Allegations of fraud and mismanagement within the Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission (HOC), prompted in part by an ongoing dispute over an African-American burial ground in Bethesda, has spurred efforts to place the agency under the watchful eye of the Maryland Office of the Inspector General.
Maryland State Delegate Ben Kramer, author of a bill that would allow the state inspector general to investigate complaints against HOC, expressed confidence that the legislation, months in the making, would eventually become law.
On Friday afternoon, it passed through the Montgomery County House Delegation Subcommittee of the Maryland General Assembly by a unanimous vote.
“We should authorize the Montgomery County inspector general to have that authority over the Housing Opportunities Commission with the goal of creating greater transparency.” Kramer, a Democrat representing the Maryland communities of Aspen Hill, Rockville and Wheaton, said an hour after his bill’s passage through the subcommittee.
“This ensures that the residents of Montgomery County are getting the best for their dollars,” he said.
The bill, titled “MC 7-19: Oversight of HOC,” will soon reach the Senate Delegation. If it passes, a standing committee, either in the Maryland House or Senate, will examine it through committees, the names of which Kramer said he hadn’t been able to determine as of Friday. He did, however, predict MC 7-19’s passage in the standing committee because of its local implications.
Kramer, in his second term in the Maryland House of Delegates, has introduced similar legislation mandating that the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commissions acquiesce to the Maryland Office of the Inspector General.
“We have to make sure we have someone over the Housing Opportunities Commission’s shoulder to look for waste, mismanagement, and fraud and to have an entity that employees and the public can reach out to when they have issues,” he said.
The HOC, an agency created in the 1970s in response to Montgomery County’s affordable housing needs, has reportedly taken no position on Kramer’s bill or allegations of subpar living and working conditions levied by employees and tenants.
Earlier this month, Montgomery County police officers arrested protesters from Macedonia Baptist Church — Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, Tim Willard, Mary Rooker, and Lynn Pekkanen — when they allegedly disturbed a monthly HOC meeting in Kensington, Maryland.
In a public statement the day after the incident, HOC officials denied an arrest occurred, saying protesters had been escorted out and issued a citation instead.
HOC officials also expressed support for efforts to memorialize Moses African Cemetery, saying they will work with Macedonia Baptist Church, Montgomery County Department of Parks, and County Executive Elrich in finding a solution to an issue now in its third year.
Since the HOC used its line of credit to purchase the plot of land known as Moses African Cemetery from a private developer in late 2017, the group from Macedonia Baptist Church, a historically Black church on River Road in Bethesda, has attended, testified and protested at HOC meetings to pressure commission officials to reveal their plans for the burial grounds. Since taking ownership, HOC hasn’t specified what would become of the property.
In November, then-Montgomery County Executive-elect Marc Elrich (D) weighed in on the matter upon HOC Executive Director Stacey Spann’s announcement that the HOC would determine the future of the burial site through an advisory board comprised of community members.
Elrich rejected that plan, saying the dispute over Moses African Cemetery, located behind Westwood Towers on River Road, must be resolved solely between Macedonia Baptist Church and the commission, with Elrich as a mediator.
Months later, HOC and Macedonia Baptist Church members still stand at odds.
Coleman-Adebayo, Macedonia’s social justice coordinator and a key figure in the protests, described her and her colleagues’ Jan 9 arrest as an act of civil disobedience.
HOC’s denial of the incident in a public statement, on the other hand, highlights the dishonesty that has put the future of Moses African Cemetery in limbo, Coleman-Adebayo told The Informer.
“HOC is so duplicitous that it sent a letter to the Maryland House of Delegates denying that arrests took place,” Coleman-Adebayo said. “Who will hold HOC accountable for lying to Maryland State Assembly officials?” she asked.
On Friday, Coleman-Adebayo joined fellow supporters of Delegate Kramer’s bill at the Montgomery County Delegation subcommittee meeting. In the moments before the unanimous vote in support of the legislation, she pondered what she called the absurdity of having to codify respect for Black bodies and ancestors, employees, tenants, and other people under the HOC’s purview.
Though she expressed pleasure at its passage, Coleman-Adebayo said the bill doesn’t go far enough in holding the commission accountable, particularly in negotiations around Moses African Cemetery.
“This is an agency with a track record of breaking promises and using words that are so general that no one can figure out the meaning,” she said. “When HOC says they’re committed to memorializing the site, we don’t know what that means. Does that mean they will put up a plaque? Will there be a wreath they lay on the ground?
Coleman-Adebayo stressed that the ideal situation involves Macedonia Baptist Church, the last vestige of River Road’s majority-Black past, having a key role in maintaining the final resting place of the River Road ancestors.
“HOC clearly adheres to the Trump standard of telling the truth. Even when an event takes place in public and there are video recordings of an arrest, the HOC will say it did not happen,” she said. “Why should we expect anything different when they pronounce their support of memorization? There’s only one Black church left in Bethesda and it’s the only institution that can be trusted with the hopes and dreams of the Black community and our precious Moses African Cemetery.”