If you ever get worried that Rockland City Council meetings will become too harmonious to provide for a robust debate of the issues, have no fear.
Debate at Monday night's meeting became so heated at one point that Mayor Will Clayton called a five-minute recess. This prevented Councilors Elizabeth Dickerson and Frank Isganitis from arguing back and forth over the merits of rezoning the area west of Old County Road. The argument was in danger of failing to go through the chairman (Clayton), violating Robert's Rules of Order.
The debate has gone on for months now on the changes in zoning. Isganitis, who served on the Comprehensive Planning Commission prior to becoming a member of the city council, has argued persuasively that zoning is important. Now, before a major project is proposed in an area, is the time to plan future development and ensure smart growth in the community, he has argued.
At first the zoning proposed was to deal with not only the rural section of the city west of Old County Road, but the properties fronting on Old County as well. Strong opposition by residents in that area caused city officials to redraw the map of the zone.
The new regulations, including separate rules for farm stands versus more retail agricultural markets, and a big 2-acre minimum lot size, will soon apply to the area including much of West Meadow Road and up to Bog Road.
Dickerson, who lives on West Meadow Road, was the only member of council opposed to the zone change Monday night.
Her arguments were personal. She said she opposed the 2-acre minimum lot size because it would reduce the number of lots a property owner could have on a subdivision. She said this would affect her finances and personal well-being.
As soon as she made that remark, a thought probably jumped into the minds of everyone at the meeting or watching on local TV: "Isn't that a conflict of interest?"
Immediately, Will Clayton asked if she planned to recuse herself from the vote, to which she said "absolutely not."
In the end, she was only one vote against three (Eric Hebert was absent), so it didn't matter. However, it brings up an interesting question.
On the one hand, it doesn't do much for the council's credibility when there is a sense that councilors are voting in personal self-interest rather than to represent their constituents as a whole.
On the other hand, if we were after complete objectivity, we would bring in five city councilors from another community altogether to weigh matters with a Spock-like logic. We elect residents from our own community to sit on school boards and city councils because, as neighbors, their interests are linked to our own.
According to City Attorney Kevin Beal at the meeting, a councilor is in conflict of interest when they vote on a matter in their direct financial interest concerning a city contract, purchase or offer of employment to the councilor or family member. Dickerson's statement didn't really meet that criteria for a conflict.
No sooner had this become an issue than it was stated her property was not in the zone in question. She had thought it was, and it might have been taken out around the time the Old County Road properties were taken out of the zone. Most of West Meadow Road is in this zone.
For this piece of information to suddenly surface at this point in the conversation also did not help the credibility of the council in this meeting.
From our perspective, much of the argument around this zoning has seemed like a comic exercise in nit-picking (farm stand vs. agricultural market? Really?). Two acres seems big for a minimum lot size. We do think people will be glad to have this zoning in place if a big wind turbine project is ever proposed.
For most residents, how much they care will be determined by whether they live in this zone. With Isganitis on the council, we will likely see more zoning proposals in the near future.
For now, the zoning has passed and the city can move on to the next argument.