Absence noted at Montgomery County meeting

Council questions rights director's failure to show up for vote on discrimination bill


Montgomery County's human rights director failed to attend the County Council's final discussion Tuesday of a housing discrimination bill that increased the powers of her office.

Odessa Shannon was also not present when the bill - which was sponsored by Council President Tom Perez, a Silver Spring Democrat, and Councilman Michael Subin, an at-large Democrat - passed by a vote of 7 to 2 and allowed Shannon's agency to raise fines from $5,000 to $500,000 for humiliation and embarrassment arising from discrimination.

The bill also expanded the categories of lending activities that constitute discriminatory housing practices and required the human rights department to provide an annual report.

"Doesn't she work for the people of Montgomery County?" said council spokesman Patrick Lacefield. "The fact that she refused to come is unbelievable. Maybe she's rearranging her sock drawer or alphabetizing her spices."

Shannon reiterated her support for the bill during a phone conversation Wednesday afternoon, but she wouldn't say where she was or what she was doing during the meeting.

"That's personal," Shannon said. "I wasn't available."

The council expected her - or at least somebody from the human rights office - to attend the discussion that started at 9:38 a.m.

Perez said he wanted to ask the commission some questions about the bill before it passed, but when he called out to the crowd, no one answered.

"The silence is deafening," Perez said. "Apparently it's not important enough. It's unbelievable. ... What sort of message does this send to the community?"

Perez moved the item to 2 p.m., but his spokesman informed people that Shannon declined to come to the phone and was going to be in a meeting "all day."

Shannon, who was appointed by County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, sent a general e-mail to the council at 1:43 p.m.

"I apologize for not being available today," she wrote. "But I want to reiterate the Duncan administration's support for Council efforts to end lending discrimination in Montgomery County."

Councilwoman Marilyn Praisner from District 4 defended Shannon, a longtime friend.

"Odessa has a strong sense of responsibility and a tremendous work ethic," Praisner said. "The office is one she holds dear."

David Weaver, a Duncan spokesman, pointed to the "countless hours" Shannon spent working with the county to craft the bill, Duncan's endorsement days after Perez introduced it, and Duncan's general support of the council's effort to crack down on predatory lending practices.

"I'm not quite sure about what all the confusion is," Weaver said. "It's a little perplexing as to why her physical presence became such an issue today when ... Shannon's views are so well known.

"Sometimes the council has a tendency to miss the forest for the trees. [Tuesday] was about voting."

The bill approved Tuesday omitted earlier language that would have made discrimination easier to prove in court by showing impact on the renter or homeowner, instead of showing discriminatory intent by a lender.

The council may still introduce a bill that applies such a test to more than just predatory lending.

"I don't want anyone to think the book is closed with predatory lending," Subin said. "Chapter 1 is closed, but when we walk out of here, Chapter 2 is already being written."

Christopher Stollar writes for the Capital News Service.

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