Agency to review votes on memorial (The Washington Times)

By Ellen Sorokin, The Washington Times

A federal agency next week will hold a closed meeting to determine the validity of a series of its votes last year to approve construction of the World War II Memorial on the Mall.

In a routine executive session April 5, the National Capital Planning Commission will try to determine whether its approvals of the project are valid because the agency’s former chairman, Harvey B. Gantt, continued to vote on the project’s design long after his tenure had expired.

“Right now it looks like we will discuss the whole issue and try to come up with some recommendations as to what actions, if any, we should take,” said William Lawson, the commission’s acting executive director.

Mr. Lawson said the planning commission considers the issue a “technical, legal matter” that most likely will not have an impact on the final votes on the memorial and other projects.

“I have a gut feeling that it won’t,” he said. “The commission feels that it has been operating in a proper manner.”

Mr. Gantt’s term as chairman expired Jan. 1, 1999, but he continued to preside over the monthly commission meetings until Dec. 14, when he was replaced by Richard Friedman.

One of the votes in question came as recently as September, when Mr. Gantt was part of the 7-5 majority that approved the monument’s final design.

The memorial is to be built around the Rainbow Pool east of the Lincoln Memorial to honor the millions of men and women who served in the armed forces during World War II. The planning commission oversees the design, placement and construction of federal monuments and buildings. Mr. Lawson said chairmen traditionally remained on the job until they were replaced, an action permitted under legislation passed in 1952. But when the law was amended in 1973, that language “inadvertently” was dropped, Mr. Lawson said. “It’s a technical matter that we can correct.” Opponents of the memorial site, who have filed a federal lawsuit to stop the project, said they want a new vote now that Mr. Gantt’s votes have come into question.

Any discussion or votes involving the memorial should be held in public, the opponents said, not in an executive session typically held behind closed doors.

“It’s worrisome,” said Beth Solomon of the World War II Veterans to Save the Mall, which opposes the project. “If anything, it’s clear that there needs to be more transparency in these agencies.”

The National Coalition to Save Our Mall, another memorial-site opponent and lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, sent a letter to the commission Wednesday urging it to hold a special public meeting to reconsider the votes. “The chairman is not just a vote,” said Judy Scott Feldman, a Rockville resident who is the coalition’s co-chairman. “He directly influenced the discussion or lack of discussion during past public meetings. His behavior very much affected, we think, the way the commission understood the issues.”

Commission officials said any actions during an executive session would be made in accordance with the agency’s bylaws. Coalition members say the memorial, which would have a walled enclosure, new roads and buildings, will obstruct the open space of the Mall.

The coalition won a court victory March 7, when a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order barring the National Park Service from pruning the roots of elms at the memorial site. The judge said the trees are part of the historic master plan for the Mall.

The Justice Department, which is representing NCPC in the lawsuit, has asked to put the lawsuit on hold until the matter involving Mr. Gantt’s votes is resolved.

Plans to begin construction also have been put on hold.