Commissioner Chris Constance finds it irritating to see the phrase “staff recommends approval” on almost every developer proposal that comes before the county.
“I really don’t care what staff recommends,” he said at a recent commission meeting. “Staff in my opinion has too much power. They weren’t voted in by the citizens. All they’re doing is reviewing the application and making sure all the materials are present for us to hear the case and then rule as to whether or not we want to make the change.”
Other commissioners are not annoyed by that line, saying they feel no mandate to follow the recommendation of staff.
“I think we’re talking semantics, Chris,” said Commissioner Stephen R. Detusch.
“We’ve all voted against staff recommendations,” said Commissioner Joe Tiseo. “That’s proof in the pudding.”
That’s when County Attorney Janette Knowlton jumped into the debate.
Elected officials who ignore the advice of their expert staff run the risk of having their decisions overturned in court, she suggested, at least in proceedings called quasi-judicial. That includes zoning change requests and new street layouts.
The phrase “staff recommends,” is a hint, she said.
“It’s a hint to you all that this is the expert recommendation, and if you’re not going to follow that, you don’t have to, but you have to come up with another basis.”
“Unless we have other experts to countermand our staff, we’re stuck?” Constance queried.
“That’s correct,” Knowlton said.
Commissioner Joe Tiseo said that’s why he asks staff if there’s “wiggle room” in interpreting parts of the county land development code.
“I said, ‘Is it open to interpretation,’ and they said, “Yes, it is,” and that’s from an expert,” Tiseo said.
In the end, commissioners agreed to further consider removing the phrase “staff recommends approval/non-approval” in favor of longer advisories. That would include staff conclude that the proposal meets the county code requirements and would not negatively affect property owners in the area.
Residents often show up in developer hearings to debate whether their properties will be negatively affected.