A recent discussion at the Jackson City Council shows why bureaucrats are universally disliked. Ward 1 Councilman Ashby Foote wants zoning applications posted online after they are submitted to the city. The city council members seemed inclined to go along with his idea last week at a meeting of the Planning and Zoning Committee. However, Zoning Administrator Esther Ainsworth tried to stop the council from doing so as she made it quite clear she wants to keep forcing people to file public records requests and pay whatever fees she decides to charge.
Mr. Foote's proposal will make it easier for people to find out what is going on in their own neighborhoods when developers or property owners try to rezone their property. The current policy forces concerned citizens to go down to city hall, file a public records request, wait seven business days or more, and then pay whatever fees Ms. Ainsworth's office decides to charge.* Her office will not let anyone just read the submitted application. Nope. A public records request has to be filed and the process has to be followed. We are a city of laws you see. The breaking of one law or rule will undermine order and bring down society. The city can not tolerate such lawlessness. Civilization depends on keeping such order.
Mr. Foote introduced a motion two weeks ago at a city council meeting that would direct the city to post all submitted zoning applications on the city website within 72 hours after submission. The resolution would also require the city to post online the agendas for the planning and zoning commission no less than 72 hours prior to a meeting. City Attorney Monica Joiner said the resolution should be converted to an order as it would be an ordinance. The council agreed and referred it to the Planning and Zoning Committee.
The discussion opened on a fairly amicable note. The committee discussed what it wanted to accomplish with the city attorneys. Normal stuff. Mr. Foote cited the example of the Colonial Country Club zoning fight earlier this year when Colonial neighbors were forced to file public records requests and wait one to two weeks just to find out what was proposed for their neighborhood. Numerous people also complained at the Costco public hearing that they were not allowed to look at the zoning application but were forced to file public records requests even though they didn't find out about the hearing until a few days prior to its being held.
Mr. Foote said he wanted to upload the entire application as submitted to the city website. However, Ms. Ainsworth said she preferred to post agendas and public notices. Ward 2 Councilman Melvin Priester, Jr. took Mr. Foote's side as he said "I like this idea a lot and that we should try to get as much documentation online as possible."
Ms. Ainsworth (starts at 9:14) said the current notice requirements were satisfactory. She said she was required to send notice to people who lived within 160 feet of property that was the subject of a zoning proposal. She said the notice had to be posted 15 days prior to the meeting. However, such requirements mean a person has to literally file a public records request the same day the notice is posted if he wants to get the zoning application prior to the public hearing.
Mr. Foote said he wanted to post the submitted zoning applications online to reduce "the friction among the neighborhood associations" and create "less angst out there." However, Ms. Ainsworth (11:30) said that if the information was posted online, that people could make "interpretations sometimes that are not correct." She also said "We don't want people to make abrupt decisions based on what staff recommends (included in the zoning application)." She said they "may make an uninformed decision" based upon what information "is out there in terms whether they support or don't support (that zoning request)." She said the zoning documents can be a really large file but Mr. Foote said "That's ok, the cloud is a really big place." He said he would rather people complain because he voted the wrong way than complain they couldn't get a copy of the zoning request.
Ms. Ainsworth also said uploading completed zoning applications online would mean some proprietary or trade information might have to be redacted. However, she failed to mention that such guidelines currently apply to those obtained through public records request. Another Planning and Zoning department employee said people could just file open records requests. Mr. Foote interrupted her and said "I'd just rather put this online". He said "we are furloughing people" and this proposal would reduce the workload for city employees as they could just post the submitted applications online and not use their time responding to public records requests for the same zoning application. He said "My gosh, it's free online." (18:00) Inspector Ainsworth then tried to say that uploading the applications might interfere with the appeal period for a zoning action application. She said the city should post the submitted applications online after the appeal period.
The committee said it was inclined to direct the Planning and Zoning to submit the applications to the City Attorney for review and then upload the documents to the internet. The committee will address Mr. Foote's proposal at the next meeting.
*Her office charged this website $80 just for copy of the zoning application for the Goodwill Industries zoning application. Earlier post with copy of zoning application.
This is an example of a zoning application that is completed and submitted to the city: