for their own personal gain, shows once again how our elected leaders--all Democrats--are either corrupt or tolerate corruption on the part of their colleagues.
Unanimous vote puts Bland as head of County Council; Lawmaker elected despite controversial history.
Gazette, 4 Dec 2008 (Valentine).
Prince George's County Councilwoman Marilynn M. Bland (D-Dist. 9) of Clinton assumed the leadership of the County Council on Tuesday, after a unanimous vote from her peers.
Bland, who has represented much of the southern and rural portions of the county since 2002, will lead the legislative branch through the end of 2009. Members also selected Councilman Thomas E. Dernoga (D-Dist. 1) of Laurel as vice chairman and named leaders of the council's legislative committees.
Bland served as vice chairwoman to Chairman Samuel Dean (D-Dist. 6) of Mitchellville for the past year. Of the five members who took office in 2002, Bland is the last to assume the leadership post. Term limits prevent Bland and other members in their second term from returning to the council after their term ends in 2010.
"I'm a firm believer that God has a plan in each of our lives," said Bland, who called for greater participation and collaboration to change the county, citing the recent election of President-Elect Barack Obama.
"This change is not about any one person," she said. "This change is a movement that encompasses civic participation, accountability and forward thinking. This change is going to require all of us to roll up our sleeves and simply do the work."
She took over the gavel from Dean, who touted the group's economic development and fiscal decisions during the past "difficult" year, when the government has suffered millions in budget shortfalls.
"We continue to grapple with fiscal challenges of critical importance," Dean said in a farewell address to the crowd. "…Even in this economy, Prince George's is still growing."
Council chairpersons often serve as the de-facto spokesman for the group, lead negotiations with County Executive Jack B. Johnson and also wield influence on which bills and resolutions are up for a vote. The group leader often coordinates support for key measures.
Bland's new position comes as the county faces one of its most difficult budgets in decades. At a secret meeting last month, Johnson and staff members allegedly warned that hundreds of employee lay-offs could be possible and hinted to legislators that he may ask for broader state power in raising taxes.
A voter-imposed charter amendment has kept the county from raising tax rates without ballot approval.
The new chairwoman said it was too early to discuss potential tax changes until Johnson creates his draft budget.
"We have to entertain various options," she said, adding later, "I'm going to wait and see what he proposes."
Covering Clinton, Accokeek, Croom, Brandywine, Fort Washington and Andrews Air Force Base, Bland's district is the largest in the county.
Elected to the county school board in 1996, Bland's political career has been frequently marked by controversy.
Auditors cited Bland several times for questionable use of credit cards and expense accounts as a school board member. The charges included $2,000 spent on a 1998 trip to a conference in Florida in which she also took a six-day detour to visit family in Mississippi.
Bland also faced scrutiny for her decision to spend more than $7,700 in school board money on a newsletter to constituents that came out the same week she was up for re-election in the 2000 school board primary.
In 2001, she accused the state of racism for not adequately funding county schools.
"When you have a predominantly African-American school system, the money seems to disappear," she said at a November 2001 board meeting. "People seem to fund white students more than African-American ones."
Critics at the time accused Bland of unprofessional leadership and race-baiting.
"She does not have the personality to be vice chair [of the school board]," now-Del. Doyle Niemann (D-Dist. 47) of Mount Rainier said in 2001, when he served with Bland on the school board. "She is consistently rude, insulting and intolerant."
Niemann did not return calls for comment by press time.
After the General Assembly disbanded the elected school board in 2002 for infighting and concerns about spending, Bland ran and won the District 9 council seat and was re-elected in 2006.
Her two terms on the council have also been marked by questions about her performance. Constituents have frequently accused Bland of being nonresponsive, leading many to reach out to neighboring Councilman Tony Knotts (D-Dist. 8) of Temple Hills or Dernoga.
"Formerly, she's been extremely absent and hard to get a hold of," said Kelly Canavan, a member of the Accokeek Civic Association who called Bland's tenure "abysmal." "She's seemed unaware of her constituents' needs."
In 2005, Bland earned the distinction of having record high turnover among her office staff. From 2002 to 2005, more than a dozen people were terminated or resigned from her three-person office. Several former employees said they were terminated for "insubordination."
Last year, Bland faced scrutiny for a news release she sent out touting an honorary doctoral degree she received from Springfield Christian College and Theological Seminary, a non-accredited university where her chief of staff, David Billings, serves on the Board of Trustees.
The press release quoted a paper she had written to earn the degree, which appears to borrow heavily from a United Nations report on poverty. Bland and the college both declined to release copies of her dissertation.
At the same time, Bland has kept a rigid platform opposing development in the county's rural tier. She most recently co-sponsored a bill with Dernoga that would have made developers pay farmers to preserve land in exchange for credits toward construction in other communities, a concept known as transfer of development rights.
Council leadership traditionally shifts to the vice chairman in the next year. Bland, who was elected vice chair one month before, was bypassed last year after the sudden elevation of Chairman David Harrington to the state senate seat left by the death of former state Sen. Gwendolyn Britt (D-Dist 47). Dean was named chairman of the council a second time.
Dernoga said Bland's turn had come to lead.
"I think it's her year," Dernoga said. "Ms. Bland has waited in line and has done the things people expect of her. This is her opportunity."
Bland's recent actions on TDR and other issues like youth outreach are giving constituents hope.
"She has done so much recently," said Canavan, who said she hopes Bland will use her leadership role to push for agricultural preservation and work to improve south county elementary schools, which have been rated as being in the worst condition in the county.
"We're all looking for her to rise to the occasion," Canavan said.
State Sen. C. Anthony Muse (D-Dist. 26) of Fort Washington said he believes Bland has the experience and temperament to lead.
"If being chairman means working with people and reaching compromise, she'll do a good job," Muse said. "She has a great deal of knowledge to share."
Bland worked as a legislative aide for the late Councilman Isaac J. Gourdine (D-Dist. 8) of Fort Washington during her time on the school board. Bland was riding in the car with Gourdine when he was killed in a 2002 car accident on the Beltway and remembered her former mentor as she took office Tuesday.
"[He] told me that dedication, hard work and laboring for the people would make this day possible," she said.
Government sources said that Bland's leadership vote was challenged in closed-door discussions this year by Knotts, who publicly voted for Bland with the rest of the council.
After she was elected by the group, Bland named Dean to chair the council's Planning Zoning and Economic Development Committee and Dernoga was appointed chair of the Transportation, Housing and Environment Committee. Council members Camille Exum (D-Dist. 7) of Capitol Heights and Andrea Harrison (D-Dist 5) of Springdale were appointed to lead the Public Safety and Fiscal Management and Health and Human Service committees.
The first session of the Prince George's County Council is scheduled for Jan. 13.