Free speech and the Planning Commission

Bill Pitts has never been afraid to speak his mind. As a candidate for Mesa County commissioner in the 1980s, as a citizen of the Grand Valley and businessman and as a member of the Grand Junction Planning Commission, he has frequently made his opinions known, forthrightly and without guile.

The problem is, in speaking out in opposition to two proposed zoning changes in his neighborhood, Pitts violated the clear requirements of both the Planning Commission bylaws and an ethical-standards ordinance adopted by the City Council in 2006.

The relevant provision in the bylaws says commission members “shall make no comment or input on a petition or item on the Planning Commission Agenda prior to consideration at a meeting or hearing of the Commission.” There is no exemption that says such comment is all right if the commission member recuses himself from voting on the item, as Pitts did.

The 2006 ethics ordinance lists eight specific rules that members of “authoritative boards” such as the Planning Commission, must follow. The final one says, “If either a conflict or the appearance thereof reasonably exists, the member may not attempt to influence any decision-maker.”

It’s hard to argue that Pitts was not trying to influence decision- makers or was not commenting on items before the Planning Commission when he wrote letters to the city planning department opposing the zoning changes, and spoke out publicly against them.

Pitts argues that he has a right under the First Amendment to speak out on such issues, and he
certainly does, as a private citizen. But, as a member of the Planning Commission, he had a responsibility to abide by the rules of the organization with which he voluntarily chose to serve. And those rules limit his free-speech rights on matters before the Planning Commission.

One may argue whether the rules go too far in limiting what Planning Commission members can say or do. But they weren’t arbitrarily enacted. They were designed to assure members of the public appearing before the Planning Commission that they will receive a fair and unbiased hearing, not a decision colored by commission members’ personal interests.

We respect Bill Pitts’ desire to speak his mind. But, given that he essentially told the City Council Wednesday night he would do the same thing in the future, regardless of what the rules say, the council had little choice but to remove him from the Planning Commission.


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