Theatre of the Absurd - Conflict of Interests on the Hickory Ridge Village Board
What is happening on the Hickory Ridge Village Board is a spectacle of the absurd.
New Hickory Ridge Board Chair Lisa Dean, leader of the slate opposed to the redevelopment of the Hickory Ridge Village Center, began the May 24, 2021 Village Board Meeting saying that she wanted more civil discourse and expressed a desire to lead a Board that works better together after a contentious first meeting. Instead, over the next four hours, Dean brazenly dominated the meeting with long monologues attacking a fellow boardmember, demanding access to the personal emails of Village staff, dismissing the services of long-serving counsel to the Board Tom Meachum, and declaring that she alone should be appointed as the sole representative from the Board for forthcoming mediation proceedings regarding the redevelopment of the Hickory Ridge Village Center. She made the unilateral decision to disable the chat functionality in Zoom preventing residents from participating in discussions. Dean even had the audacity to direct the Village Manager to mute Board-member Janssen Evelyn on Zoom when he was in the midst of defending himself after one of her tirades.
If you are not already fortunate enough to know of Janssen Evelyn, you surely will. He's serving his second term on the Hickory Ridge Village Board and also a Board member with the Howard County Conservatory, the Howard County NAACP (where he also Co-Chairs the Environmental and Climate Justice Committee), and is a Commissioner with the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights. Janssen is also closely involved with two community gardens (one at the Community Ecology Institute's Freetown Farm). He is principled, perceptive, and a brilliant community advocate and public servant who selflessly volunteers his time to bettering his county and community in innumerous ways. I'm honored to have come to know Janssen through our shared service on the Hickory Ridge Village Board over the past year, and am incredibly grateful to call him a friend.
Perhaps the most damning moment in the Board meeting came when Dean questioned, accused, insinuated, and ultimately simply opined that Evelyn has a conflict of interest as it relates to the Hickory Ridge Village Center redevelopment due to his employment as a Assistant Chief Administrative Officer in the Department of County Administration (which is in executive branch of Howard County government). Nevermind that the County Council sitting as the Zoning Board responsible for deciding the fate of the Hickory Ridge Village Center redevelopment is part of the legislative branch of local government (and it was before the Zoning Board since 2018 two years before Janssen joined the Village Board). Nevermind that Janssen has disclosed his "secondary employment" immediately after joining the Village Board over a year ago and, moreover, reviewed with the County's legal office and the Ethics Commission about his various volunteer roles and any potential conflict, including his ability to volunteer on this HOA. In sum, there is no conflict and should one arise, he would simply have to recuse himself from that matter.
The same cannot be said about Lisa Dean. Dean has her own conflict for which she has not disclosed.
Those in glass houses should not cast stones. Not only is Ms. Dean conflicted between her role as chair of the village board and as a long time opponent to redeveloping the Hickory Ridge Village center, but even more troubling is the fact that Ms. Dean founded the current iteration of the Mediation and Conflict Resolution Center (MCRC) that has been tasked with mediating the Village Center redevelopment. And she has failed to disclose this fact as she seeks to become the Board's sole representation to MCRC during mediation.
Here's a timeline.
March 3, 2017: Lisa Harris Dean incorporates MCRC as a non-profit conflict resolution and mediation organization following the predecessor organization's break from Howard Community College. Dean is a founding Boardmember and still serves as the resident agent of the organization. She even organized a gofundme to help launch the organization.
January 4, 2018: Deb Jung (prior to be elected to the Howard County Council) testifies in opposition to the Hickory Ridge Village Center Redevelopment in front of the Howard County Planning Board. 2:47:30 mark of the 1/4/2018 meeting.
November 6, 2018: Deb Jung wins the Howard County Council D4 election. Election Results.
July 24, 2019: Councilmember Deb Jung says that she will be impartial during Zoning Board hearings and does not recuse herself from the case. Baltimore Sun, July 30, 2019.
July 24, 2019 - March 24, 2021: The Howard County Zoning Board (made up of the Howard County Council including Councilmember Jung) conducts 16 hearings totaling 70 hours to hear testimony to determine whether the proposed Hickory Ridge Village Center meets the requirements for approval. Lisa Dean, testifying as an individual in opposition, provides a 23-page written testimony, 41-page closing statement and 9 supporting exhibits.
March 12, 2021: Lisa Dean announced as one of 12 candidates running for the Hickory Ridge Village Board. Over the subsequent month, Dean leads a campaign slate that she promises will oppose the redevelopment of the Village Center despite the fact that the County's zoning board is responsible for deciding whether the redevelopment would move forward - not the Village Board.
April 12, 2021: In a surprise move, the Howard County Zoning Board votes to send the Hickory Ridge Redevelopment to mediation, temporarily abdicating their responsibility to decide whether or not Kimco's proposed redevelopment meets the zoning criteria for approval. Deb Jung motions at the onset of this worksession to send the redevelopment to mediation using MCRC. Thus, the Village Board, along with other parties to the case, suddenly has an unexpectedly larger role in negotiating an outcome. Meeting Video; The Merriweather Post, April 13, 2021
April 23, 2021: A letter from the Zoning Board is sent to parties to the HRVC redevelopment zoning board case notifying that the case has been sent to MCRC for mediation and outlining the terms of mediation. Mediation Letter.
April 24, 2021: Lisa Dean, Deb McPherson, Janssen Evelyn, Skye Anderson, and Kristine Amari win election to the Hickory Ridge Village Board. The "split election" results in a board comprised of 3 members (Dean, McPherson, and Amari) from the slate opposed to the Hickory Ridge redevelopment and 2 incumbent members (Evelyn and Anderson) from a slate of 4 incumbents who campaigned together in support of the a vibrant village center redevelopment. Hickory Ridge Village Election Results.
May 10, 2021: Lisa Dean elected as Chair of the Hickory Ridge Village Board in a 3-2 vote (Dean, McPherson, Amari yay; Evelyn, Anderson nay). May 10, 2021 meeting minutes.
May 24, 2021: The Hickory Ridge Village Board meeting is a spectacular that had to be seen to be believed. Over the course of nearly 4 hours, the Board - lead by the dogmatic Dean - voted to terminate Tom Meachum as the Village attorney, dismiss the services of 2019-2020 Village Chair Allison Sultan who had been volunteering as representative to the Zoning Board proceedings, demanded computer access to review old email records of village staff, conducted an inquisition of Janssen Evelyn's conflict of interest, and discussed who should represent the Board at forthcoming mediation proceedings. Lisa Dean nominates herself to be the sole Village representative in mediation in front of the mediation and conflict resolution organization she founded, but the issue on who will represent the Board was ultimately tabled.
June 14, 2021: The next scheduled Hickory Ridge Village Board meeting. You are not going to want to miss this one. June 14, 2021 HRVB Meeting Information.
The circumstances of this series of events leads to numerous questions. Among them are:
1. Have Lisa Dean and Deb Jung had any discussions regarding the case? Did they conspire together on the plan to send the case to mediation?
2. When and under what circumstances did Deb Jung have the idea to send the HRVC case to mediation?
3. Four of the founding Board Members of the MCRC are still currently on the Board and Lisa Dean frequently references being a mediator. Is it there? If so, in what other role does Lisa Dean currently serve in MCRC and is she personally connected with the MCRC mediators who will be leading the case?
4. Why did Lisa Dean not disclose her relationship with MCRC as its founder, resident agent, and former Board member to the members of the Village Board?
5. Does this explain why the mediation is still unscheduled and the countdown for it to be returned to the Zoning Board has not begun?
6. In light of this actual conflict, will Dean do the right thing for the integrity of the process and recuse herself from this mediation?