Code of conduct for planning commissioners and zoning board of appeals members

Use of a code of conduct/oath of office is recommended for planning commissioner and zoning board of appeals members. It helps underscore a person’s role, expected behavior, and differences between elected officials and members of administrative bodies.

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When someone is elected to office there is a formal process where the individual takes an oath of office, or is sworn in. Often that is required by state statute for anyone employed by the State of Michigan. It is required of members of the legislature, executive, and judicial and other public officers of the state by section one of article XI of the 1963 Michigan Constitution. Various statutes require an oath of office for local government and county elected officials and some other positions.

Such a requirement is not specifically found for members of the planning commission or zoning administrator in the Michigan Planning Enabling Act or for members of the zoning board of appeals in the Michigan Zoning Enabling Act.

Some, not all, county and local governments “swear in” members of a planning commission and zoning board of appeals. Other county or local governments require new members to sign a Code of Conduct. And yet others combine the oath and Code of Conduct together.

A Code of Conduct of office oath is recommended for all members of planning commissions and zoning boards of appeals. A sample Code of Conduct is Land Use Series “ Sample #8: Planning Commission and Zoning Board of Appeals Code of Conduct” is found online. This sample is intended as a starting point for creating your community’s Code of Conduct—it is not intended as the finished product. This sample was prepared for Michigan State University Extension using the 4-H Code of Conduct as a starting point. The 4-H Code is used for those who volunteer to be youth leaders in 4-H and for youth participating in 4-H.

The sample planning/appeals Code of Conduct is a means to explain one’s role serving on a public body. When a member of a government commission, board, or other, one is not acting as an individual – one is acting as a part of a commission, board, or other and there comes a time when it needs to act as a single unit. That means sometimes not voicing one’s personal opinion, but rather speaking for and representing the majority view of the group, even when not your own view.

Points in the sample code of conduct include:

One of the harder things for people to understand, or do, is their role as a member of a group, and when that means there is a need to set aside personal views. When an issue first comes up and is a point of discussion during a planning commission meeting, or a zoning board of appeals meeting, which is the time to advocate for a personal view and position. In fact it is your job and duty as a member of the planning commission. That open debate, discussion, and airing of different views is extremely important. One of the fundamental reasons for a commission or a board to exist is to that various views can be discussed and debated.

But at some point a decision is made. Once an issue is voted upon, then the administrative commission or board has acted as a single unit. Some would argue that a member’s job changes at that point. The job then becomes speaking and representing the administrative commission’s or board’s position. That means outside of meetings what is said is said on behalf of the commission or board – not one’s own views. Sometimes that means seeking another member to be the spokesperson so that you can remain silent. Sometimes that means, if the disagreement is so severe, one should question if one wants to remain a member of the commission or board. Those are individual choices and hopefully issues to not come to that.

One way that might avoid one’s internal conflict over major contentious issues is to propose (to the full commission and board) and writing a minority report, or dissenting opinion. Including dissenting opinions are appropriate as part of a record of a decision in the minutes, as an appendix or special chapter in a master plan, and other avenues.

This is just one way that a person’s role changes when accepting an appointment on an administrative commission or board. It is a process of individual representation, but then putting aside one’s personal view to fulfill the job of being a part of a single governmental unit – the commission or board.

This is also very different from legislative bodies and administrative commissions or boards. A legislative body (township board of trustees, village council, city council, county board of commissioners) operates differently. These are elected officials representing their district, ward, or community at large and that representation duty does not go away. An administrative body is somewhat closer in function to a judicial setting – especially with the quasi-judicial zoning board of appeals.

Michigan State University Extension land use Educators provide various training programs on planning and zoning, which are available to be presented in your county. Contact your local land use educator for more information.

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