Breck council debates merits of "de novo’ hearings
BRECKENRIDGE – For years, one member of the Breckenridge Town Council has served on the town’s planning commission, providing a liaison between the two boards and learning the inner workings of town operations.
But now, that person – currently, it’s Jim Lamb – might have to step down from council discussion on applications the planning commission has talked about, after Town Attorney Tim Berry determined potential conflicts of interests and prejudices that person could develop while seated on the planning commission could affect council decisions.
Berry is researching protocol throughout the state to determine if it would be better if no town council member served on the planning commission. Most town planning boards – including those in Summit County – do not have a council member serving on their planning commissions. As it is, Breckenridge council members are discouraged from attending planning commission meetings.
Town officials long have said they like having a town council member serve on the planning commission, and it has rarely made for problems in the past. When Berry pointed out that town officials might want to change their policy, Councilmember David Hinton suggested the joint board official merely step down when certain issues were called up for discussion.
“I’m perfectly fine with that,” Lamb said. “It makes perfect sense. I think it’s a good idea to have a council member on the planning commission. They are someone to relay the thoughts of the planning commission back to council. They need that representation. The two groups need to stay in communication with each other.”
A disadvantage to a town council member stepping down, Berry said, is the seven-member council then could be forced into a tie vote.
“I’m willing to take that risk,” Hinton said. “I think it’s extremely important for a council member to be on the planning commission. They learn so much more. Without it, they’re working in somewhat of a vacuum. They’re working at a disadvantage.”
Each year, a new council member is elected to serve as the town council’s representative on the planning commission. Last year, Hinton served on the commission; the year before J.B. Katz served as the town representative.
But having all the information from the planning commission meeting could, theoretically, influence or prejudice a council member’s opinions and subsequent decisions about projects. The representative then could take those prejudices to the town council and influence votes as projects were called up and discussed.
Even if that person abstained from discussing them at the town council level, certain projects – primarily long-term developments like the Highlands and the ski area’s proposed improvements – could mean several town council members who had served on the commission over the years would have to refrain from discussing them. The ski area’s proposed development has gone on for years, meaning Hinton, Katz, Lamb and Michael Bertaux, who works for the resort and doesn’t partake in any discussion concerning it, would be excluded from the decision-making process. Their abstention would leave three council members to make decisions that could affect town far into the future.
“I’m not entirely convinced it’s a problem,” Hinton said. “Over the last 20 years, do you know how many problems they’ve had? One. And they couldn’t tell me what it was. I am absolutely shocked this is even an issue.”
“I think the risks of having a town council member sit on the planning commission are worth the benefits derived of it,” Lamb said. “It really rounds out a council member to sit on the planning commission. The information is essential to the job you do. The more you can get people with a year of planning experience, the more informed the decisions will be.”
Lamb said, although he works closely with any given project during the planning meetings, he tries his best to go into a town council discussion with an open mind.
Jane Stebbins can be reached at 668-3998 ext. 228 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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