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Planning commissioners warned about expressing opinions

(2/15) The Thurmont Planning and Zoning Commission has been cautioned by the town attorney not to take public positions on issues before them prior to taking a vote.

Commissioner Ron Terpko read a letter from Town Attorney Lynn Board into the record at the start of the January Planning and Zoning Commission meeting. Mayor Martin Burns requested the board’s opinion because of the divisive nature of the annexation requests before the town.

“I believe any commissioner dealing with land use decisions on the planning and zoning commission should not be expressing how he or she will vote before it comes before them for a vote,” Burns said.

Board agreed.

She quoted Maryland law, which says that part of the reason for an ethics law is “… the people have a right to be assured that the impartiality and independent judgement of those officials and employees will be maintained.”

Board wrote that the decision as to whether a commissioner or board member should recuse himself or herself from a decision is based on whether the particular board or commission is deemed legislative or quasi-judicial. While a legislative body could express an opinion, Board wrote, “… when the action is quasi-judicial in nature, individuals participating in the decision-making process must act in an impartial and unbiased manner.”

She also noted that the courts have recognized the function of the planning and zoning commission as quasi-judicial.

Board drew a distinction between having an opinion and expressing that opinion. She wrote, “… the line is crossed when the individual has shown that he or she is not capable of judging a particular controversy fairly on the basis of its own circumstances or he or she announces his or her judgment prior to the hearing process.”

In such cases, the individual should recuse himself or herself from voting on an issue. “Should the individual refuse to recuse himself or herself, the public body on which that individual sits would have the authority to disqualify that individual from participating in the matter,” Board wrote.

Following the reading of the letter, none of the planning and zoning commissioners commented.

Asked later as to the reason for the letter, Planning and Zoning Commission Chairman John Kinnaird said, “At this point, none of the voting members have taken a position. This just makes sure if we run into that issue, we know what we can do.”

Burns said he has no concern about a violation with any of the voting members at this point, but he added, “If someone was to do that and say how they were thinking of voting and wanting that vote to count, they know now what would happen.”

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