Walton County Officials allow more time for research on special magistrate/hearing officer

The county commission has approved additional time for their attorney to prepare a report on use of a special magistrate or hearing officer for quasi-judicial land development issues.
The approval of the time extension took place at the Feb. 28 Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) regular meeting at the Walton County Courthouse.
On Jan. 24, Walton County Attorney Mark Davis had agreed to prepare the report. This was in response to a proposal by District 5 Commissioner Tony Anderson to direct Davis and his staff to “draft changes to the Comprehensive Plan and Land Development Code (LDC) to allow a Special Magistrate to hear all Quasi-Judicial land development issues.”
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.
Davis had pledged to bring back information on a number of options in connection with the proposal and had indicated that he would provide both a report and a proposed ordinance at the Feb. 28 regular BCC meeting.
However, at that meeting, Davis said that he had been unable to do the report. He explained that in researching the ways special magistrates and hearing officers are used in other areas, he had been overwhelmed by the number of variations, although there were some similarities. He asked for another 30 to 60 days to work on the report in order to narrow down the options to be presented to the BCC to those that are used in the majority of areas.
The BCC has scheduled interviews this month of applicants for the vacant Walton County Planning and Development Services director position. In light of this, Davis also suggested that he discuss with the new director, once on board, provisions for a special magistrate or hearing officer within the confines of the Walton County Land Development Code.
Davis said he had found that most counties use a special magistrate or hearing officer in some manner.
“My only concern is fairness,” District 3 Commissioner Melanie Nipper responded. She said she would want to ensure that the public was apprised of development proposals and able to participate in the hearings.
“There is public input,” Davis said.
District 1 Commissioner Bill Chapman motioned to give Davis another 60 days to complete the report, and his motion was seconded.
Taking public comment, the commissioners first heard from local attorney Dana Matthews, who spoke in support of the use of a special magistrate or hearing officer.
“Our system does not work,” Matthews charged, speaking of the current procedure for quasi-judicial hearings.
He told the commissioners that the system is not fair either to citizens or applicants. Matthews spoke against decisions being “based on the applause meter.” He lamented the “millions” spent by Walton County in litigation costs stemming from the current system.
Matthews estimated that in Florida’s 67 counties there are probably 50 different ways of using special magistrates/hearing officers. He requested that he and others knowledgeable about the issue be allowed to be involved in furnishing information, with the goal of achieving a system that will be equitable for all citizens.
Santa Rosa Beach resident Bonnie McQuiston also spoke in favor of the use of a hearing officer—but explained that those and special magistrates are not the same, with a special magistrate being at a “higher level” and the latter also potentially taking “the people out of the equation.”
“You cannot take the people out of the process,” she cautioned.
McQuiston emphasized that it would be important to hire a person to conduct hearings who is a “neutral party” from outside of the county and is not related to anyone in Walton County. She also urged for addressing inconsistencies in the LDC so that it can be applied in a fair manner.
While commenting on his respect for Matthews, south Walton County resident Bob Hudson said he did not think residents south of the bay felt that “the applause meter” determined decisions at quasi-judicial hearings. He asked Davis if he could recall a BCC decision on a development order being overturned in circuit court, with Davis responding that he did not remember an instance of this happening.
Hudson urged the commissioners that, whatever their decision, it should include the ability of members of the public to stand before them and state their opinion.
South Walton County resident and business owner Dave Rauschkolb asked if the commissioners had gotten support via email for the special magistrate/hearing officer proposal since it had been brought forward.
Anderson responded that there had been both support and opposition. “We’re just in the vetting process,” he said, adding that this was an effort to see if this would “work for us.”
Anderson added that any changes providing for the use of the special magistrate or hearing officer would require public hearings at which citizens would have opportunity to give their opinions.
“It just seems like we need to find out who is for this…who’s really behind it,” Rauscholb commented.
Lynda Morse spoke in opposition, telling the commissioners, “We elected you to do a job.” She said she expected the commissioners to conduct these hearings and not put the work off onto someone else. Morse also warned that hiring a special magistrate or hearing officer would increase taxes.
A vote was taken, with the previous motion to allow Davis an additional 60 days to provide the report garnering approval with all aye votes.