The poet Robert Burns said it first: The best-laid schemes often go awry, and leave us grief and pain.
Flathead County planners might be saying amen to that this week, in the wake of a lawsuit and ongoing allegations by a group of vocal locals who claim the county and a planning committee conducted a too-secretive planning process that violated Montana’s open meeting laws.
Planning processes everywhere in the state, it seems, are a battlefield in which elected officials and disgruntled private landowners are accusing planners and others of violating proper procedure. Insert the nation’s legendary litigiousness into this recipe and you get a sulfurous stew, one that makes it increasingly difficult for anything with the word “plan” in it to get off the ground.
The battle gets particularly strident where property-rights groups like American Dream Montana — whose members are among those who filed the Flathead suit — campaign against people they denounce as “smart-growthers” and (in their view) socialists run amok.
“American Dream Montana was started to counter a very organized and well-funded movement, SMART GROWTH,” as the ADM website puts it. “As with most policies of the extreme political left, the rhetoric does not correspond to the reality … Flathead County is considered by the smart growthers to be ripe for their destructive social (or socialist) experiment.” (Note: ADM is hosting a public forum tonight at 6:30 p.m. at the Red Lion Hotel Kalispell to address the alleged wrongdoing by the Flathead County Planning Office.)
The Flathead lawsuit, according to some fine reporting Saturday and Sunday by Lynette Hintze of the Daily Inter Lake, alleges that a neighborhood planning process for Lakeside and Somers that’s been underway since 2007 violated open meeting laws because it involved secrecy and collusion. The main claim: that the planning committee wrongfully used a “secret” Yahoo group website to lay its plans.
What the lawsuit doesn’t mention is that many cities across the nation use Yahoo group sites to facilitate information sharing — in other words, to increase openness, not shut it down.
The suit, filed in Flathead District Court by a group of Somers and Lakeside property owners, asks that the court issue an injunction to bar the county from pursuing neighborhood plans until there’s a court-approved process in place. It names Flathead County, County Planning Director Jeff Harris and the Lakeside Neighborhood Planning Committee.
The scenario is vaguely reminiscent of the opposition to Missoula’s proposed zoning rewrite, which is not yet the focus of a lawsuit — but could be, if fighting words turn into court filings. Foes of the Missoula revision have alleged that the zoning overhaul, which has been inching forward for two years, is moving too swiftly and might not be proper. “This ordinance has been imposed from above by blatant social engineering,” one Missoula resident told City Council members at a recent 5-plus hour meeting on the matter. (For last week’s decision on Missoula zoning, click here.)
Perhaps, like the stages of grief, there are readily identifiable phases to Montana’s anti-planning movement, including anger, attorney consultation, delays and — in the most advanced stages — a lawsuit to clog up the courts.
That, at least, is how things are being described by the Lakeside Neighborhood Plan Committee, which announces boldly in red at the top of its website: “The Lakeside Neighborhood Plan Committee has nothing to hide, now or ever, in the past or in the future.”
“These allegations of secrecy, collusion, and conspiracy are absolutely false,” the committee website says.
Here is how the Lakeside committee sees it, direct from its site:
– The Lakeside Committee’s development of the neighborhood plan was done “in a completely open and publicized manner … The Committee stands by its use of the Yahoo site and, in fact, encourages the County NOT to prohibit its use in the future … It is a great, efficient, and FREE tool that facilitates groups working together toward a shared product or goal.”
– “The suggestion to use the Yahoo Group Site facility was proposed and endorsed by committee members in late 2007 because of its great efficiency in helping groups work together from different physical locations.”
– Using the Yahoo work group (now defunct) offered people ways to get automatic reminders, event lists, and files and documents, all of which were available to the public.
– “The Yahoo Group was NEVER the official repository of files.” The group’s secretary maintained all official files and provided them to anyone who wanted them, including to Donna Thornton, an ADM member and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, the committee says.
– Other cities around the country, from Hawaii and California to Washington, are using Yahoo groups for similar purposes.