BCC to look at options for volunteer boards, quasi-judicial proceedings

By DOTTY NIST

The Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) has asked legal counsel to bring back information on options for the county’s volunteer boards that is to include potentially shifting some board functions to magistrates, plus alternatives for how quasi-judicial matters that currently come before the BCC are heard.

This direction came after a 30+-minute discussion during the Feb. 8 BCC regular meeting at the Walton County Courthouse, with District 4 Commissioner Donna Johns bringing up the issue with questions about the legality of citizens serving on multiple volunteer boards.

The latter were not simple questions to answer. Clay Adkinson, acting county attorney, advised against anyone serving on the Walton County Planning Commission or the Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) combining that with serving on any other board or committee under the county structure, in order to guard against any possible violation of state law.

Adkinson explained that these two boards engage in quasi-judicial (QJ) hearings and therefore are exercising a delegated sovereign authority. So, he said, even though the members of the ZBA and planning commission are appointees, they are considered office holders for purposes of the Florida Constitution.

The Walton County Land Development Code states that “All decisions which are to be made by an elected or appointed board and which require the application of legislatively adopted standards and/or policies to individual cases are categorized as quasi-judicial in nature.”

Listed as included in the QJ category are a number of types of decisions under the responsibility of the BCC, planning commission, and ZBA, including zoning map amendments not requiring a future land use map amendment, major development plan reviews, variances, vested rights determinations, appeals of administrative decisions, special exceptions, conditional uses, and planned unit developments.

Asked whether a person was allowed to serve on either the ZBA or planning commission and a municipal board in the county, Adkinson said it would depend on which of the municipal boards and how it was structured. “I’ll say this,” he advised, “you cannot serve as dual members of local planning agencies, so you can’t be on both planning boards.”

Adkinson agreed to check to see if anyone is serving on two volunteer boards in Walton County and, if so, let the person know that they must go off one of the boards if it is determined that their service on either board constitutes holding an office under the state constitution.

Johns made the suggestion that, for the board and committee seats that are not subject to appointment by the individual commissioners, advertising of vacancies be stepped up to get more applicants. She also spoke in support of term limits for volunteer board members.

In addition, Johns brought up the idea of either replacing the ZBA with a magistrate or eliminating that board, since there had been BCC comments in the past lamenting projects being presented to the county commission with ZBA variances already having been applied to the projects.

Magistrates may be attorneys or retired judges hired by the local government to preside at hearings.

Adkinson asked whether, as part of information he would be bringing back for the BCC, if the commissioners would like him to present an option for a magistrate conducting all quasi-judicial proceedings for the county, including those now coming before the ZBA and other boards.

“I think it would be appropriate for us to look at all options,” Walton County Commission Chairman Tony Anderson replied.

Adkinson observed that most places that had gone to using a magistrate for any quasi-judicial proceedings had moved to using a magistrate for all such proceedings, “and then letting boards serve in appellate capacities for the simple reason it creates a disparate scenario when you’re getting a magistrate’s opinion in one QJ and getting a very different board type of opinion in a different QJ.”

One volunteer board, the Walton County Code Enforcement Board, had been replaced with a magistrate for all cases in early 2021.

Adkinson was later asked by District 2 Commissioner Danny Glidewell if he would be presenting information on an option for a magistrate to hear quasi-judicial items that now come before the BCC.

“I would tell the board that there should be some discussion of that, in my opinion, yes, sir,” Adkinson answered.

Adkinson also suggested that he present options for consistent regulations applying to all volunteer boards, including the appointment process, board service, and attendance policies. He offered, as well, to examine and provide recommendations on criteria for variance requests to come before the ZBA.

Direction for Adkinson to so proceed was agreed to.

The commissioners heard from Joe Johnson, who has chaired the ZBA for 31 years. He acknowledged that he also serves on the board of the DeFuniak Springs Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), which is not a county board. He said he would rely on Adkinson to tell him if he has the authority to serve on both boards.

Johnson said he had seen many changes in the county and in the Walton County Land Development Code (LDC) during his time on the ZBA. “I have enlightened a lot of people on the changes,” he said.

Johnson voiced disagreement with changing out the members of the ZBA every few years, warning that this would result in a less knowledgeable ZBA that would “be a yes board for whoever tells them whatever.”

Johnson told the commissioners that, at the end of the day, the ZBA as it exists now serves the citizens. “We don’t serve the planning board, and we don’t serve the attorney, we serve the citizens,” he said.

Johnson challenged the officials to show anything indicating that the ZBA was not doing a good job. He also noted that very few ZBA decisions had been reversed in court as a result of appeals.

He received thanks for his service from the commissioners, and Johns emphasized that her comments on the ZBA had not been directed at anyone personally.

Also addressing the commissioners, Walton County Planning and Development Services Director Mac Carpenter spoke in favor of “some continuity on these boards.”

“One thing is sure, Joe does not work for me,” he said of Johnson.

Carpenter added that in his opinion it was necessary to either have the ZBA or have a magistrate serve in its place if the latter were the decision of the BCC. “They do serve an important function,” he said of the board.

District 1 Commissioner Boots McCormick went on record as not favoring “change just for the sake of change,” as with term limits on the volunteer boards. He asked for a benefit to be shown as the policies are worked up, for any such limits.

“There’s a lot of just-how-the-code-has-evolved-over-the-years discussions that we’ll try to bring back,” Adkinson told the commissioners, “and I do hope the board will indulge me.”

“This will probably be something where it’s not back to you in two or four weeks; it’s going to be a little bit more, but I will certainly make sure we get you these answers,” he pledged.

Glidewell urged for input to be sought from Carpenter and other staff in preparation for Adkinson’s presentation.

Adkinson assured him that there would be initial discussions with staff—and recommended that after the presentation he be tasked with meeting with each of the boards that would be affected to gather their input and bring that back to the BCC.

“I think that’s the complete loop you want if you want to make sure we have the most input possible,” he concluded.