Fort Thomas debates city board membership rules

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Debate over who should be on the Fort Thomas Design Review Board got heated this week as city council reviewed a series of ordinances addressing the makeup of city boards. This action would force at least one board member to step down following her planned move to Newport.

Further discussion resulted in a proposed change to the ordinance to be brought back as a first reading for deliberation at next month’s council meeting.

On the docket for a second reading at the April council meeting were three ordinances, each with proposed updates for three city boards: Planning and Zoning, Board of Adjustments and the Design Review Board.

A review and update

Language in place for all three boards called for members to be residents of the city. During review of the ordinances, staff suggested changes. These included the possibility of adding provisions to allow leeway for those who might not live within the city limits who have special expertise or interest.

City officials and staff have been reviewing and updating language in many of the city’s ordinances. There had been questions around board membership and appointments and so a review of those ordinances made it to the top of the list. The council’s Law, Labor and License committee discussed the ordinances with City Administrator Matt Kremer at their March meeting.

The committee voted to maintain the language requiring residency and add a clear definition of resident to all three board ordinances. They also added a requirement for all board members to fill out financial disclosure forms at the beginning of their terms. These are the same forms city council members are required to submit.

At the March city council meeting, members accepted the committee’s recommendations and put all three ordinances on the agenda for first reading with a second reading at the April meeting.

Both the Planning and Zoning Board and the Board of Adjustment are covered by state regulations. Monday, council quickly approved these two ordinances, leaving the residency requirements and updates in place. Yet, the Design Review Board ordinance was another story.

The Design Review Board

Unlike the other two board ordinances, no specific language or provisions for this board are included in state statutes. The city created the Design Review Board (DRB) in 2002 to add some oversite to projects within the historic business districts.

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A review of the DRB uncovered an elaborate formula for the makeup of the board, including designating that of the five board members, two should have training or experience in an architectural and/or historic preservation/restoration field, one with training or experience in construction, building, engineering or related field, one who is a real estate professional, one who owns a business or structure within the district and one at-large citizen member.

All agreed the requirements needed to be simplified. Language was changed to eliminate the specific numbers in favor of encouraging members to have an interest or expertise in any of those fields. In other words, to include people who have skills that would inform decisions and enhance the work of the board.

Although the ordinance calls for five members (yet outlines six areas of expertise), in reality, the board has consisted of six members. It was agreed that an odd number and returning to five as designated in the ordinance would avoid ties that have sometimes been an issue for the board.

These two issues have been addressed with new language. Yet, the sticking point has been whether or not a business owner with interest in the community or a person with specific expertise in one of these fields could be a member of the board, even if they do not live within city limits.

At the Law, Labor and License committee meeting on the ordinance updates, Ben Pendery, one of three members of the committee, expressed concern that restricting the committee to residents only could unnecessarily handicap the board should someone not living in Fort Thomas with outstanding qualifications or ties to the community express interest in joining.

Committee members Adam Blau and Andy Ellison said they had heard from their constituents and agreed that all boards should only include residents. The committee’s recommendation to keep “resident only” language in the ordinances passed two-to-one and moved on to council, where they were added to the agenda for the first reading.

A business owner makes a plea

Despite council’s vote to accept the board ordinance revisions, debate has continued in the community, with people on both sides of the debate expressing concern on social media and by reaching out to council members.

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Right now, the one person affected by the changes is long-time Fort Thomas business owner Barb Thomas. She has owned the popular eatery Grassroots and Vine since 2018 and has served on the Design Review Board for eight years. She is currently a Fort Thomas resident but will move to Newport soon. With the residency requirement remaining, she will need to step off the board.

Thomas attended the council meeting to make her plea to allow local business owners with a clear investment in the community to serve if council approves.

“Keep in mind, there’s a process for any candidate that wants to serve on these boards. It’s not an easy process,” she said. “So, not just anyone can serve on these boards. There’s an application they have to fill out. There are interviews they have to go through. They have to be appointed by the mayor. They also have to be approved by the council…Only the candidates who are qualified are ultimately going to serve on these boards. I would like to ask council tonight to approve amending the ordinance to allow Fort Thomas business owners who may live outside the city to also be eligible to serve on the DRB.”

Making a case for a workable solution

Pendery explained why he wanted to change the ordinance, “Certainly there are plenty of other business owners that I don’t need to name in town, who may not live in town. They’re not on boards and commissions currently, but for the future…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 added that by changing the ordinance to provide for the possibility of a nonresident business owner or expert, it allows flexibility. He also responded to Thomas’ point that local businesses make an investment of taxes and community support that should be recognized.

“We all can agree that you’re invested in the community. It still would go through the process, the interview process, the vetting process, and it comes before council. And 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,” said Pendery.

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Pendery urged those present to look for a workable solution that everyone can live with. “Because frankly, we are not all that far apart on this issue, it’s not a black and white issue. It’s not that some people want nonresidents others don’t, and that’s just the facts.”

The ordinance vote

When it came time to vote on the three proposed city board ordinances, discussion on the DRB ordinance continued. Council members Lauren McIntosh, Eric Strange and Jeff Bezold said they would be in favor of adding language that would allow the possibility of a nonresident on the DRB board.

All council members agreed strongly that could not be the case for the other two boards as it could open up the door to people with conflicts of interest in the outcome of decisions made by those boards. Ellison noted he’d be a strong no for changing the residency requirements on Planning and Zoning or the Board of Adjustment.

For the Design Review Board, Strange proposed a change in the language that would allow up to two members to be nonresidents.

Noting that four council members expressed a willingness to change the language, Kremer suggested the Design Review Board ordinance not be voted upon that night. He said it could be reworked with new language and come back to council on a first reading next month.

Council voted to approve the ordinances for Planning and Zoning and the Board of Adjustment, keeping the residents only requirement and adding the definition of “resident,” the requirement for members to fill out financial disclosure forms and other updates to the language.

When the DRB ordinance came up for a vote, it was not moved and so it will be revised and returned for a new first reading at a future council meeting.

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