By Christine Kohnert
For Skagit citizens who watched the Planning Commission’s (PC) controversies in 2021 unfold, it seemed it was bound to happen. The new rewrite of PC bylaws enshrines the PC’s power to censure their members. That power was not included in their bylaws when they actually did severely reprimand one of their members through censure in 2021 before they gave themselves the authority to do so. In that case, the perceived “egregious offense” was that the member criticized the way the decision-making process for one particular proposal was handled by the entrenched leadership of the PC directly to the County Commissioners.
Now the PC appears to cover its previous actions by rewriting the bylaws to fit what happened. County Commissioners Peter Browning and Lisa Janicki signed off on the changes on June 12, 2023. Commissioner Ron Wesen was listed as absent.
Members can be censured for “unethical actions”.
Here’s what that section says:
“The censure of a member of a Planning Commission is a public statement condemning the member’s inappropriate behavior with the hopes of reforming him or her so that he or she will not behave in the same way again. Members can be censured for unethical actions, including:
1. Misconduct at meetings.
2. Failing to follow proper procedures.
3. Disclosing non-public information.
4. Moral misconduct.
This list may sound reasonable, assuming one accepts the idea that the PC should be spending its time figuring out how to control its members. Local advocates for government transparency and broader representation would prefer to see the PC encouraging members reflect the diverse perspectives of the public they were appointed to represent.
The rest of the list raises many questions.
- Working against the Planning Commission, including the undermining of a decision of the Planning Commission.
- Violating other values that the Planning Commission holds dear.”
This is a bit more worrisome. Disloyalty to whom? To the Planning Commission? To County government? To the County Commissioners? Or how about, to the public that Planning Commissioners are charged to represent? Who gets to decide when a member’s behaviour is “disloyal”? What’s the definition of disloyalty in this context?
And then there’s, “Working against the Planning Commission, including the undermining of a decision of the Planning Commission.” What are the definitions here? Who determines when an infraction has occurred? Is it working against the PC to raise questions about the process of decision-making? Or, is that work on behalf of the public? What exactly does “undermining” a decision of the Planning Commission mean? Does public disagreement with a decision constitute undermining? If so, does this place an effective gag order on Planning Commissioners who hold a minority view?
PC fails to allow for minority reports.
Local open government advocates have this to say,
“In rewriting the bylaws, the PC missed an opportunity to formalize a process for allowing a minority report to accompany a recommendation to the County Commissioners. This is something that at least two of the current Board of County Commissioners have expressed a willingness to consider.”
Unwritten “values the PC holds dear”?
And, what about the last item: “Violating other values that the Planning Commission holds dear”? What are these unwritten values? Who decides that?
According to one Skagit PC watcher,
“This sounds like a wishy-washy catchall at best, and perhaps a kind of menacing inner circle secret at worst.”
Other puzzling provisions
There are other puzzling provisions in the revamped bylaws, for instance in the sections about Planning Commissioner Conduct and Conflicts of Interest. We asked a current Planning Commissioner from one of our local city Planning Commissions to take a look and share thoughts. His response,
“All of the language about personal conflict of interest is extremely vague and subjective. I would not agree to be a planning commissioner under those bylaws.”
In fact, County Planning Commissioners themselves seemed to struggle with understanding these provisions, as you can read in the transcript (from page 33) or see on the video (from 1:58:11) of the final PC bylaws deliberations.
Instead of spending time and energy tightening control over PC members, the Planning Commission might better serve the people by making sure that all the many perspectives of the people of Skagit are heard and reflected in PC recommendations to County Commissioners.
And, shouldn’t it more properly be the role of the County Commissioners who appoint the PC members to address problems with perceived misconduct? It turns out there was already a procedure for removing a PC member (Skagit County Code 14.02.080) if the Board of County Commissioners felt one was behaving in a non-acceptable manner.
There is now another vacancy on the PC caused by an assertion by one PC member (unidentified in a recent Skagit Valley Herald article) that another PC member engaged in a conflict of interest related to the Agritourism proposal currently under consideration. This led to the receiving PC member’s resignation. The vacancy is in Commissioner Ron Wesen’s district. Advocates wonder: Will Commissioner Wesen use this opportunity to broaden the perspectives represented on the PC, or will the next appointment further entrench the prevailing private property rights perspective and the efforts to control members with diverse viewpoints?
Christine Kohnert is a retired registered nurse after a 45 year rich and varied career. She raised her family in Mount Vernon where she has been a resident for over 40 years.