The Town of Mount Airy’s Planning Commission convened Monday, July 30, for its monthly meeting to establish a set of rules and procedures, advise Town Council on a local petition for annexation, and to vote on a concept plan.
As mandated by the State of Maryland under the Open Meetings Act, the council must adopt a set of procedures and rules to conduct its business.
Commission members said for the most part they were satisfied with the latest draft of the rules, last revised July 16, suggesting minor edits that cleaned up redundancies and superfluous subsections.
But Subsection 5.5, entitled “Ex-parte communications,” under the “Conduct of Commission Members” section spurred debate.
The section says that commission members will not communicate outside of official Planning Commission meetings regarding matters that are likely to be addressed by the commission.
“As an elected town councilman my job is different than you as an appointed commission,” said Councilman Robert King Jr., who effectively serves as the liaison for the Mount Airy Town Council on the Planning Commission. “I actually am required to have ex-parte discussions.”
King is entitled to “all the rights and privileges of the regularly appointed members, including the right to vote,” per the procedure of rules draft. In Mount Airy the ex-officio has long been a voting member of the commission they are assigned to, Planning Commission members agreed.
He said he needs to talk to his constituents — those who voted him onto Town Council — about matters before the commission. King described a scenario where a constituent approached him about a development “to get me on their side,” he said, “that’s totally within rules and [regulations].”
But that’s an ex-parte interaction, according to the draft. It’s unclear, commission members concluded, whether King is to abide by the same rules as other voting members of the commission.
As drafted, the rule “is trying to take away the job that I come here with when I get assigned to this commission,” King said.
“We don’t want to take that away from you,” said Lindey Brown, chairwoman of the Planning Commission.
Commission member Scott Sirchio asked his colleagues if perhaps the conundrum was whether King should vote or not. Answer that question and the rest is simple, Sirchio proposed. “If he votes, then we have to address those [ex-parte] conversations,” Sirchio said, “but if he doesn’t vote, then it’s not a problem.”
An annotation on the draft, which was provided to the Times, explains that it is unclear based on the town or state code whether the liaison from the Town Council should vote.
Some other towns don’t allow the ex-officio member of a commission to vote, but it’s been a longstanding tradition in Mount Airy.
“If we come to something and it winds up as a tie, [King’s] vote could essentially change the tie,” said commission member Roxanne Hemphill. “And he’s not technically a member [of the commission].”
“I have a hard time with the voting,” she said.
Commission members agreed that the Town Council would need to resolve the conflict.
Earlier in the meeting commission members addressed a petition for annexation of approximately 12.5 acres of land north of Mount Airy — essentially including the acreage in the town limits. The enclave is called Dorseytown and includes existing homes.
Commission members cited a lack of water availability in unanimously voting to advise Town Council against the annexation.
“There is no water allocation from the town [water and sewer] system to accommodate this annexation,” a memorandum prepared by town staff for the commission said.
The commission did, however, vote unanimously to recommend that the Town Council approve the concept plan for Lot 19 at the Twin Arch Business Park. The proposed new building would house ServiceMaster, and would include office and warehouse space for the disaster restoration franchise.
ServiceMaster already leases a space in the area, but is hoping to build its own facility, in the industrially zoned part of Mount Airy, and move into it. The plan meets all of the town’s requirements, said Monika Weierbach, the town and zoning administrator.
To quell concerns of increased traffic, Brent Cross, the owner of the Mount Airy business, said that 80 percent of his 32 employees already operate in the business park. The proposed addition is to bring all parts of the business into one facility — ServiceMaster leases warehouse space in Frederick, Cross explained.
Cross said he doesn’t think that a few more of his employees at the business park “will impact anything at all.”