By Joe Murchison
Tom Dernoga decided in 2021 that enough was enough: He needed to engineer a takeover of the Prince George’s County Council.
Dernoga, a 12-year councilmember from Laurel (District 1), had been disheartened by what he considered the council’s long practice of favoring developers and big business over the concerns and needs of regular county residents. But he had only two allies on the council – Jolene Ivey, of Cheverly (District 5), and Monique Anderson-Walker, of Fort Washington (District 8). Anderson-Walker resigned in November 2021 to run for lieutenant governor, reducing the coalition to two out of 11 members.
Fast-forward to today. Dernoga is council chair, leading a new six-member majority of mostly young candidates he supported in the November election. The coalition is shaking things up on the council with their agenda, which calls for tighter zoning processes, greater openness in council dealings and more active oversight of county agencies. (You can see the agenda at pgccouncil.us/873/The-Peoples-Agenda.)
“This group is not beholden to special interests,” Dernoga said. “They’re a great group of people to be working with, and they want to do a good job for county residents.”
Not everyone appreciates the new sheriff in town. At-large Councilmember Mel Franklin said he was concerned that the new council’s words and actions threaten to chase away positive economic development.
“One of the reasons councilmember Dernoga has gotten a reputation for being anti-business and anti-economic growth,” Franklin said, “is that he’s never understood the need for certainty, flexibility and timing in promoting positive economic development. … Mr. Dernoga and the council majority talk about attracting quality retail and economic development to the county, but then they turn around and demonize people who do economic development. I don’t think they understand how damaging that is.”
Franklin added, “The new council is excluding myself, council member Hawkins and council member Harrison. They are not taking advantage of the experience we have on the council.” Calvin Hawkins (At-Large) has served on the council for four years and is Dernoga’s predecessor as council chair. Sidney Harrison (District 9) also has served for four years. Hawkins, Franklin and Harrison were part of a majority coalition on the previous council.
Dernoga’s and Ivey’s takeover strategy began in 2021 with the backing of Ed Burroughs III in a special election to fill Anderson-Walker’s seat. Burroughs, of Temple Hills, was a former member of the county Board of Education who earlier had served in Dernoga’s office as a high school intern. Dernoga said “the establishment” backed Tony Knotts, a former county councilmember, but Burroughs outworked him with a strong door-knocking campaign.
“Tom was extremely hands-on from the moment I found out there was a special election,” Burroughs recalled. Dernoga provided data analytics, he and Ivey donated money and both helped to put up campaign signs. “Tom was with me at the Board of Elections when they were counting the mail-in ballots” at the close of the election, Burroughs said.
Next, Dernoga and Ivey focused on the 2022 council election. “I played a pretty big behind-the-scenes role in District 6 with Wala Blegay,” he said.
Blegay, a lawyer from Kettering and now Dernoga’s vice chair, knew him from her time working as a legislative aide for state Del. Ben Barnes (District 21), who lives in College Park and shares many constituents with Dernoga.
Blegay was running against four other strong Democratic candidates. “I encouraged people in her district, and groups in her district, to back her,” Dernoga said. He also advised her about land-use issues, an area of expertise he had developed earlier in his life, when he served as a private attorney and represented citizens’ groups fighting development proposals.
“A lot of people really trust him,” Blegay said.
In District 7, Dernoga and Ivey backed Krystal Oriadha, who had previously served as one of Dernoga’s policy directors. She lives in Seat Pleasant and is co-founder of PG ChangeMakers, a grassroots nonprofit dedicated to providing resources to support local leaders. Dernoga said Oriadha didn’t need much help, as she, along with the other members of the coalition, knocked on lots of doors to earn their elections.
The sixth member of the coalition is Eric Olson (District 3), who lives in College Park. Olson had served on the council from 2006 to 2014, and served as executive director of the College Park City-University Partnership until last year. While with the partnership, Olson led an effort to transform the Route 1 Corridor with substantial upgrades to the thoroughfare as well as new development.
After Olson announced that he would run again for County Council, the then-existing council rejected a redistricting map created by a nonpartisan commission and, in November 2022, quickly passed a new map that put Olson’s home in District 1, which Dernoga already represented. The new map also pushed Oriadha and one other candidate out of the districts where they had planned to run.
Olson “came to me to find a legal solution” to negate the new map, Dernoga said. Dernoga suggested a legal strategy and later consulted with the lawyer that Olson hired to fight the map in court. The courts ultimately rejected the council’s map, ordering that a bipartisan one be instituted instead.
“He’s a great legal mind, and it was great to talk to him through that,” Olson said.
Olson said he and Dernoga have a number of similar interests. “We both are very focused on transparency and the involvement of constituents,” he said.
Another issue is “smart growth – reigning in sprawl,” Olson said. “We need to do development in the right places. … We have so many opportunities for good transit-oriented development in the county, and we need to take advantage of that.”
Olson said the previous council acted against smart growth by trying to subvert a new county-wide rezoning map approved last year. “Years and years and lots of money went into developing a new zoning rewrite, and the former council basically drove a truck through it. They basically said you could use the new zoning ordinance or the old rules, forever.”
The new council majority has put forward legislation to reverse that. “It’s a new day on the council,” Olson said.
Blegay said Dernoga had helped her and her constituents with development controversies in the Bowie and Upper Marlboro areas. For instance, the former council rezoned the 130-acre Freeway Airport property to allow 500 townhouses instead of the previously allowed 65 detached houses. The council did this, not through a regular rezoning process involving staff reviews and public hearings, but by inserting a “text amendment” in the zoning law that allowed that one particular property to qualify for higher densities.
The new council has introduced bills that would prohibit such text amendments. Franklin, the at-large councilmember, defended the use of text amendments as necessary under the old zoning ordinance, saying it was “an outdated zoning ordinance that was half-a-century old” and was “out of step with the modern economy.” The new zoning ordinance adopted last year reduces the need for them, he said.
Ivey, Dernoga’s original partner in reshaping the council, said she was excited that it will be more receptive to measures the former council blocked. For instance, she said she is finalizing a measure that will require that new homes incorporate universal design – features that allow the home to be adapted for owners as they age or become disabled.
The new majority has also proposed legislation to address rising apartment rents – a hot-button issue in Laurel. Dernoga said his coalition put forward a rent stabilization bill that passed out of committee in the third week of January and was headed for a full-council vote. The council majority favored an annual rent-increase cap of 3%, but Dernoga said they needed to negotiate with County Executive Angela Alsobrooks’ administration, which is calling for a higher cap.
Dernoga said that if the measure passes it would be in effect for six months. “We want a short-term law till we figure out what to do long-term,” he said.