Howard County Council members serve three primary functions. They are the county’s legislative branch, the Zoning Board and the front line for constituent services.
Does the fact that council members, hearing cases brought by property owners about how land is used, make it difficult for them to serve their constituents? If so, how do we change that?
The first problem is caused by the Zoning Board rules, which are judicial, meaning, communication about a case outside of the proceeding itself is prohibited. This means that council members cannot discuss Zoning Board cases with interested constituents, the media or even the parties involved in the case.
This confidentiality is a significant conflict because constituents rightfully expect to be able to express their views and concerns to elected council members. However, in Zoning Board cases, no communication is allowed.
A new problem surfaced recently. Before being elected, Liz Walsh, now a council member and Zoning Board chair, testified, as a private citizen, against Elm Street Development at a Zoning Board hearing. When the Elm Street Development had another hearing in late March, attorneys for the development sought to have Ms. Walsh recused because of her previous testimony.
With no financial conflict on the part of Ms. Walsh, the developer’s request seemed based on “issue bias.”
Issue bias, however, can work both ways. What if support of a project had been stated in advance of a hearing? What if a developer contributed to a council member’s election campaign? Should that council member be recused from every Zoning Board case involving that developer? This is a slippery slope which would eventually mean that the Zoning Board may never get a quorum again!
Both of these problems can be solved by separating the County Council from the Zoning Board.
One way of separating the two functions would be for the County Executive to appoint Zoning Board members with council approval. Because these appointees, however, would not have direct accountability to the voters, this is not an ideal scenario given the importance of zoning issues.
Having elected officials is important. Separating the council from the Zoning Board and then electing Zoning Board members would be the best of both worlds. Council members can serve their constituents with open communication and transparency without the limitations imposed by Zoning Board rules. Constituents no longer need be confused and frustrated. Council candidates can freely give their positions without concern.
Does this solution fix the problem? Yes, because it keeps the council in its legislative lane and creates an elected body that stays in its quasi-judicial role.
And, it’s not a totally unique idea. We already have many elected positions with one specific job, such as the sheriff, some judges, the Register of Wills and others. These elected positions get qualified people doing specific, difficult work, and we don’t expect them to discuss confidential details with constituents.
Development and land use issues are always a hot topic, especially during election campaigns. Candidates’ positions on growth, infrastructure needs and school capacity get the attention of voters. Shouldn’t we have readily available communication, transparency and accountability on zoning issues?
Having council members juggle issues and topics that they can or cannot discuss, depending on what hat they’re wearing, confuses the public and needs to be fixed. Having Zoning Board members focus solely on zoning is that fix, and electing them makes the most sense for Howard County.
Lisa Markovitz is president of the Maryland civic/political group, The People’s Voice.
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