Friday, April 4, 2008

Scheduling of Task Force Meetings

Task Force Members and Others,

I accepted the job of participating in this Task Force out of a real interest to provide meaningful input. Unfortunately, the process as to how my input would be received was prohibitive, and I was unable to further participate. Early on, I sent the following message to the then chairs, Bill Erskine and Howard Weinstein:

Bill and Howard,

I have not been able to attend the last two meetings of the PELU Task Force due to the time of day they were held. I have school-aged daughters and my husband travels frequently, so the 4-6 PM time frame is almost impossible for me to meet with any consistency. I would like to be involved, but if the meeting times remain, I fear that my involvement will be so limited that I may as well simply withdraw from the task force.

I would like your views as to whether other members have difficulty making meetings at this time during the day, or if I am an exception. Thanks! Katherine

Since that date, it appears that the meetings of the task force have remained at that afternoon/evening time, despite requests at the first meeting to vary the times so that more members could attend. Further, after the subcommittees were formed, I sent a message to Theo stating:

I am interested in serving on the Comp Zoning committee, but as I have said before, I cannot make meetings that go into the evening hours.

Since that date, I have not heard from the chair of that subcommittee about attending a meeting or providing input in another way.

Why am I publicizing these communications? Because my frustration over my inability to attend these meetings is much like the frustration felt by many citizens who want to be engaged in land use matters but cannot because of competing demands. This lack of participation is many times seen as apathy, and what happens is that only those persons with sufficient time, resources and/or desire remain active and engaged. It is only when a land use decision affects a person directly that the person finds the time, resources or desire to become engaged. For owners and developers, this happens any time there is interest in developing or improving a property. For citizens, this happens only when the land use decision is seen as one that will negatively affect their lives or their property. Thus, the only times the citizenry and the developers are truly engaged are when there are conflicts between what the public wants and what the developer is proposing.

The challenge, and the goal of this task force, is to find ways to increase positive public participation. Public participation benefits not only the persons who may oppose land use decisions, but those who are seeking land use changes or development approvals. This challenge should not be characterized as "citizen vs. developer," such that any change benefitting one will work to the disadvantage of the other. It is to the advantage of all of us (citizens, developers, landowners, lawyers, etc.) to ensure that rules, guidelines and procedures are transparent, straightforward, clear and consisent, and that they are enforced and implemented consistently. A person should not need to hire counsel to find out how to file a zoning application or a zoning action appeal, as the rules should be clear enough for citizens and landowners to understand and for government staff to readily implement. It has been suggested to me that if the rules become too clear, then perhaps I would be creating less paid work for myself (as a land use attorney). To the contrary, my time and the public's dollars could be spent on more meaningful issues, instead of arguing about the intent of an ambiguous rule or whether the letters on a sign were large enough.

At the beginning of the task force effort, then chair Howard Weinstein asked that the members post their top ten list of issues that should be addressed. I responded, in part, as follows:

The rules of the BOA and Hearing Examiner are inconsistent with the Zoning Regulations and the Howard County Code with respect to many procedural requirements. For example, in order to file an appeal of an administrative decision, an appellant is required to make an appointment with DPZ staff to file the appeal. This requirement is not set forth in either the rules, the regulations or the Code, yet when an appellant appears at DPZ to file an appeal, they are given a hard time filing an appeal if they did not previously make an appointment. Further, the procedures regarding presummission meetings are set forth in many different sections of the rules and regulations, and are inconsistent in many respects.

Since I have been unable to participate in this task force, I would urge those of you who have been participating and those of you who will implement certain of the recommended changes, to bear in mind that access, clarity and consistency are of the utmost importance, perhaps even more important at times than substantive changes. For when people believe that they have access to the process, when they understand the rules, and when they believe that the rules are being applied fairly and consistently, they are more accepting of adverse actions.

One way to improve access is to make sure meeting times are convenient and to provide alternate ways for all to be engaged in the process. Had those goals been met with regard to the Task Force meetings, I would have been able to attend the meetings or provide meaningful input in other ways.

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