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News Standards of conduct and term limits for planning board discussed

Susan Ervin, a member of Macon County’s planning board, speaks before commissiners at last Tuesday’s public hearing. Commissioners will soon debate the issue of applying term limits and conduct policies for all advisory boards.Could be applied to all advisory boards 

Macon County Commissioners recently adopted a code of conduct policy for planning board members to adhere to – a policy aimed at squelching political animosities between planning board members – with the intent on making the advisory board more effective and less controversial. The standards of conduct applies exclusively to the planning board, and contains 17 different sets of criteria newly appointed planning board members must abide by. Anyone wanting to volunteer on the planning board must sign the standards of conduct before being appointed by the Board of Commissioners.

At last week’s regularly scheduled meeting, the Board of Commissioners approved new term limits for the planning board. Last December, as the planning board term limits debate revved up, the board adopted standards of conduct for planning board appointments to sign as part of their application. Now, it looks like the board may apply both term limits and the standards of conduct policies to every county advisory board.

County attorney Chester Jones drew up the standards of conduct for the planning board last fall, and Commission Chairman Kevin Corbin believes the policy will eventually be applied to all advisory boards, albeit in a somewhat different format for certain boards. “That was where the conversation ended up at,” said Corbin on last Tuesday’s board meeting. “We will be looking to see how we can get those things done either at our continuation meeting or at our regular meeting in March,” he said. “Obviously, some of the language will vary for different boards, but I think the gist of it will be the same,” Corbin said.

Commissioners would also like for currently serving planning board members to sign the standards of conduct, according to Corbin. “I think we would like for that to happen,” he said. At this point, sitting planning board members have not been asked to sign the standards of conduct. Moreover, the conduct policy is not included in the planning board ordinance, but simply exists as an active policy of the Board of Commissioners. Furthermore, legal requirements do not require board members to adopt a standard of conduct policy for every advisory board, according to Macon County Manager Jack Horton. However, Commissioners seemed poised to take it upon themselves to implement a conduct policy to make that happen.

As far as the planning board goes, some of the bullet points are fairly straightforward. Others are rather extensive and open to interpretation, according to planning board member Al Slagle. “It just looks like to me, and I haven’t actually looked at them in a few weeks, but it just looks like the conduct policy is singling out individual planning board members just like the initial term limits recommendations,” Slagle said. Slagle believes the standards of conduct will not resolve any of the issues on the planning board, saying most of the disagreements and controversy between board members stems from philosophical differences on land-use planning that cannot be resolved with an ethics policy.

Last January, Republican Commissioner Ron Haven proposed enacting retroactive term limits of two consecutive three-year terms, with a three-year hiatus before former planning board members could reapply. Instead, the board worked out a compromise of two consecutive three-year terms that are not retroactive, and a single-year hiatus before members are eligible for reappointment.

One standard states that planning board members must “create a positive environment in meetings of the Planning Board.” Another says members must “prepare for each meeting” and “maintain an attitude of courtesy and consideration toward colleagues, citizens, and staff during all discussions and deliberations.” Those criteria points are not the least bit controversial or ambiguous, but others could have unintended consequences attached to them, according to Slagle.

For example, “members shall avoid creating the appearance of impropriety by refraining from engaging in private discussions with the applicant or their representatives or any member of the public or interested party about specific upcoming Planning Board agenda items. If a Member receives a private written, telephonic or electronic communication about an agenda item, the Member will promptly forward the information to the Chairperson and the County Planner so that it may be shared with all other Members,” reads another bullet point on the new conduct policy. Another requirement prevents planning board members from conveying the impression that they are in a position to influence the outcomes of board decisions, and prohibits members from attempting to use their office to influence or sway the recommendations of planning department staff members.

“I don’t mind telling people what the planning board’s decision is or what our position as a board is, but I also think some of the conduct guidelines could be problematic depending on how you interpret them,” said Slagle. “I just think it would be wise to have a lawyer look at the policy and see if there are any conflicts with free speech, because one thing I won’t do is stop giving my individual opinion to anyone who asks for it,” he said.

Slagle was involved with a controversy last fall about a contract in the Wildflower subdivision. Mr. Fred Levine, who held a contract on a lot in Wildflower, opted out of the agreement because of his concerns about the safety of the subdivision. Levine had an email and phone conversation with Slagle before opting out, where Slagle gave Levine his opinion about the subdivision. Slagle maintained that he did not attack the developers in any way, but he did tell Levine that there was a history of earth movements in that location and that those landslides have been well documented. Slagle also told Levine that regular home owner’s insurance does not cover earth movements. Following those events, Michelle Masta – co-developer of the Wildflower subdivision – approached the Board of Commissioners complaining that Slagle was unfairly intruding into their business.

Masta has a different opinion on the standards of conduct, but for different reasons. “Some of the standards are good, but there are some that are so simplistic they should not have to be included.

Any educated, intelligent adult should already know how to conduct themselves whether they are a member of a Planning Board or not,” she said.

“If you are going to establish standards, then shouldn’t you also include prohibiting any actions where there is a conflict of interest, direct or indirect?”

“While some of the language instructs a member to not allow a conflict or impartiality to influence a decision, it would be better to require a member to reveal any conflict of interest and to prohibit participation in a board decision if there is a conflict either direct or indirect. Most of the language simply says to not allow these things to influence a decision. The problem is, how would anyone ever know if it did or didn’t,” responded Masta. The lack of enforcement mechanisms in the policy also concern her.

The Board of Commissioners will likely decide on a uniform set of term limits and standards of conduct for all county advisory boards next month.

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