A stricter interpretation of the Ohio Revised Code that the city of Bexley recently implemented is causing some members of the Bexley Board of Zoning and Planning and Architectural Review Board to resign in order to avoid conflicts of interest.
Mayor Ben Kessler said the city is basing its new guidelines on sections 102, 2921.42, 2921.421, and 2921.43 of the Ohio Revised Code. Kessler said the new guidelines stem from the disbanding of Bexley's Planning Commission and the Board of Zoning Appeals in early 2017 and reforming them as the Architectural Review Board and the Board of Zoning Appeals and Planning.
"The change was designed to more appropriately divide duties, with one board carrying architectural review responsibilities solely and the other board focusing on zoning appeals and planning issues," Kessler said.
"This setup is more in line with norms for Ohio and allows for a more coherent review process," he said.
Whereas the former planning commission handled mostly commercial applications and the former board of zoning appeals handled mostly residential applications, the new BZAP and ARB each review both types of cases, which could cause more potential conflicts of interest, Kessler said.
"We reviewed the way conflicts of interest were handled and determined that we wanted to take the strictest interpretation of how to handle them and asked board members who had upcoming cases to resign to avoid any conflicts of interest," he said.
BZAP has seven members and three alternates, and the ARB has five members and two alternates. Members of both boards serve three-year terms.
Whenever the BZAP or ARB has a vacancy, the city advertises the opening for a month and requests applications for new members. The mayor reviews the applications, interviews potential members and makes appointments, which must be confirmed by Bexley City Council.
Kessler said the city began notifying BZAP and ARB members who would be affected by the new conflict-of-interest guidelines in middle to late November.
To date, BZAP member Dan Ferdelman and ARB alternate member John Behal, who are both architects, are the only two who have resigned due to conflicts of interest, Kessler said.
"I believe the two resignations we have had might be it for now," Kessler said. "In the future, current members may need to resign if their business base changes and they take on an assignment in Bexley that would require review by their board."
Ferdelman said he resigned from the BZAP in November after 10 years of service because he agreed to represent a friend who wanted to build an addition on her house. He said he only takes on a few cases a year as an architect because he spends most of his time as a full-time urban designer employed with the city of Columbus.
Ferdelman said Columbus allows members of architectural review boards to recuse themselves from specific cases involving conflicts of interest, but continue to serve on the boards.
"Some of my (Columbus) board members have cases in the same jurisdiction, and they recuse themselves and one of their staff members presents the case," Ferdelman said. "I'm a little guy, so I don't have staff."
Behal did not return calls seeking comment.
Brian Marsh, BZAP chairman, said he became aware of the city's new conflicts-of-interest guidelines earlier this year.
"I agree with them and feel this new procedure will ensure that any possible conflicts are avoided," he said.
Marsh said he personally has no conflicts of interest that would affect his tenure.
"Professionally, I deal in industrial real estate, so it is very unlikely that this would ever impact me," he said. "But I would be prepared to resign, should the situation arise."
Bexley has many qualified residents who can step up to serve and fill vacancies on either board, Marsh said.
"While I regret losing the talented individuals who recently resigned, I feel the talent pool is deep enough to keep a qualified board in place long term."
Bexley Councilman Tim Madison, chairman of council's zoning and development committee, said he understands that Bexley's stricter interpretation of conflicts of interest may cause the city to lose experienced BZAP and ARB members. But Madison said he agrees with City Attorney Marc Fishel's opinion that those members should not represent clients before the boards on which they serve.
"It's not a close call. It's unequivocal that they can't do that. It's pretty black and white," Madison said. "I know other municipalities do it that way (allowing recusal); I just happen to think that they're wrong."