A zoning change request for a proposed Northeast Rochester apartment complex spurred questions Monday regarding the Rochester City Council’s decision-making role.

The question was whether the council members must make a decision based on specific code requirements or could they decide the matter based on personal interpretations of policy.

“That seems to be a question that is coming up a lot,” Rochester City Attorney Jason Loos told the city’s Ethical Practices Board on Wednesday.

Jason Loos
Jason Loos

The question also determines whether council members are able to voice opinions on an issue before a final ruling.

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A 2009 Ethical Practices Board ruling states council members, or member of the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission, should abstain from a vote related to a development request if they have voiced an opinion on the specific matter in the past.

RELATED: Rochester council member requests tweak to ethics code

The ruling only pertains to issues where the official acts in a “quasi-judicial” manner, meaning the council holds a public hearing and makes a final decision based on specific state and local codes. It doesn’t apply to decisions that are an interpretation of policy.

The current Ethical Practices Board is considering a request from council member Mark Bransford to add specific language to the city’s ethics code, but Board Chairwoman Faye Harris said Wednesday she worries such limits could hinder transparency, since it could keep elected officials from discussing issues with the people they represent.

Bransford and Loos said it doesn’t stop the officials from speaking about general issues.

“I ran on an affordable housing platform, which is very, very important to me, so does that mean when an affordable housing project comes before me, that I’m predisposed to vote for it?” Bransford said. “That platform isn’t specific.”

Mark Bransford
Mark Bransford

Despite the platform, Bransford did raise questions Monday about the proposed three-story apartment complex near townhomes in the Northern Heights neighborhood, which would be built using state tax credits designated for the development of affordable housing.

He suggested the project between an existing Kwik Trip and townhomes doesn’t match city policy used to determine whether a zone change is the right move.

The council eventually opted to delay a decision until April 19.

Loos said the zoning issue is a matter of interpretation of policy, rather than specific code, meaning the council also has more flexibility during community discussions.

“It’s very subjective a lot of time, based on what your personal comfort level is,” he said.

He added that it’s the more specific decisions that can cause conflicts as elected officials discuss matters with neighbors and developers ahead of a public hearing and final ruling.

“It happens frequently, but it’s not the majority of the action the council takes,” he said of the “quasi-judicial” rulings that follow community discussions.

More often, the council makes decisions based on an interpretation of city policy.

With four new City Council members, Loos said city staff decided Wednesday to schedule council training on the land-use issues faced by the city. The plan is to enlist the League of Minnesota Cities to address questions and concerns.

Adding to the confusion is the city’s existing land-use manual, which provides gray areas between when the council is acting in a quasi-judicial manner and when it’s taking on the legislative role of interpreting policy.

“In most cities, it’s not that gray,” Loos said, noting that the city is working to create a universal development code that would clarify the issue.

With training planned, the Ethical Practices Board opted to wait on a decision regarding whether to recommend a related code change. The board is slated to meet next at 10 a.m. May 26.