Montgomery County employees working on PR, not parks, letters to newspapers show [updated]

Updated December 2, 2010

Montgomery County residents see a bleak future for vital public services and amenities due to an evolving budget crisis. Over the past several weeks, we have learned that public safety jobs may be cut and that revenues continue to disappoint county leaders. So in times that demand austerity, I wonder why Montgomery County officials believe we have the resources to undertake a public relations campaign to promote the development of the park formerly known as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”?

The Washington Post ran a story in October about how historic preservation advocates may have misled Montgomery County leaders about the log building long touted as the “real Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Shortly after the story ran, the Montgomery County Parks Department posted a 4-page detailed rebuttal to the Post article titled a “Correction and Clarification.”

Then local historic preservation advocates began sending letters to the Post and to the Montgomery Gazette. One of those letters was sent by Warren Fleming, a Damascus resident and former Historic Preservation Commission member.  According to the metadata — the hidden information in electronic files that stores details about the hardware, software, and computer system where the file was created — Fleming’s letter originated on a Montgomery County government computer.

Screen capture of Fleming letter to the editor sent to the Washington Post and Montgomery Gazette showing that it was produced on a Montgomery County government computer.

The Montgomery County employee’s name in the author’s field appeared to be Rebecca Lord. A quick Google search revealed that at one time a Rebecca Lord worked for Councilmember Roger Berliner. Rebecca Lord is a former legislative aid to Councilmember Roger Berliner and since 2008 she has been outgoing Council president Nancy Floreen’s chief of staff. The un-Uncle Tom’s Cabin is located in Councilmember Berliner’s district. Neither the Post nor the Gazette published Fleming’s letter. The Word file was provided to me by reporters working on the story.

This morning the Gazette ran a letter to the editor attributed to Shirl Spicer. Ms. Spicer is the Montgomery County Parks Department’s museum manager.  The letter published by the Gazette fails to identify Spicer as a county employee with a stake in the development of the former Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

The Gazette letter appears to be part of a larger media blitz by Parks Department employees to ramp up support for their proposed master plan. The Planning Board will decide next Thursday on the new park’s new name (minus the Uncle Tom’s Cabin label) and how much work and money will go into developing the park.

Earlier this week, Montgomery Preservation, Inc., posted an “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” page at its Website.  MPI promises readers of this page that the information in it is “the real story.”Among the items at the MPI Website and linked to from the page is a November 22, 2010, letter from Spicer to the  Washington Post on Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Letter attributed to Shirl Spicer posted at the Montgomery Preservation, Inc. Website. Screen capture of the PDF file metadata showing authorship.

According to the metadata in the PDF file of Spicer’s letter posted at the MPI Website, Spicer’s letter originated not on her computer but on the computer of Kelli Holsendolph. The Montgomery County Parks Department Website identifies Holsendolph as the agency’s “media relations manager.”

As a Montgomery County taxpayer, I wonder how much more money Montgomery County wants to spend on this park while the rest of the county suffers from deep budget cuts. Only yesterday, the Parks Department posted its estimates that development of the park they now want to call the Josiah Henson Special Park may cost more than $5 million.

My testimony at the October 28, 2010 hearing on the proposed park master plan was dismissed by Parks Department staff. In the summary of testimony provided at the hearing, Parks Department staff wrote that the park merits special consideration without concern to other budgetary issues faced by the Parks Department: “Staff believes that an African-American heritage site of this caliber merits distinct decision-making and funding, and should not be compared to an under-utilized activity building and portable toilets” [emphasis added].

Page from the Montgomery County Parks Department's summary of testimony given at the October 28, 2010, hearing on the proposed Josiah Henson Park master plan.

Montgomery County appears to be on a spending spree when it comes to this park. County residents need to tell county leaders that public relations campaigns to save face over the bad decision making that went into the park’s purchase are not acceptable. Precious and scarce county resources should not be used to draft letters to local newspapers on behalf of county employees and they certainly should not be used to draft letters on behalf of private citizens.

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