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Poirier provides deciding vote as Mount Airy Council rejects liaison ordinance

Poirier provides deciding vote as Mount Airy Council rejects liaison ordinance
Mount Airy Councilman Jason Poirier (second from left) was the deciding voice Jan. 7, as he broke a tie by voting against an ordinance that would've stripped the voting power of the council liaison to the Planning Commission — a role occupied by Councilman Bob King (far left). (Alex Mann / Carroll County Times)

The Mount Airy Town Council on Monday night voted against an ordinance that would’ve revoked the vote of the council liaison to the town’s Planning Commission on the volunteer body.

The lawmakers and planning commissioners have debated for months the ordinance, which would amend the town code to prohibit its longstanding practice of allowing the Town Council liaison to the planning commission to be a full, voting member of that commission.

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Ordinance 2018-21 did not address the roles of Town Council liaisons to other volunteer commissions.

Councilman Jason Poirier voted no and proved to be the deciding voice. He remained on the fence following deliberations at past meetings, while his four council colleagues were split — with two in favor and two against the legislation.

Planning commissioners are appointed by the mayor, while council members are elected officials — politicians. Discussions addressed the inherent differences in the responsibilities of the distinct local government roles. Elected officials, it was argued, are supposed to communicate with constituents about certain issues, while planning commissioners are to refrain from such behavior — known as ex parte communication.

“Really it just comes down to trust,” Poirier said. “We trust everyone to follow the same rules and guidelines. I trust the planning commission members not to have any further ex parte communications or discussions for their benefit, as well as the Town Council.”

Council President Peter Helt and Councilman Bob King — the planning commission liaison — had spoken against the ordinance previously, and followed through with “no” votes Jan. 7.

Supporting the ordinance were council members Larry Hushour and Patty Washabaugh, who served on the planning commission before her election to the Town Council in September.

Washabaugh on Monday argued that the council liaison’s being allowed to talk to a party interested in a matter before the planning commission could sway their vote. The vote of a planning commissioner, she said, should be based solely on the best interests of the town — that’s why they’re forbidden from communicating out of public view.

Helt contested Washabaugh’s point, suggesting that council members already have to abide by similar ex parte rules when they serve in their judicial capacity. The lawmakers are already being trusted to abstain from such behavior on certain occasions, so it shouldn’t be any different when they serve in their liaison roles, he said.

Previous debate covered a host of arguments for and against a liaison’s voting power. King argued at past meetings that he, and other liaisons, would be ignored at meetings without a vote.

Hushour said Monday that, if he were to be appointed to the planning commission, he’d happily relinquish the vote. “As long as I can participate in the discussion and do my job as a liaison to communicate back and forth between the council and the planning commission,” he said.

Previous discussion also considered the idea that a council liaison to a commission gets to vote twice on issues — once as a commissioner and again at the council table.

“We all have a double vote at one point or another,” Poirier told reporters after the meeting. “No matter the topic, you talk about it at your commission meeting, you get a vote, it eventually comes back to the Town Council, you get another vote. Everyone has a double vote.”

Poirier said he would’ve considered voting differently had the ordinance addressed the roles of all council liaisons — not just the liaison to the planning commission.

“I’m still on the idea that either we do or we do not have a vote,” he told his colleagues.

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