Ann Arbor planning commission working session (Feb. 4, 2014): Continuing a discussion that began last year, planning commissioners debated two aspects of their bylaws, in preparation for a vote on proposed revisions to those rules at their Feb. 20 meeting.
Most of their discussion at the Feb. 4 working session focused on how the city council interacts with the commission. The issue stems from an episode last year when councilmember Chuck Warpehoski (Ward 5) began to speak during a public hearing on a project in his neighborhood. He hadn’t been aware of the bylaws governing whether councilmembers can formally address the commission.
A similar situation occurred at an ordinance revisions committee meeting later in the year, when councilmember Sumi Kailasapathy (Ward 1) started to address the commissioners during public commentary. In both cases, the councilmembers were told that the commission’s bylaws prevented them from speaking.
The current bylaws state: “A member of the City Council shall not be heard before the Commission as a petitioner, representative of a petitioner or as a party interested in a petition during the Council member’s term of office.”
Jack Eaton (Ward 4) weighed in during the council’s Feb. 3 meeting, stating his view that if councilmembers are involved in a petition that would prevent them from voting on the item at the council meeting, they should be allowed to address the planning commission. “When we get elected, I don’t think we give up our right to petition government,” he said. Eaton asked Sabra Briere (Ward 1), who serves on the planning commission, to convey his point to commissioners as part of their discussion.
During the working session on Feb. 4, some commissioners expressed concern that any time a councilmember addresses the commission, it can be an undue influence on the process. Another concern is whether councilmembers, by forecasting their view in advance of a council vote, could put the city at legal risk. But at least one commissioner had a different view on the issue of constraining councilmembers from addressing the commission. Eleanore Adenekan told commissioners: “It’s like somebody telling me that ‘You can’t walk into this room because you’re black.’”
There seemed to be general consensus that the current bylaws are unclear, and a proposed revision is intended to simplify the issue: “A member of the City Council shall not be heard before the Commission during the Councilmember’s term in office.”
Briere advocated for additional training of councilmembers, regarding what’s appropriate in these contexts. When the council takes up ethics issues later this year, she said, the issue of communicating with city boards and commissions will be one of the topics. “I call it How to Behave in Public,” Briere said.
Commissioners also discussed revisions to the bylaws related to public hearings. Some of the changes relate to whether someone can speak more than once at the same public hearing, when it is continued over multiple meetings. This situation arose last year during a public hearing on the downtown zoning review. Bonnie Bona cautioned other commissioners against changing the bylaws in ways that are “just making ourselves look more closed.” Some commissioners countered that the bylaws also allow for a majority vote to modify or waive the limitations, if necessary. [.pdf of current planning commission bylaws] [.pdf of Feb. 20 staff memo and proposed revisions]
The commission’s Feb. 20 meeting – held on a Thursday, rather than the typical Tuesday, because of scheduling due to the Presidents Day holiday – has a light agenda. In addition to the bylaws, the only other action item is a proposed rezoning of 2.02 acres at 2225 Traverwood Drive, adjacent to the Stapp Nature Area. Developer Bill Martin is donating the land to the city, and the proposal would rezone it to public land.