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As a planning commission member you are probably interested in a wide range of public policy issues and often would like for your individual voice to be heard beyond the planning commission chambers … Are there ethical constraints to how you can make your opinion known?
Participation in public affairs and engaging in civic discourse are well-established traditions in our democracy. As a planning commission member you are probably interested in a wide range of public policy issues and often would like for your individual voice to be heard beyond the planning commission chambers. However, are there ethical constraints to how you can make your opinion known as an individual?
Consider this hypothetical situation: a proposed development project is heard by your Planning Commission on several zoning and site plan approval issues. The Planning Commission ultimately recommends approval of the project to City Council (in your state, the governing body makes the final decision after receiving the planning commission recommendation). You were in the minority, having voted against the project because you believed its parking layout failed to conform to certain design criteria in the zoning ordinance.
As part of the proposal, the applicants are also requesting certain tax abatements. Under your ordinance decisions on tax abatements are not considered by the Planning Commission, and are within the sole review of the Council. As an individual, you oppose the use of tax abatements to encourage development. However, this was not a factor in your vote as a planning commissioner.
When the project comes before your Council, you decide to appear as an individual and voice your opposition to the tax abatements. You also urge the council to require the developer to revise the proposed parking layout. You are surprised, however, when a City Council member becomes upset that you are appearing before the council to voice an opinion about the project. The council member tells you that your testimony is inappropriate since you have already had your say in the process as a Planning Commission member. As a new planning commissioner you are confused and perplexed by this reaction.
Is the city councilor right? Was it inappropriate for you to testify — or did you have the right to express your views? …
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C. Gregory Dale, FAICP, is a founding Principal with McBride Dale Clarion, the Cincinnati affiliate office of Clarion Associates. He has managed planning projects throughout the country, and is also a frequent speaker at planning and zoning workshops and conferences.
Between 1991 and 2009, Dale authored 31 articles for the Planning Commissioners Journal, including 21 for our Ethics & the Planning Commission series, and others on a variety of transportation and zoning topics. Dale is also a co-author of The Planning Commissioners Guide (American Planning Association, 2013).