City Council FYI: What’s behind legislative, quasi-judicial responsibilities
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
Steamboat Springs City Council recently approved the development application for a 110-room hotel to be located on 2.7 acres bordering Pine Grove Road. Council voted 3-2 to approve this application. I voted for approval. I have been asked, “How could you let this happen?” The answer to that question is rooted in an understanding of council’s various roles.
Applying constitutional due process (fair hearing) requirements, courts have characterized certain City Council decisions as legislative and others as quasi-judicial. It is vital to understand the differences between the two because the courts require council to follow special procedures for quasi-judicial matters.
Council normally operates as a legislative body. In this capacity, council gathers information at public hearings, from informal conversations with residents and others, materials prepared by the city of Steamboat Springs staff and other sources. Council then deliberates and implements a policy by enacting an ordinance. For example, when council makes changes to the Community Development Code or regulations governing dogs, it is acting in its policy-making, or legislative, capacity.
Occasionally, council must act in a manner similar to a judge in a court of law. Courts call this kind of action quasi-judicial. In a quasi-judicial proceeding, council is not setting new policy but is applying rules expressed by an existing ordinance and facts presented at a public hearing. In other words, much like a court, council is applying the law to facts gathered at the hearing to arrive at its decision.
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Determining whether an item before City Council is a legislative or quasi-judicial requires some analysis. As a general rule, however, “site-specific” land use decisions, such as an approval of a development application, are typically quasi-judicial matters. Council was in its quasi-judicial capacity when it made the decision to approve the 110-room hotel.
Council, when acting in its quasi-judicial capacity, needs to set aside all personal opinions. How individual council members feel individually about what is being proposed is irrelevant. Council, like a judge, needs to make its decision by applying the law to facts presented during the public hearing.
In making quasi-judicial decisions due process requires that council follow certain rules, including:
- Council must provide advance notice and a reasonable opportunity for interested persons to present evidence and argument at the hearing.
- Council must make a record of the proceeding, including all information it considers in making its decision. The city will collect letters, email messages and documents submitted prior to the hearing. These items become a part of the official record.
- Council must not consider any information received outside the official record. Information outside of the official record is called “ex-parte communication.” Courts generally hold that such communication is improper. As an example, you see a council member at the grocery store and want to discuss an item that is considered quasi-judicial with them. They need to respectfully decline to do so. They are not being rude. They are simply following the rules.
The prohibition against “ex-parte communication” is followed so the entire council has a fair opportunity to hear the evidence and argument presented in the context of a public hearing. This practice also gives the applicant seeking approval a fair chance to respond to all information that may affect the decision.
Although I am a member of City Council, my opinions are my own and may not be shared by my fellow members.
Scott Ford is a member of Steamboat Springs City Council.
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