Commissioner calls for look at using special magistrate for some board hearings

The county commission will soon be reviewing information on the possibility of using a special magistrate or similar professional to hold quasi-judicial hearings for some requests currently heard by four county boards, one of those being the county commission itself.
On the agenda for the Jan. 24 Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) regular meeting at the Walton County Courthouse was the agenda item, “Request to direct the Office of the County Attorney to draft changes to the Comprehensive Plan and Land Development Code to allow a Special Magistrate to hear all Quasi-Judicial land development issues.”
Walton County District 5 Commissioner Tony Anderson brought up the proposal, which was listed under his name on the agenda. He asked for the draft changes to be written up in order to begin discussion on the possibility.
Mark Davis, county attorney, agreed to begin drafting the changes at the direction of the commission. He noted that since this would be such a significant change for the county, at least two public hearings would be required for the draft proposal.
Similar to court proceedings, for quasi-judicial hearings witnesses are sworn in and board members hear evidence and act in a role similar to judges. Florida Statutes require most hearings held to consider land use applications to be conducted in a quasi-judicial manner. This is in contrast with legislative decision-making by local government boards, which is generally of a broader impact.
In Walton County, quasi-judicial hearings are conducted by four boards, the BCC, the Walton County Planning Commission, the Walton County Code Enforcement Board (CEB), and the Walton County Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA).
Special magistrates are often retired judges or attorneys. Special magistrates or similar professionals are currently used by some counties for quasi-judicial hearings. Use of these professionals for Walton County boards is not a new idea. In 2004 a previous county attorney drafted an ordinance to use hearing officers for quasi-judicial hearings for the four county boards conducting these hearings. The ordinance was not approved. More recently, in May 2015, the BCC voted down a motion to replace the Walton County Code Enforcement Board with a special magistrate.
In response to Anderson’s request, District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander commented that she would not be opposed to using a special magistrate to take the “burden” off the planning commission, since its members are volunteers.
Davis noted that, even with a decision to use a special magistrate for planning commission quasi-judicial matters, the planning commission would still need to exist in order to deal with legislative matters.
Continuing, Comander expressed concern about the possibility of the county commissioners giving up their duty and responsibility to hold quasi-judicial hearings, since this was one of the things that they had run for office to do so. She added that people look to the commissioners to make the right decision.
Anderson responded that he would not see using the special magistrate as the commissioners giving up their responsibility but as allowing a professional to assist them and “look at these things.” He said many counties were doing this and that he anticipated that more would follow suit.
Anderson added that the BCC would still have a vote after the hearing was held, although it would be a limited one.
“I stood on a campaign that I would hear everyone’s voice,” said District 3 Commissioner Melanie Nipper. She indicated that she would need much more information before considering going to a special magistrate as discussed.
Davis said his understanding from Anderson’s proposal was that the magistrate would be used for quasi-judicial hearings for all four of the county boards (BCC, planning commission, CEB, and ZBA.) He said there were different options, including use of a hearing officer rather than a magistrate.
County Commission Chair Cecilia Jones commented that special magistrate is used for the Value Adjustment Board (VAB). This is an independent board that hears citizens’ challenges to property value appraisals, denials of exemptions, denials of classifications, and other similar matters. Two BCC members participate on the VAB. “Obviously it takes the politics out of the issues,” Jones said of the use of the special magistrate.
Oyster Lake resident Jacquee Markel expressed concern that going to a special magistrate would “quiet” the voices of the public. “It’s the public that will be subject to the changes that are made,” she said. Markel called for detailed information and explanation on the matter to be provided.
Davis responded that public comment cannot be cut off either with a special magistrate or as quasi-judicial hearings are held currently. Taking public comment is a requirement, he assured Markel, and this would not change.
“We want to hear public comment,” Jones stated.
“We always want public comment… this is not to silence the public at all,” Anderson agreed.
Addressing the commissioners, south Walton County resident and businessman Dave Rauschkolb asked Anderson why he had made this proposal.
“I think it takes the politics out of it,” Anderson responded.
“We’re a home community,” Nipper said. She said she was not sure how it would be possible to remove politics.
District 1 Commissioner Bill Chapman did not comment on the proposal.
Davis pledged to bring back information on a number of options in connection with the proposal and said he would provide both a report and a proposed ordinance. He agreed to have this information ready to present to the commissioners at the second regular BCC meeting in February. The meeting is scheduled for 9 a.m. on Feb. 28 at the Walton County Courthouse in DeFuniak Springs.