Codes of conduct now more common for planning commissions, zoning boards of appeals

Members of administrative boards often sign a code of conduct. They perform an administrative, not a representative, function and speak publically to support the majority position adopted by that board.

Members of a planning commission are generally required to take an oath of office. A more contemporary approach is to require signing a code of conduct which includes the oath of office. That oath or code of conduct is important for a community to require and for the individual to fully understand what they are agreeing to.

Elected officials are also expected to take an oath of office which generally refers to upholding the laws and representing their constituents. However, when an individual is appointed to an administrative body such as a planning commission or zoning board of appeals, the duties are specific and the behavior expectation is different from those elected to legislative bodies. Therefore, the oath of office is different and, in addition, a code of conduct might be used. One example can be found in the Land Use SeriesSample #8: Planning Commission and Zoning Board of Appeals Code of Conduct” prepared by Michigan State University Extension.

Members of planning commissions and zoning board of appeals are members of administrative bodies, and as such, they are not representing the electors in their community. They are performing an administrative function – such as applying the provisions of a zoning ordinance in a neutral and objective manner. Decisions by administrative bodies are required by the Michigan Constitution to have:

  1. A findings of fact
  2. Recitation of reasons for the decision
  3. The decision along with conditions, if any.

Decisions are based on standards and requirements found in the zoning ordinance, and not any other considerations (such as how popular it is, or based on those being vocal at a public meeting on the topic).

The oath of office and code of conduct for a member of an administrative body reads, in part “Respect, adhere to, and help enforce the rules, policies, and guidelines established by the Planning Commission/Zoning Board of Appeal.”

It is also important to remember a member of a planning commission or zoning board of appeals does not act as an individual, but accepts responsibility to be one member of an organization that is a body corporate and is treated as a single entity.

A member must adhere to, and uphold the tenets of all the rules that govern the body which included the federal and state constitutions, the Michigan planning and zoning enabling acts, local planning ordinance, zoning, ordinance, court rulings, the bylaws, rules of procedure and local government policy. One does not get to cherry pick from the set of rules where ones are followed and ones are not. 

There will be times when an individual may not agree with a decision of the majority on a planning commission, or a provision of a zoning ordinance, master plan, bylaws, etc. When that happens, the individual still has the responsibility to uphold the decision made by the body even if he or she may not personally agree with it. That is part of what comes with the job on of being appointed to a planning commission or zoning board of appeals. If the disagreement is so great that a member finds they are not able to uphold the oath, or decision of the majority, they may need to consider resigning from the position

Resigning can be a difficult decision that goes deep into your own belief systems. However it is important to remember when providing public service, you are a member of an administrative body and some rights as an individual on that board are lost. Debates should take place at public meetings and be as rigorous as necessary. Expressing opinion and your position is an important part of the job. But a frequent source of unease is the requirement that once the vote on the matter is done, then the majority rules. It is then one’s duty to represent the majority’s position, not your own position, or to keep quiet. For example bylaws for a planning commission, or ZBA, might read:

“Once a vote is taken and an issue is decided by vote, the duty of each member of the Commission is to represent the position reflected by the outcome of the vote. Minority reports and requests for reconsideration may take place only at an open meeting of the Commission.”

Other issues common in a Code of Conduct, bylaws, or rules of procedure for members of administrative bodies includes avoiding ex parte contact, how conflict of interest is handled and not voting on the same issue twice.

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