At the close of Monday’s City and Borough of Juneau Assembly meeting — during a time when Assembly members may make any comments — Assembly Member Ruth Danner responded to the Assembly about last week’s censure issue.
Last week, during a special meeting following an Assembly Committee of the Whole Meeting, the Assembly addressed a request by Danner to have the city’s legal department explain reasons for its opinion on a gravel crusher decision by the Planning Commission. The meeting ended up being called for her comments to the Planning Commission about the legal department — saying the department had “misled” the commission in the past.
Mayor Bruce Botelho pushed for an apology for her words, which he interpreted to imply the Law Department was being deceitful. She at first refused to apologize for doing her job. He called for a censure of Danner, due to lack of an apology. Once she re-read her statements she apologized to the law department, saying “misled” was not the word she intended to use.
Danner responded more fully to the Assembly on Monday night. She prepared a statement, prefacing it by saying she doesn’t trust her words to come out at random anymore.
“A few days have passed since our last meeting and I have received a great many positive calls and emails from people, some who like me and some who usually do not,” Danner said. “I’ve gotten more direct personal feedback on this issue than on any other two issues combined, including the North Douglas Crossing and the AJ Mine. Some think I should really tell you off, but I can’t do that. I have a few things to say, but let me first apologize for any lack of skill I may have in delivering my message. I mean no disrespect in any way. I am afraid I have done a poor job of making my objectives clear in the past.”
Danner said when she came onto the Assembly she had read Robert’s Rules of Orders and the city charter, but it didn’t come close to explaining how the process worked. She also went to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government for a three-week session on executives in state and local government.
“I learned a lot, but one thing sticks out, just now and that is “The Lesson of the Complicated Thing,’” she said. “This Assembly is like any other group of individuals brought together to serve a common purpose. This lesson is not just for elected officials. It applies to all of us; to our work relationships, our volunteer relationships, our social and family relationships, all the same.
“Whenever we come together to consider a problem and a course of action, it is as though there is a complicated thing in the middle of the room and we are all seeing it from a different angle. We cannot change our vantage point, so what I see from my side may be completely different from what you see from yours.”
Danner said they have to be willing to listen to one another’s opinions.
“I know I am jumping to conclusions, but I dare say that everyone in this room wants to do whatever we can within the limits of our power to encourage and support growth and development in our community,” Danner said.
Danner talked about the need for the city to follow the written rules.
“The rules we agree to in writing, protect the rights of all property owners equally,” she said. “Adoption of the code has passed through the public process. We all agree. Any reinterpretation of those rules that does not pass through the public process violates the rights of the many to benefit the few. The people are listening. If the public believes we operate strictly on a solid foundation and allow the rules to govern our decisions, we will have their trust and their permission to go forward and act on their behalf. And if do not, we truly are undermining the public trust in this institution.”
Danner brought up the issue of the rock crusher in a D3 zone again. She said planner Beth McKibben listed why a rock crusher would not be permitted in that zone in an email to the commission dated Nov. 15, 2011.
“At that point, the permit application was stalled indefinitely,” Danner said. “Then five months later at the Planning Commission hearing on April 10th, the community learns that the Law Department has reinterpreted the code without the Assembly. At our meeting last week, I was looking for an explanation. We all should be.”
Danner said there are two existing gravel crusher sites in that area. One, more than 50 years old, is still running as it was grandfathered in under old rules. The other, to the south, was held to the standard of the Table of Permissible Uses, Danner said.
“So what do you think? Is this a tempest in a teapot because some crazy woman doesn’t want something in her own back yard, or is this a smoking gun?” Danner asked.
She felt citizens should not have to file an appeal over the topic to get an answer.
Botelho said there is a separation of powers in city government just like there is in federal and state government. Botelho said there is a process outlined in the city charter.
“The purpose behind the specialty commission is probably several-fold,” Botelho said. “In part to have citizens who can concentrate their efforts, working with knowledgeable staff making land-use considerations free of the partisan considerations Ms. Danner alluded too. To the extent Planning Commission makes decisions, there is a specific process. That process is an appeal. It is the process for the Assembly to determine if a mistake has been made.”
Botelho said to intervene at this point, before the appeal process has closed, would undermine the Assembly as the appellate body.
“Ms. Danner you made appropriate reference of protecting the rights of all parties,” Botelho said. “That is one in part why we developed this process, with the assumption we can generally contain ourselves to the record before us.”
Botelho said this particular topic has been “contaminated to such an extent, this body should recuse itself from making the decision,” meaning that an appellate officer or another entity would have to take up the appeal. Botelho said because of how much side information and advocacy from one party they have received, it would be difficult to have a fair appeal.
“A mistake may or may not have been made,” he said. “I’m not prepared to make that determination. I am concerned about protecting that barrier — keeping roles of the Planning Commission separate from us.”
Assembly Member Jesse Kiehl said he also has been receiving emails from the public asking why the Assembly can’t ask for City Attorney John Hartle’s reasoning before an appeal has been filed. Kiehl said he’s kept the responses predominantly to the fact there is a process in place.
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