“We need to tighten up some of our particular processes,” Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten told commissioners at a county meeting this week. “I think it may be time to move this from an informal to a formal process.”
The terms of several Jackson County planning board members have recently expired, but commissioners haven’t gotten around to making new appointments. So the members with expired terms have continued to sit on the board in the meantime. And two planning board members have served more terms than are technically allowed under the term limits for the board.
Usually, the appointments to county advisory boards and committees are not the stuff of big headlines. And certainly not grounds for public outcry.
But that’s exactly what happened at a recent public hearing over the county’s steep slope building rules. A packed house turned out for the hearing last month to express disapproval with a proposal by the planning board to weaken the steep slope regulations.
Speaker after speaker called on the county not to adopt the steep slope revisions but to leave them as they are. No one spoke in favor of loosening them.
Some speakers turned the microscope on the planning board that has spent the past 14 months coming up with the revisions. The planning board has a predominance of members in the building or real estate industry — five out of the 10, in fact.
Several speakers pointed out the influence of those in the building and real estate industry on the planning board. Fewer development restrictions could be advantageous to surveyors and builders. Voting to weaken the regulations could be perceived as a conflict of interest in that case.
“No member shall vote or participate in discussion on any matter in which he/she may have a financial interest,” said Bill Kane, a speaker at the hearing last month, quoting from the planning board’s own bylaws.
Commissioner Jack Debnam pointed out that just because someone is a builder or Realtor, doesn’t mean they have a certain philosophy. Debnam pointed to planning board member Dickie Woodard, who is a Realtor but is also on the board of the Watershed Association for the Tuckaseigee River and a past president of Trout Unlimited.
Kane was also the one who ferreted out the little known fact that members of the planning board have been serving longer than they are supposed to.
“Given the conflict of interests and the Board not properly constituted, there have been voices at the table that should not have been there. The inappropriate voices participated in discussions, decisions, and voting,” Kane said at the hearing. “Any recommendations that such an illegitimate process brings forward should be declared null and void.”
In the end, however, the planning board doesn’t enact policy. Any proposals from the planning board are simply that: proposals.
“Anything they propose are moved up to the commissioners and the commissioners must make the decision to approve it or not to approve it,” Wooten said when commissioners took up the issue at their meeting this week. “Ultimately these boards are advisory boards. These people have been acting in good faith and acting in an advisory capacity so I don’t think there has been any harm done other than allowing ourselves to operate outside our own policies.”
Appointments in order
Historically, planning board members served for three-year terms, with no limit on the number of terms. At least that’s how the by-laws for the planning board read.
But that changed in 2009, apparently unbeknownst to county leaders. In 2009, the county created a master code book that brought all its policies into one large volume. Somehow, the term lengths for planning board members were changed from three years to two years, and a limit of two terms was imposed.
But the change, buried in the county’s new master code book, wasn’t on anyone’s radar. The county continued to go by the old bylaws for planning board appointments.
Planning board members have continued to be appointed for three-year terms instead of two, and the cap on term limits wasn’t being heeded.
“We were using old practices that were modified and updated in this code of ordinances,” Wooten said.
Commissioner Doug Cody said the current commissioners aren’t at fault, as they were simply going by the process used by the commissioners before them.
“I don’t feel like we ought to be taking the blame for it,” Cody said. “Somebody didn’t make us aware of it who should have made us aware of it.”
“I think the important thing is to get it right from here on out,” Commissioner Vicki Green said.
“I just don’t think our board should take the hit for it,” Cody replied.
“I am not pointing fingers. If anything, I am blaming myself,” Wooten said, saying he had never noticed the discrepancy between the planning board bylaws and code of ordinances.
The goal now is to get the books cleaned up, Wooten said. Commissioners will make six appointments to the planning board at their meeting later this month
Some commissioners have also suggested a better system is needed for deciding who to appoint. Historically, commissioners have tapped their own pool of friends and acquaintances to fill the board.
There is no application process. There is no mechanism for commissioners to weigh the merits of whom they are appointing. A commissioner will simply proffer the name of someone they know when there’s an appointment to be made, and the rest of the commissioners approve it on the good word of whichever commissioner brought the name forward.
Cody said it’s not a problem because commissioners generally know the people being nominated for the boards. And if not, they can take the word of the other commissioners who do know that person, Elders said.
But that wasn’t quite good enough for Commissioner Vicki Green this week.
“I would like to look through the applications we have from folks,” Green said.
Elders and Cody wanted to go ahead and make a couple of the appointments at their meeting this week, namely by re-appointing a couple of members who currently serve on the board, instead of waiting for a fuller vetting.
But they were outnumbered and the board will instead make its picks at its next meeting, allowing more time to weigh the nominees.
The county does have a basic application for members of the public wishing to serve on a board. But nominees brought to the floor by a particular commissioner — which is the case for nearly all appointments — never end up filling out one of the applications.
Wooten said that one idea is to ask the nominees, even if named by commissioners, to fill out the application, simply so the county has a record.
In Haywood County, by contrast, all applicants for county boards must turn in a resume and application stating why they wish to serve, and then go through an interview process before commissioners make their selection.