There was a fresh, but familiar face at the table when the Town of Mount Airy Mayor and Common Council convened Monday night, Oct. 1 to introduce an ordinance that clarifies town council members’ roles as liaisons on volunteer advisory commissions.
Moments before the meeting kicked off Mayor Pat Rockinberg swore in recently elected Councilwoman Patty Washabaugh, who vacated her post on the Town Planning Commission to assume her seat at the council table. Washabaugh defeated two opponents in Mount Airy’s first special election Monday, Sept. 10.
“It was awesome, I just loved it,” Washabaugh told the Times. “I enjoyed getting my feet wet, and having all the people come out and support me was just wonderful.”
It’s fitting that at her first meeting as a council member, the body addressed an ordinance that grew from debate on the commission she previously served on.
For years, it’s been Mount Airy’s practice to have council members serve as liaisons and full-fledged voting members of the commissions they sit in on. The town’s code does not directly address whether a council member serving as a liaison on one of the committees can vote.
Enter ordinance No. 2018-16, which would conform the town code to its existing practice.
“That ordinance as it currently exists seems out of step with what we currently do in practice,” Town Attorney Thomas McCarron told the council. “It did not clarify that council members, or liaisons as we often call them, is actually a full-fledged member of the planning commission and actually got to vote. This ordinance, as proposed and as written, would bring the town code in compliance with our practice.”
The proposed ordinance remains open to discussion and will be brought up for adoption at the November council meeting. Some of the elected officials differ in their view of whether a council liaison should have a vote on the commission he or she serves on.
Councilman Larry Hushour asked McCarron whether he could prepare a version of the ordinance where the council does not provide a liaison to the planning commission.
Councilman Bob King serves as liaison to the planning commission and he’s opposed to relinquishing his role as a voting member of the committee.
“I don’t see the onus behind it [and] I’m concerned about taking away the power of a councilman,” King told the Times. “Now when you have no vote and come to these [commission] meetings and be ignored. … I don’t want to be ignored.”
King’s new council — and former planning commission — colleague sees it differently.
“I’m not sure if we need to have all the commissions the same,” Washabaugh said. “I think [the planning commission] should have a liaison from the town council, but I’m not necessarily in favor of that person having a vote because they have a vote at this [the council] table and I feel as though the voting privilege should be for the members of the planning commission.”
The planning liaison should serve in an advisory capacity, not as voting member, Washabaugh said, adding that she’d like to review the drafted ordinance more thoroughly.
Planning commission members, who are appointed by the mayor and approved by the council, play by a different set of rules than the council liaison, who is elected and then appointed by the mayor.
“As an elected official it’s different than somebody on the planning commission,” Washabaugh said. “As a member of the planning commission you can’t really meet with a developer and discuss anything that’s being done because you have to be impartial, but as somebody the town council you would be discussing sometimes with the developer.”
The ordinance can still be amended as discussions influence the nature and scope of the law.
The pink-clad council — each member wore a pink clothing item in support of Breast Cancer Awareness Month — also introduced a less-debated ordinance that would allow the town to remove signs posted illegally on town property or right of ways, before contacting the individuals responsible.
“I got calls about campaign signs popping up all over town,” said Peter Helt, the council president. “One guy actually screwed his sign to the back of one of our town signs, and I was like, ‘We need to remove these signs.’”
As it stands, town code calls for officials to notify the people responsible for the sign before taking it down, Helt explained. But that can be problematic because it’s difficult to track people down, he added.