Planners will meet at night Board will continue evening forums despite fund cuts for sessions

Dell, Yates criticized

Commissioners trying to stifle citizen input, board member says

February 21, 1997|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Carroll's planning and zoning board will hold a night meeting next month despite a decision by the County Commissioners to eliminate funding for the evening sessions.

Thomas G. Hiltz, planning commission chairman, said he has no plans to discontinue the popular night meetings, held the first Thursday of each month at different locations. Several members had said they will work without compensation.

Hiltz has asked for a legal analysis of the County Commissioners' Feb. 10 decision from Laurel Taylor, the county attorney who serves the Carroll County Planning and Zoning Commission. Once he receives that, he will discuss options with his colleagues, he said.

Commissioner W. Benjamin Brown failed to persuade his colleagues at a meeting yesterday to reconsider their decision to cancel the planning commission's night meetings.

"I am disappointed and had hoped the commissioners would reconsider their vote," Hiltz said. "For now, it is business as usual."

The budget for the planning commission includes compensation for 27 meetings, regardless of time of day, during fiscal 1997, which began July 1. The panel has met 18 times.

George Lahey, county attorney, issued a legal opinion on the commissioners' decision yesterday.

"They serve with the compensation the local legal body deems appropriate," Lahey said. "[The County Commissioners] have the authority to adjust the compensation, but it is iffy to tell [the planning commission] when they will meet. They run their own agenda."

In Brown's absence, Commissioners Donald I. Dell and Richard T. Yates voted to eliminate night meeting funding, citing overlap and cost-cutting as the reasons. The planning commission instituted the meetings last year to inform the public and offer residents an opportunity to comment on planning issues.

"This action is not a question of funding," said Joseph H. Mettle, planning commissioner. "It is about censorship and controlling the people's access."

Grant S. Dannelly, planning commissioner, called the commissioners' decision "morally wrong."

"Two commissioners are going out of their way to stifle citizen input," Dannelly said.

Resident comments are relegated to subdivision advisory committee (SAC) meetings, daytime technical sessions that involve all the county's development review departments. The proposal, recently approved by the planning commission, will have a six-month trial.

"SAC meetings and evening planning meetings are two very different ends," Brown said.

A planning meeting can cost more than $1,000, when salaries of the county planning and legal staffs are added to the $90 per meeting paid to each of seven planning commissioners. The average additional cost is more than $600 a session, said Yates, who serves on the planning commission. Canceling meetings is a cost-cutting measure that could save the county as much as $7,000 annually, Dell has said.

"Saving money has nothing to do with this issue," Brown said. "It has to do with the validity of government."

After reviewing a year of planning commission meetings, Yates found that the same people were commenting repeatedly. He sees no need for continuing a second planning meeting each month to accommodate a few residents, he said.

"Yates is obviously a man who knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing," said Dan Hughes, founder of Solutions for a Better South Carroll, a community activist group.

Despite many concessions to residents' demands, Dell said "planning is more confused today than it has ever been."

"Basically, it is the same people at night meetings, wherever they go," Dell said. "It shows a lack of confidence in our appointments to do their jobs."

People who routinely come to the sessions "show extraordinary determination," Brown said. Evening sessions are more convenient for the working public, he said.

"Let the public be as fully involved as possible," Brown said. "What is to be gained by shutting people out? Issues as sensitive as development affect everybody and should be as open as possible."

Residents also have ample opportunity to comment on development issues during meetings to revise the county's master plan, Dell said. Several citizen volunteers are helping the county revise the plan, a blueprint to guide growth in Carroll.

The next night meeting is at 7 p.m. March 6 at Westminster Senior Center, 125 Stoner Ave.

Pub Date: 2/21/97

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