Planning Director Frank Duke has notified the members of his Zoning Advisory Committee that their services will no longer be needed. In an email Tuesday to the 12-member group, Duke says his decision to effectively disband the informal yet influential ZAC came after he received information from the Parish Attorney’s Office suggesting the group could pose an ethics problem for the Planning Commission.
“Last month, the parish attorney advised me that, as a result of research done by that office, it represented an ethical conflict to have a committee advise the Planning Commission regarding ordinance changes if that committee included members who represented entities that, at times, came before the Planning Commission seeking approval of projects,” Duke says in the email. “I was advised that the Zoning Advisory Committee could not contain any representatives of the industries/organizations that give the committee value. Accordingly … a new Zoning Advisory Committee should not be appointed in 2017.”
ZAC members include developers, realtors, planners, engineers, architects and civic leaders who advise the Planning Director on zoning code issues and proposed changes. The committee does not weigh in on specific zoning matters that go before the Planning Commission. However, members of the ZAC can and sometimes do represent clients on specific development matters that go before the Planning Commission.
Duke says he does not know what prompted the Parish Attorney’s Office to weigh in on the matter, though he says he did not ask the office to look into it. Parish Attorney Lea Anne Batson declines to say what prompted her office to get involved in what has been a long-standing practice in the Planning Department dating back nearly 20 years. She does say, however, that she recommended Duke seek an advisory opinion from the Louisiana Board of Ethics over “potential conflicts with the ZAC members voting on ZAC matters while lobbying the Planning Commission.”
Batson goes on to say she did not recommend that Duke “disband” the ZAC, nor did she suggest any ethics violations had occurred. However, she says she forwarded several state Board of Ethics opinions to Duke which suggest that ZAC board members are clearly covered by the ethics code, that they cannot do any business with the ZAC, and that they can only contract/transact with the Planning Commission, “if and only if the ZAC board did not have any connection whatsoever to that contract/transaction.”
Until relatively recently the ZAC was one of the best-kept secrets in local planning circles. Former Planning Director Troy Bunch, who ruled the Planning Commission with an iron fist for more than 30 years, created the ZAC as a sort of kitchen cabinet. Until 2009, its membership and meeting minutes were not made public, and many people were unaware of its existence.
In recent years—and especially under Duke’s leadership—however, the ZAC has become more transparent, and ZAC members have been instrumental over the past year in a rewrite of the parish’s outdated zoning code. ZAC Chairman Charles Landry says he was surprised by Duke’s email, and always strived to make sure no potential conflicts of interest existed between ZAC members and any matters they were discussing.
“I’m disappointment because the committee has provided such a wonderful resource to the entire parish with hundreds of hours of work to continue to improve the (zoning code),” he says. “I am very very knowledgeable as to conflicts of interest related to public bodies and we always adhered to all ethical requirements.”
Duke says in the absence of the ZAC, he will meet with interest groups—realtors, architects, neighborhood civic groups and others—to discuss proposed zoning changes and take comments from them “on an as needed basis.”