Minneapolis' ethics officer is reviewing conflict-of-interest rules for city boards and commissions after complaints about planning commissioners with too much business before their own board.

In recent months, members of the Minneapolis Planning Commission have increasingly sat out votes on development proposals because they're somehow involved in the projects.

On one recent occasion, a member left the dais and testified before her colleagues. One panel member now recuses himself out of protest whenever his colleagues abstain because of a conflict.

"We are concerned that the risk of an appearance of impropriety may erode public confidence in the work of development-related Boards and Commissions," Mayor R.T. Rybak wrote in a July letter explaining the review, along with the chair of the city's Ethical Practices Board. The ethics officer, Susan Trammell, expects to make recommendations in the next several months.

Commission President David Motzenbecker did not want to address specific questions about recusals until Trammell's review is complete, but said, "There's nothing wrong or ethically challenged about what we are doing."

The issue poses a quandary for city officials, who strive to attract qualified individuals to serve on the city's boards but simultaneously want to avoid any conflicts. The nine-member Planning Commission is one of the city's most influential citizen boards. It's responsible for advising the City Council on most major development projects that pass through City Hall. Its membership is split between local government representatives and mayoral appointees whose suggestions often shape even the most minute facets of a project.

Surging development in the city means more projects for the commission, whose nongovernment members skew heavily toward the development industry.

Mystery to public

When commissioners recuse themselves, the nature of the conflict often remains a mystery to the public. City ordinances say officials must disclose "the nature of his or her conflict of interest" in writing, but forms completed by commissioners merely list their names and the project.

In June, four commissioners recused themselves from a vote on the Soo Line Apartments, an upscale apartment project downtown. At an Aug. 27 meeting, Commissioner Lauren Huynh, a green building consultant, recused herself from five projects. Dan Cohen, a one-time City Council member, followed suit out of frustration.

"It's planning commissioners using the planning commission as their own personal piggy bank," said Cohen, who represents Hennepin County on the commission. "And that is not right. Sitting in the audience doesn't cure it."

Council Member Gary Schiff, a member of the commission, is more concerned with two specific incidents that arose this year.

In June, a commissioner who recused herself then walked in front of the commission, introduced herself and presented a rezoning request. "I'm sorry," Schiff interjected. "I think all planning commissioners have been told that they shouldn't be testifying."

The commissioner, architect Alissa Luepke-Pier, said she had received prior approval from the city's ethics officer and no one else from her firm was available to testify -- she is the lone employee.

"I can't give up my career as an architect to serve on this commission," Luepke-Pier said in an interview, adding that she took the project thinking it would not have to go before the Planning Commission. She feels her integrity is being unfairly questioned.

Schiff blames Trammell, not Luepke-Pier, for what he believes was an unprecedented scene. "I have a real problem with the advice that the city attorney's office is handing out because it flies in the face of the appearance of a conflict," Schiff said.

Motzenbecker, a landscape architect, came under fire this May for presenting on the A-Mill Artist Lofts to a neighborhood meeting, a Planning Commission committee, and nearly at a Zoning and Planning Committee meeting. Schiff stopped him. Kathleen Flynn Peterson, an attorney, filed a complaint alleging that he had crossed a line.

But the ethics board found no conflict-of-interest violation after Trammell concluded Motzenbecker had "taken off his Planning Commissioner hat." Motzenbecker recused himself from the final vote on the A-Mill Artist Lofts project, which passed.

'Alarmed' by rulings

Schiff says he is "alarmed" by rulings from the city attorney's office. "They create a precedent that I think is going to make ... planning in Minneapolis seen as a developer's game where Planning Commission members are profiting," Schiff said.

Bill Klein, the Chicago-based director of research and advisory services with the American Planning Association, said conflicts are a common dilemma on planning boards -- though more common in small communities. Generally accepted practices say the commissioners with the conflict should leave the room, he said.

In Minneapolis, commissioners take a seat along a side wall in the audience.

"The sheer presence of that commissioner in the audience, viewed by the other members of the commission, that means that she or he is going to see whose hand is raised at the vote," Klein said. "And there's some subtle kind of influence there."

Eric Roper • 612-673-1732