Who’s got the power? The role of boards and commissions in city government

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Chances are good that, at some point, you will interact with your city government. Need a variance to build a driveway? Make your case at a Board of Adjustment meeting. Worried about outdated playground equipment? Bring your concern to the Parks Board. Looking to build a three-story building in a business district? Talk to Planning & Zoning. It seems there’s a board for everything.

Residents or business owners who are required to apply for permits, get information or voice a concern often find themselves making their case to a small group of unelected people who seem to wield a lot of power within a city. How did these people get a seat on the board, and how much power do they have? Why do the names and duties of these boards vary widely across our region? What are the laws regulating boards and commissions? 

LINK nky decided to find out. 

The state, the county and the city

When it comes to boards or commissions (those terms have come to be used interchangeably), who makes the rules can vary widely. Kentucky has specific statutes for the creation, membership and duties of planning and zoning boards and boards of adjustment. The state also requires a minimum number of training hours for those who serve on those boards. As for other boards, that is left entirely to the discretion of the cities or counties. 

Planning and zoning boards help administer the various zoning laws of each municipality. Boards of adjustment provide an outlet for those who want to appeal a zoning decision or need an exception, or variance, to those laws. For the most part, planning and zoning are a joint effort between a county and the municipalities within it. 

In Kenton and Boone counties, planning and zoning are handled as a joint unit. Kenton County has a 20-person Planning Commission whose work is supported by various city boards of adjustment and code enforcement boards, along with Planning and Development Services  of Kenton County, a joint city-county planning department with a large professional staff that includes planners, engineers, infrastructure specialists and other experts. 

Campbell County is another story, said attorney Brandon Voelker, whose firm supports a number of Northern Kentucky cities. When other cities across the state moved toward the joint planning model, the cities in Campbell County kept their individual commissions. 

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The Campbell County exception

“Campbell is unique,” Voelker said. “For years, there were challenges …Whenever someone didn’t get their way on a zoning decision, they filed an appeal challenging whether you could have an individual city planning commission versus a single countywide one.” 

“A few years ago there was a legislative fix put in place that basically grandfathered in Campbell to have individual planning and zoning commissions,” Voelker said. He believes the county may be the only one in the state that still has individual planning and zoning.

According to Bellevue City Council member Ryan Salzman, an associate professor of political science at NKU, a number of Campbell County cities, including Bellevue and Alexandria, have retained their planning and zoning commissions but are now using the staff and resources of the county. 

“Dayton uses the county for all of their planning and zoning administration, whereas in the city of Bellevue, we use the county for our administration, but we retain our Planning and Zoning Commission,” Salzman said. 

The move to rely on county resources for administration has been a good financial decision for the city, he said.

“You need staff to facilitate the board and to administer the board,” Salzman said. “And depending on what the issue is, that could require some pretty legit expertise, and planning and zoning is one of those. … To have somebody who’s a professional in that space with experience is just really important.” 

City boards and commissions

Cities have control over all other boards and commissions. If a city provides code enforcement, which most do, it must have a code enforcement board to handle responses and appeals. Beyond that, there are no required boards. A city can create whatever is needed. 

Here are some of the variations of that: Many cities have parks boards to oversee activities in local parks. Some have tree or forest commissions to manage or sustain public trees. Bellevue has a Transit Authority Board to support different types of transportation. The city also shares the Fire Board with the city of Dayton. Covington has a whole host of boards, including the Covington Economic Development Board and the Human Rights Commission. The city of Florence joins with the county to form the Boone-Florence Water Commission to oversee the city’s water supply. The list goes on.

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Questions of who can serve on a board, how long their terms last and the duties of each board are at the discretion of the city. Council sets the number of members, their terms and the rules for membership. The mayor makes appointments to the board, and city council votes on whether to approve that appointment, although there are some exceptions in which a council vote is not required. 

A council has to answer a myriad of questions and considerations when setting up a board. 

“Just think about the minutia,” said Salzman. “How long are the terms? Are they alternating or staggered, or does everybody roll on and off at the same time? For our fire board, they’re one-year terms, and everybody gets reupped leading into January. Planning and Zoning has six-year terms, and they are staggered. Board of Adjustments, I think ours are four-year terms. … Do they have term limits? Do they not have term limits? How often do they meet? How are they administered?”

Who can serve on a board?

Recently, city officials in Fort Thomas came up against an important and somewhat controversial question about who can serve on a board. They reviewed ordinances for three of its boards – Planning and Zoning, the Board of Adjustment and the Design Review Board. All three required members to be city residents. The first two are regulated by the state to require residency.

Staff questioned whether the city should change its Design Review Board parameters to allow consideration of a nonresident who had ties to the community or specific expertise. A business owner and longtime member of the board, Barb Thomas, had announced she would be moving her residence to Newport, although her business would remain in Fort Thomas. With the rule in place, she would leave the board.

A council committee debated the change and recommended retaining the residency requirement, but upon further discussion, council decided to reconsider allowing up to two nonresidents to serve on the board under certain circumstances. The vote on that change is pending.

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At the meeting, council member Ben Pendery said he had concerns about putting limitations on membership. “I just simply don’t want to put us in a box where we have this setup in place where if the mayor decides he’d like to nominate a Barb Thomas, or X business owner who lives outside the city limits, I don’t think it’s responsible for us to take that ability away from the mayor.” 

He said council should trust the process in place. “If you don’t want to allow a nonresident, and nonresident gets nominated, then you vote no. That’s our job as council members. That’s my firm belief…. This doesn’t need to be a huge wedge in our community. I think we have enough of those already.” 

Boards advise; councils decide

Cities determine how boards operate, while boards choose their  chairs and iron out details of when and where they meet. Board meetings are open to the public, but unless a hearing is being held or there is a special meeting to gather public input, most board meetings do not have space for public comment. 

At meetings, board members hear from people on the agenda who have specific requests, information or presentations. They then deliberate and may propose a vote on a recommendation. If so, they forward their recommendations to the city council meeting.

City council will hear a report of the meeting and a recommendation if the board has one. Council will then vote to accept or reject the board’s recommendation. When a board asks for more information or votes to reject a request or appeal, it may appear to hold all the cards. But it’s important to remember that, ultimately, boards only advise, and legislative bodies – in this case city councils – decide.

“The takeaway is there is a tremendous amount of discretion given to cities when it comes to creating boards and commissions,” Salzman said. “The purpose of boards and commissions should be to support the work of the city.”

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