Bylaws OK’d, Delayed for Planning Groups

In action taken by the Ann Arbor city council at its Nov. 7, 2013 meeting, new bylaws for the city’s design review board and for the city planning commission were considered, but only the bylaws for the design review board were approved. Approval of changes to the city planning commission’s bylaws was postponed until Dec. 16.

The design review board has not had bylaws up to now. The purpose of the board is to “foster excellence in the design of Ann Arbor’s built environment and to advise petitioners on how a project can meet the spirit and intent of the Downtown Design Guidelines.” [.pdf of design review board bylaws]

The planning commission had given approval to changes in its bylaws at its July 16, 2013 meeting. Those changes related to the order of agenda items, and the length of time required for special accommodations, such as sign language interpreters. [.pdf of planning commission bylaws on Nov. 7 city council agenda].

Not the subject of a revision, but still the source of some recent community interest, is the following clause from the planning commission bylaws, which imposes a limitation on the ability of a councilmember to address the city planning commission:

Section 9. 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.

That part of the bylaws surfaced recently, when councilmembers Chuck Warpehoski (Ward 5) and Sumi Kailasapathy (Ward 1) on separate occasions sought to address the planning commission – Warpehoski on July 16, 2013 and Kailasapathy on Aug. 13, 2013.

Based on an analysis in the Michigan Municipal League’s “Handbook for Municipal Officials,” it may be problematic for a city councilmember to address a body like the planning commission. That’s not based on having a property interest in a matter, but rather because the council is the appointing body for the commission. The handbook presents the following scenario as an ethical exercise – using the zoning board of appeals (ZBA). From the MML Handbook:

Situation #2 Before you were elected to the city council you served on your city’s zoning board of appeals (ZBA), so you know the ZBA procedures very well. A few months after your election to council, your neighbor and campaign manager files a petition with the ZBA seeking a variance. Since you know how the ZBA works, he asks you to accompany him to the ZBA and to speak on his behalf. Should you do it?

The analysis offered by the handbook is the following:

No. The Michigan Court of Appeals has labeled this situation as “patently improper” and an abuse of public trust for the reason that the person making the argument to the ZBA is also one of the people charged with appointing the ZBA. This creates duress on the ZBA, raising doubt about the impartiality of the ZBA’s decision. Any decision made by the ZBA under these circumstances is void. See Barkey v. Nick, 11 Mich App 361 (1968).

The implication of the Ann Arbor city planning commission bylaw is that it’s permissible for a city councilmember to address the commission exactly when the councilmember is not the petitioner or does not have an interest in the matter. That situation appears to be explicitly deemed unethical by the MML Handbook, if the handbook’s analysis is extended from the ZBA to the planning commission.

The planning commission is also currently contemplating a further change to its bylaws, to clarify how many turns the same person can speak at a public hearing, and how public hearings are continued. It is that current contemplation of additional bylaws changes that led the council to postpone consideration until Dec. 16, the second meeting in December.

This brief was filed from the city council’s chambers on the second floor of city hall, located at 301 E. Huron. A more detailed report will follow.