Mount Airy Council deliberates, delays liaison voting ordinance

Alex Mann
Contact ReporterCarroll County Times

The Mount Airy mayor and Town Council for a second consecutive meeting deliberated at length an ordinance that would establish in law council members’ duty in their capacity as liaisons on volunteer commissions Monday, Nov. 5.

It’s been town practice for years that the mayor appoint council members to serve as liaisons and full-voting members of volunteer commissions — like the Planning Commission. Before council Monday was Ordinance 2018-16, which would align town code with current practice.

“This is a rushed job and it really should not be happening in this way,” said Leslie Dickinson, vice chair of the planning commission, calling the ordinance a piecemeal solution.

At the heart of the debate is the role of the council liaison to the Planning Commission, a position occupied by Councilman Bob King.

The Planning Commission is part of the executive branch of the government whereas the Town Council is part of the legislative branch, Dickinson and others argued.

Planning commissioners are appointed by the mayor, while council members are elected officials — politicians. A person serving in both capacities blurs the lines of separation of government power, Dickinson added.

“I think it sets up a scenario where a council member who is also by default a politician, an elected official has a responsibility to talk to all constituents throughout the town — businesses, developers, contractors, residents, renters, property owners — we have a responsibility of talking to everyone,” said Councilman Larry Hushour, an opponent of the ordinance as drafted. “It’s inherent in our jobs. We’re trying to get elected.”

Planning Commission members are supposed to be held to a different standard — that of more objectivity. Commissioners are supposed to look at proposals, consider town code and decide whether the town could accommodate such a project.

“(As politicians) we’re stuck in a position where we show up at the planning meeting and if we’re a voting member, it’s kind of hard to cloud all that conversation that we have going on,” Hushour said. “It’s almost like ex-parte conversations or conversations with some people that could influence a planning vote are the very people that we’ have a responsibility to talk to.”

Besides, said Hushour, recently elected Councilwoman Patty Washabaugh — formerly of the Planning Commission — and others, council members have a chance to vote on such issues after the proposal moves on from the commission to the council.

“Ultimately we get to make a decision we get to make a decision at this council table,” said Hushour, who proposed an amendment to the ordinance that would allow for all council liaisons except for the liaison to the Planning Commission to be voting members on their commissions. “I don’t see a reason why a Town Council member needs to be making a vote at a planning commission meeting and then again here at the council table.”

But it’s not so black and white, suggested Mayor Pat Rockinberg, who has no vote on the town council. Rockinberg chimed in with some information to help his colleagues arrive at a decision.

“The charter is silent on a lot of issues,” he said. “The charter’s rule for the council president is that he serves in an incapacity of the mayor. That’s it. It does not say that he chairs the meeting (current practice sees the president at the helm of every mayor-council meeting).”

Rockinberg said the town’s practice of liaisons voting is not a violation, as the code doesn’t specify either way.

The mayor shared concerns about double-voting, too, he said. “But many items that come before planning actually don’t even make it to the council table… sometimes when it gets to this table it’s different, so it’s not always a double vote.”

Finally, Rockinberg added, the Planning Commission is not the only volunteer body that has some power.

And that’s where the view of Councilman Jason Poirier, who said he was not strongly opinionated on the matter, entered the equation: Whatever the council decides for the planning liaison should be ubiquitous on the other volunteer bodies, he concluded.

Mandated by state law, the Planning Commission has been drafting its independent rules of operation. Ex-parte, or one-sided, communications became a point of contention during the commission’s rules of procedure deliberations.

King’s dual responsibilities emerged as a conflict of interest, which eventually prompted council’s considering an ordinance to clarify the town code.

“This is not about Bob (King), well it is because he’s our liaison now… we’re drafting rules and guidelines to run our commission and it’s about him or whoever else is our liaison,” Dickinson said. “The way that the language is written in the proposed version does not even talk about ex-parte (communications).”

As drafted the ordinance allows for a liaison to vote, “subject to recusal for an immediate personal or financial interest in the subject matter.”

That’s far-fetched, Dickinson said. “The issue is, is the liaison going out and talking to some developer and not telling the residents and then coming to the table and voting.”

King rebutted, suggesting that the piece of legislation before council should not address ex parte discussions.

“This is not about that,” he said, explaining again that the ordinance before lawmakers aimed to align town code with longtime practice. King eventually voted to adopt the ordinance as drafted.

Others saw room for fine tuning.

“Just because it’s the way that we’re doing it today doesn't mean that that’s the way we should make this document,” Hushour said. “Look, if we can fix something along the way, we need to fix it.”

After revoking the Hushour amendment, council voted 3-2 against adopting 2018-16, meaning more deliberation and more debate are imminent.

alex.mann@carrollcountytimes.com

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