Monday, February 9, 2009

A Look at Ex Parte Rules

Last week we debated the application of the County’s ex parte law in zoning cases. Under the law, councilmembers must rely solely on the public record when making decisions on requests to change a property’s zoning designation. To maintain the integrity of the process (in other words, to keep politics out of it), councilmembers cannot use in their decision-making any independent research or discussions with the parties involved. Apparently the rules are not as clear as they might be.

The impetus for the discussion was one attorney’s request to meet with councilmembers’ staff members. My aide and I agreed that she would not meet with the attorney. Frankly, folks meet with our staff all the time. As delightful as our staff members are, however, I think that most meetings are designed to channel information to us—the elected policy decision makers—through our staff.

As a result, I believe it is a problem for Councilmember staff to meet with advocates in zoning cases, and I’ve asked the Council staff to revisit our ex parte rules on the subject.

The County Council has a long history of transparency and adherence to high ethical standards. This situation serves as a reminder that we must be vigilant about maintaining an objective distance in zoning cases.

My office will continue our policy of denying meeting requests from parties involved in zoning cases. Such meetings are not helpful to us and run the risk of being used as a back door for influencing decision makers. I respectfully request that applicants and their attorneys refrain from asking for these meetings that put our staff in an awkward position.

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