Planning and Zoning Board Corruption: Finding the Missing Whistleblowers

My last post looked at the constant, pernicious corruption and conflict of interest in local land use planning decisions in the United States. Despite shocking stories and a handful of high-profile investigations and prosecutions (see, for example, here and here), little comprehensive work has been done to address the potential for corruption in planning and zoning decisions, even when warning signs abound. Instead, most instances of corruption in land use planning decisions remain undetected, perhaps because the seemingly small stakes make it unlikely that external investigators will scrutinize these decisions too closely.

Yet potential whistleblowers surely see or suspect bribery, conflicted dealings, or other malfeasance in land use planning. Reforms should make it easier for those individuals to come forward, as well as make it more likely that their reports will lead to action. Ideally, these measures would recognize the particular characteristics of land use decisions, such as the challenges posed by the large numbers of local officials involved in planning and zoning. Here are a few suggestions for how to encourage simpler, more consistent reporting:

  • First, individuals working in land use—like board members, government administrative employees, and development community members—need to know where the lines of proper behavior are. Conflicts of interest and recusal standards particular to land use planning should be formalized. (This is often not the case: frequently a network of state and federal laws and standards apply to local-level committees, and the committees in turn typically make or have their own internal rules.) The American Planning Association, an organization for land use professions, has Ethical Principles in Planning that provide a broad definition of interests and set a high standard for recusal. The policy describes itself as setting “aspirational standards” to be based on “conscientious balancing.” More formal model standards could be promulgated on a state level, which local land use bodies could then adopt. In addition, the formalized standards need to be made accessible to the public, ideally online in the same place where information is made available about a particular land use board. A one-stop resource of binding standards made available to the public, and especially to government employees, would allow not only clarify appropriate behavior, it would give some basis for whistleblowers to come forward when some action does cross a line.
  • Second, whistleblowers need reassurances of confidentiality and protection when they seek advice or come forward with reports of misbehavior. State-level officials, who typically have some separation from the local-level politics and relationships implicated in land use planning, should play a central role here. State Attorneys General often provide ethics training, subject matter introductions, and opinions on land use decisions. They could also designate a contact person responsible for fielding complaints from local land use bodies. This need not involve any costly infrastructure—some basic training on land use dealings would suffice, and the designated contact person could simply refer serious incidents to law enforcement for investigation or prosecution.
  • Third, whistleblowers should have reason to believe that something will be done about their reports. State-level public institutions or civil society bodies should develop legal resources, case studies, or even flow charts to clarify what happens to complaints and how corruption or conflicts of interest in land use planning decisions are resolved. Providing such a resource might make a potential whistleblower realize the importance of reporting, and could also help deter land developers from engaging in corruption. Some privately compiled resources do exist—see here, here, here, or here—but potential whistleblowers are not likely to have the time and specialized expertise to sift through numerous sources of information. This specialized information would also provide legal challengers with a starting point, as the information would give judges clearer standards for assessing land use decisions. (While zoning boards and designated appeals bodies are specialized institutions, overworked generalist judges are likely to be unfamiliar with zoning laws to begin with, let alone the special opportunities for corruption presented by land use planning.)

All that said, education and support can only go so far. In reality, potential whistleblowers have few incentives to come forward and risk their careers or personal relationships by reporting. Unlike regimes where whistleblowers can be given a cut of reclaimed funds, there aren’t big dollars to be recovered by courts overturning land use decisions. Yet reforms like those sketched above would make a difference, particularly if coupled with an appeal to the morals and professional principles of those in the land use field. In small towns where land use decisions may have an outsized impact, and even in large metropolitan areas where land development circles are concentrated and powerful, reporting could have enormous implications for entire communities. Moreover, the consequences of a finding of corruption in a zoning or planning board decision—which can include nullification of the entire application and hearing process—are serious enough that increased whistleblowing might be enough to make a big difference.

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