Opinion due today on night meetings Commissioners cut funding for planning sessions

February 20, 1997|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Carroll County Attorney George Lahey will deliver an opinion today on the legality of a controversial move to cancel night meetings of the Carroll County Planning and Zoning Commission.

The monthly sessions, held the first Thursday of the month, rotate among different sites and draw residents interested in planning issues. Commissioners Richard T. Yates and Donald I. Dell voted last week to eliminate funding for the night meetings.

Although Laurel Taylor, an attorney on George Lahey's staff, routinely deals with planning commission issues, Commissioner W. Benjamin Brown assigned the research task to Lahey.

"We need to put up a fire wall between attorneys, when there is a potential dispute between the commissioners and the planning commission," Brown said.

Thomas Hiltz, planning commission chairman, had made a similar request to Lahey's office.

"I still intend to hold night meetings," Hiltz said at the planning commission meeting Tuesday.

"We may have to get an outside attorney involved to represent the planning commission, if we decide to take some action against the commissioners to pay us for night meetings," he said.

The March 6 meeting, at an undetermined location, remains on the schedule.

Brown, who called evening meetings essential and the most convenient option for working families, was absent last week when his two colleagues voted to relegate citizen comment to subdivision advisory committee (SAC) meetings during the day and to remove funding for evening sessions.

"Canceling makes no sense at all," Brown said. "The planning commission has a mandate to solicit citizen input. The evening meetings offered broad issues to the general public. SAC meetings are site specific, with a very narrow focus for a group interested in a particular site."

Yates considers the cancellation a cost-cutting measure that would save the county about $7,000 annually on planning commissioners' compensation.

"I have no reason to change my mind," Yates said. "We gave them what they wanted. They can comment at SAC meetings."

Michael Burgoyne, a member of Freedom Area Community Planning Council, a South Carroll community activist group, called the expenditure worthwhile given the crowds attending night meetings. "The heart of the issue is not whether this is legal, but whether it is right and just," Burgoyne said at the Freedom council meeting Tuesday.

Yates received one call protesting his vote, he said. The commissioners can expect a letter of protest signed by the 15 members of the Freedom group.

"With this decision, we took two steps forward and three steps backward," said Carolyn Fairbank, council chairwoman, who promised a tactful but forceful letter. "Evening meetings give us an opportunity to discuss generalities, and now they are disallowing us input on generalities."

Gene Edwards, council member, sees a great need for meetings at times when the majority of residents can comment on planning issues. "It is unconscionable to deny citizens the opportunity," Edwards said.

One resident produced a summary of those who commented at the last dozen planning commission meetings.

"Three people are doing all the talking," said Hoby Wolf. "The more one person talks, the more the silent majority resents that person."

Fairbank, who addressed the planning commission eight times last year, said, "A wealth of people stand behind us, when we bring these issues up."

When he is absent, Edwards said, he has asked Fairbank to express his views. "All of us can't possibly attend day meetings," Edwards said. "I am personally grateful that those who can do."

Pub Date: 2/20/97

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