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Planning commission ethics review underway

Posted by: Eric Roper Updated: October 4, 2012 - 6:06 PM

Following allegations that members of the city planning commission have too much business before their own body, the city's ethics officer told commissioners Thursday that she is reviewing conflict of interest rules of similar boards across the country.

Mayor R.T. Rybak and the chair of the ethical practices board ordered the review this July, though full recommendations -- which may include bylaw changes -- aren't expected until November. It stems from a growing number of recusals by planning commissioners who are involved in projects on the commission's agenda.

The planning commission is the first stop for many major development projects in Minneapolis, and its recommendations hold a lot of weight at 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.

One of the most prominent examples of the appearance of a conflict came this 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 already 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," offered no details about the nature of the 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 its through bylaw changes 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," though it isn't currently prohibited.

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

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