I initially posted this as a comment but I thought I’d make it its own thread instead.

The special permit process is very curious indeed and seems somewhat of an elaborate charade.

From a legal standpoint, the councilors come together and analyze the project in an impartial way, from the point of views of the applicable law, and render an objective legal judgement, without being swayed by their own or other’s personal preferences.

On the face of it, the reality is entirely different, and virtually everyone involved in the process is entirely aware of that.

On the face of it, the council only decides on the project presented to it. In reality, there is a lengthy process of horse trading before the final vote. All the various concessions listed for the Northland and/or virtually every other special permit project makes that clear.

The process involves lengthy public hearings. The majority of people speaking aren’t presenting factual testimony like in a trial. They are voicing their personal opinions on the project …. which officially, those on the committee aren’t supposed to be basing their decisions on.

From top to bottom the Special Permit process is a political process but dressed up as an objective legal process. I don’t say this as a criticism of anyone involved or their actions – it’s just the nature of the beast.

I was struck when the final Northland vote was taken for the Special Permit. A few councilors articulated the basis of their No vote on a very clear reading of the applicable law – exactly what you should expect of a legal process. I don’t have the exact wording in front of me but it was something like “the special permit should be denied if it would have a significant negative impact on the surrounding properties”.

While that sounds perfectly sensible, that same sentence could reasonably be used to justify a No vote on virtually any Special Permit that has ever come before the City Council. There isn’t any kind of construction project any where that doesn’t have various negative impacts on surrounding properties.

The downside of this charade aspect of the process, is at various points in what is clearly a normal political process (hearing from all parties, trying to reach a consensus, and then making a decision) the participants can fall back on these mostly mythical legal fictions – “I can’t voice an opinion” “I can’t advocate for a specific trade-off” because its a ‘quasi-judicial’ process.

Its all very curious indeed. I think it would be a far healthier process if the ‘quasi-judicial’ trappings were stripped away and it was treated like a normal political decision like all other matters that come before the Council.

Maybe that’s not possible because of State law, etc, but the current process, full of these somewhat imaginary elements, is exactly the kind of process that can strike cynicism in the public when they encounter it first hand – i.e. they can see with their eyes that it is inherently a political process, but at each step people tell them that things can or can’t be done because its a ‘quasi-judicial’ legal process.

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