Thursday, March 18, 2010

Planning lessons for the Village are all around us

Local planning boards are living in interesting times, it seems.  The town's planning board lost its chairman and deputy recently (albeit in a much more sedate way than Lloyd's chairman, who was forcibly removed), and joins the village's planning board in being short members.

Chairman Paul Brown was given praise by those he worked with, and I agree with that assessment.  Paul tried hard to find agreements among differing parties, and did his best to separate his role of facilitating the meeting from his vote as a member.  He implemented a series of checks, balances, and systems which have long prevented the town's planning board of being the victim of the administrative errors and uninformed votes which have plagued the village's planning board.  He was also careful to recuse himself from discussions of the so-called Pyramind-Benanti project, a development which proposed a new connector road off Eugene L. Brown drive on land his family once owned.

Pity the chairman of Lloyd's planning board didn't understand conflict of interest rules as well; he was removed from his position because he crossed the line between his municipal volunteer actions and his role as a real estate agent looking to make a living.  It's going to be a little bit harder for real estate agents to be appointed to planning-related positions until memory of this incident fades.  I wish they had actually removed him entirely from the planning board, but it seems local governments are extremely fearful of preventing the "people's business" from being done if they lack a quorum on that board.

I doubt the village would have taken such a strong stance if it had discovered ethical violations in its own planning board - they've been struggling to maintain a quorum on it for years, and that fear is much stronger than anything but the loudest of public outcries.  Instead, the planning board administration seems hellbent on getting projects approved regardless of the rule of law, and there's no attempt to stop it.  Take the hookah bar application, for example.  I voted for it when I was a member, but at the time I didn't know that mayor Terry Dungan considered "four and three-quarters days" to be close enough to the legally-required five days' notice to be sufficient, nor did I know that even now chairman Ray Curran has not produced any proof that the notices were even mailed out for that public hearing.

I was personally stonewalled to the point of throwing in the towel and resigning from the planning board because I couldn't find out what I needed to know to make informed votes, and I was tired of fighting for the right to make my several hours a month of volunteer time remotely productive.  I know that for every case which is public shown to be deficient, there are probably many more which nobody has noticed yet.  For fear of losing its quorum, the village board is allowing its planning board to be run in such a cloak-and-dagger manner that its remaining members are not even aware of how much they do not know.  Chairman Ray Curran has repeatedly thwarted any attempts to shed more light on the proceedings, threatening to resign if the meetings are televised and denying without good cause my repeated requests for a public comment period at planning board meetings - something which Paul Brown had on the agenda for his entire tenure, and something  I hope his successor continues.

I don't believe the village is going to find and retain qualified planning board members as long as the board itself is run in secrecy.  The mayor tells me that there is very little that the village board can do; it cannot force a public comment period or demand that planning board members have the right to participate in off-line discussions, for example, because the planning board's independence is protected by law.  He has yet to explain why the village board took the weasel-like non-action of simply not bothering to renew the chair's term of office last June.  They could have either reappointed Mr. Curran (if they support his methods) or removed him (if they did not), but instead they chose to simply abdicate their responsibility.

Until the village learns some lessons from nearby towns, planning is going to continue down a dark, mysterious road that is fraught with bungled projects and uninformed votes.  How much longer will the village board permit this miscarriage of planning to continue?

1 comment:

Anton Stewart said...

I wonder, Terence, if Mayor Dungan actually mentioned exactly what section of law it is that protects the Village Planning Board's independence and how come it has been interpreted in such a way as it allows them to operate with absolute autonomy and virtually zero public accountability?
As non-elected executives appointed by the Mayor, surely the buck has to stop with him and he is duty bound to step in and sort things out should they go awry.
I wonder also why Ray Curran has a problem with conducting public business in full view of the public ? As far as I'm aware, televising the meetings would not interfere with proceedings.