Agency may limit Governing Board members’ contact with project applicants
Rules could be adopted soon to make sure that governing board members from the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency don’t act in a supportive role for someone looking to build in the Lake Tahoe Basin.
“It’s like being a consultant,” said John Singlaub, executive director of the TRPA, an agency formed in 1969 to protect Lake Tahoe. “I’m sure they are not paid consultants but they are advocates of projects – at least two (Governing Board members) have done that. I’d rather not name them.”
Strategica, a consulting firm which recently completed an audit of the TRPA, recommended the agency look into adopting rules to limit communication between project applicants and governing board members when it occurs outside of a public meeting.
Singlaub raised the issue again during a board retreat conducted several weeks ago. Proposed rules to outline what type of communication is acceptable could come before the board for discussion as early as June.
“My philosophical position is that it is easier to make a decision based on evidence presented at a hearing if you aren’t involved with folks prior to that,” said Dave Solaro, chairman of the 15-member board. “But it depends what shakes out. Philosophically I support it.”
Singlaub said when a Governing Board member walks in with a project applicant it can have a negative effect on TRPA staff.
“Board members are essentially their boss,” Singlaub said. “It puts employees in a bad situation.”
Singlaub acknowledged there is a need for board members to communicate with the public on a more basic level, like checking on why a project has taken so long to be reviewed by the agency.
“I don’t have problem with that,” Singlaub said. “When they are actually advocating approval of a project or a change in ordinance outside of a board meeting – that’s when they are on thin ice.”
David Howe, president of Strategica, said he didn’t make his recommendation because he uncovered any “red flags” during his study of the agency. He just noticed that the TRPA didn’t have any rules on the books.
“They are making decisions that do have the weight of law,” Howe said Tuesday by phone from Seattle. “That being the case, they need to have a policy similar to what they have in court … it protects the rights of both parties so that these legal decisions aren’t being made in the dark or outside the public purview.”
Jerome Waldie, a governing board member for 11 years who lives on the West Slope, said it is rare but he does receive calls from a project applicant or an attorney who represents an applicant. Usually the project involves a pier.
Tom Quinn, a board member who lives in Los Angeles, gets calls too.
“A few times people have called me and I felt very uncomfortable,” Quinn said. “I said, ‘Look, I’d rather hear this at a board meeting.'”
Waldie said he supports the board adopting some sort of policy, but that it must take into account the board’s dual role.
“We’re not totally an adjudicative body,” Waldie, an attorney, said. “This is more like a city council or board of supervisors. It’s both adjudicative as well as legislative. In a legislative function, it is fairly common to talk to constituents coming before you.”
Waldie said he would support the adoption of some sort of disclosure rules.
“I think disclosure ought to be fairly formal, fairly complete,” Waldie said. “It should be understood that contact is not prohibited but it should be disclosed in my view.”
Typically a board member will disclose the fact that they stand to benefit from a policy or rule change and then do not vote on the issue, Waldie said.
– Gregory Crofton can be reached at (530) 542-8045 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org