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Archive for Wednesday, August 1, 2001

Planning access

August 1, 2001

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Restricting public access to planning commissioners doesn't serve the public interest.

The Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission is facing an interesting philosophical question concerning open meetings and public access.

Earlier this summer, commissioners considered changing their bylaws to prohibit planners from discussing planning business outside of public meetings. The intent of the change, according to Commissioner Andy Ramirez, was to fight the public perception that the planning commission is "a tool of the developers." Banning communication outside of public meetings, they reasoned, would level the playing field for private parties who wanted to address planning issues.

But, as often happens, the law of unintended consequences seems to apply to this proposal. If planners restrict their access to developers and their representatives they also restrict access to members of the public who want to address issues. The result is that planners lose important input concerning the recommendations they are making.

The appropriateness of this proposal depends largely on how planners and the people they serve view the planning commission. It's true that planning commissioners are primarily responsible for applying laws created by city and county commissioners. In that sense, they are a quasi-judicial body. Judges sometimes recuse themselves and juries are sequestered to make sure they aren't subject to outside influences. Their duty is to apply the law, not respond to public opinion.

That probably, however, is not how most local residents view the planning commission. They want planners to listen to community input and consider a broad spectrum of opinions, not just the views that are submitted in writing or voiced at planning commission meetings. Restricting conversations about planning issues might actually have the opposite of the intended effect. Developers who can afford to hire attorneys to represent them before the planning commission might actually have an advantage over members of the public who can't attend a meeting or present their case in an articulate manner.

The Kansas Open Meetings Law was cited during discussion of the bylaws change, but this really is not an open meetings issue. The open meetings law prevents groups of officials from discussing and possibly deciding public business outside of a public meeting. It has nothing to do with members of the public developers or any other interested party who want to plead their case with individual officeholders.

At any rate, the bylaws change now seems to be resting squarely on the planners' back burner. Ramirez commented that the change may have lost some support when two new planning commissioners recently took office. The two, Myles Schachter and David Burress are viewed as adding balance to the commission and perhaps being less open to developer influence.

For whatever reason, this bylaws change probably isn't needed. A body like the planning commission isn't likely to serve the community better by cutting itself off from phone calls, conversations or other public input about planning issues.

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