Sunday, July 17, 2011

DEMOCRACY DENIED? City attorney bypasses Council in rezoning case ruling

In Great Hangups dispute, one non-elected staffer trumps seven elected Council members
COLUMBIA, 7/17/11  (Beat Byte) -- Columbia city attorney Fred Boeckmann (left) may have single-handedly short circuited democracy during debate about the Great Hangups rezoning request at a May City Council meeting. 

Mandated by city ordinance to remain on hold for one year after Council members disapproved it in October 2010, the request to rezone four lots at the corner of West Broadway and West Blvd. from commercial to residential reappeared five months early.   Fourth Ward Councilman Daryl Dudley, whose Ward includes the Hang Ups corner, "made a motion to waive the one year waiting period to reintroduce the Great Hangups rezoning request," minutes from the City Council's May 2 meeting explain. 
Section 29-34.(a)(1)a of the Columbia City Code permits Council members to restart stalled zoning requests earlier than the mandated waiting period.   Under standard procedure, a motion to do so would be seconded by a fellow Council person, then put to a vote by the entire elected body. 
Instead, something unexpected happened.  "I'd like to raise a point of order," Mayor Bob McDavid suddenly interrupted.  "Is the motion necessary?" 
Boeckmann immediately replied, "I don't think it is because I think the application is substantially different" from the version denied in October.    
The motion was promptly dropped, leaving the city attorney -- a non-elected city official -- the issue's sole arbiter, while flummoxing neighbors who had expected a formal vote on Dudley's motion, which had been in the works for months.  
In a January 24, 2011 email to Columbia Planning and Zoning Commissioner David Brodsky and Columbia planning department staff person Patrick Zenner, planning director Tim Teddy explained, "Fred Boeckmann has advised...that a new, identical, city initiated [rezoning request] can be considered if Council approves a motion to do so." 
Brodsky forwarded the information to other P&Z members the following day.  "It appears the city council is going to pursue...a city initiated rezoning petition," he wrote January 25.   The planned motion then made its way around the Sunset Lane neighborhood. 
At the May meeting, neighbors who have opposed the rezoning request and wanted the extra time to prepare for the next vote in October 2011, "were completely caught off guard by the Mayor's question, and the motion's sudden dismissal," Hagan told the Heart Beat.  "We have no idea why they took it off the table." 
Though McDavid did not explain why he questioned the motion at the time, he later said "the issue for me was whether or not the rezoning request was the same as the previous request, which was defeated by Council."
A "substantially different" rezoning request that changes key features of the initial petition could restart the process before the year long waiting period expired.   Regardless, McDavid said he never saw the new request, deferring to Boeckmann's judgment. 
"Having not seen this new rezoning request, I was not in a position to judge," McDavid told the Heart Beat.  "It seemed that the one-year wait should be honored if the new rezoning request was not substantially different.  If, however, the new rezoning request was substantially different, then Council motion should not be needed to initiate the rezoning request.  That distinction was the basis for my 'point of order.'"
McDavid said he will review the new rezoning request, staff reports, public input, and planning analysis for the July 18 meeting, deciding then if the request is "substantially different." 

"I'm sure that is true of the other members of Council," he added.  "This is a complex rezoning request because the long-standing commercial use of the property has not been in compliance with existing zoning." 

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