Ethics practices of Mpls. planning commission under review

  • Article by: ERIC ROPER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 5, 2012 - 9:25 PM

Citing frequent dual interests of planning commission members, Minneapolis seeks to refine protocol for potential conflicts of interest.

In response to allegations that Minneapolis planning commission members have too much business before their own body, the city's ethics officer is reviewing conflict-of-interest rules for similar boards across the country.

Mayor R.T. Rybak and the chair of the ethical practices board ordered the review this past July, and full recommendations aren't expected until November. It stems from a growing number of times planning commissioners who are involved in projects on the commission's agenda recuse themselves from decisions.

The planning commission is the first stop for many major development projects in Minneapolis, and its recommendations carry considerable weight with the City Council. The nine-person citizen board is composed partly of people representing public bodies, while the rest are largely employed in the development industry.

"Whenever you have boards and commissions in which you want people who have knowledge of the subject matter, you will invariably have persons on the boards and commissions that end up having interests that come before the boards and commissions," Susan Trammell, the city's ethics officer, told the planning commission's committee of the whole Thursday night.

A prominent example of the appearance of a conflict came this past June when a commissioner recused herself, left the dais, then presented on a project to her colleagues. She said she had no recourse, since she is the only employee of her firm.

Since the review began, commissioners have been ordered to start using the city's standard conflict-of-interest form. The old form, which a city staffer wrote to commissioners was "incorrect," requested no details about the nature of the potential conflict. City ordinances clearly state that the "nature" of the conflict must be disclosed in writing.

The city staffer, Hilary Dvorak, also told commissioners in an e-mail that they should leave the room after recusing themselves.

Former City Council President Dan Cohen, who represents Hennepin County on the commission, has been leading the charge against the conflicts.

"We have appointed commissioners who began their terms of office without involvement of a personal-interest nature," Cohen said. "And then subsequently, after they've begun their service, at some point in time, they've begun to provide professional services to applicants. And that has created these conflicts of interest."

David Motzenbecker, the chair of the commission, said he believes that there is "room to improve" the commission's rules, whether through changes in bylaws or other methods.

"I don't think we should be in the room. I don't think we should be present. I don't think we should be deliberating," Motzenbecker said.

As far as whether commissioners should be allowed to present to the panel after recusing themselves, Trammell said she does not believe it is "wise," although it isn't currently prohibited.

"It creates issues ... about appearances of impropriety," Trammell said.

Eric Roper • 612-673-1732

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