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Coupeville considers a hearing examiner

To produce decisions that better stand up to legal scrutiny, meet recommendations of its insurer and to encourage residents to serve on local boards, the town of Coupeville is deciding whether to use a hearing examiner.

The Coupeville Town Council heard a 90-minute presentation during its Tuesday evening meeting from town attorney Grant Weed about the pros and cons of using a hearing examiner for land use cases.

He rattled off a lengthy list of reasons the town should bring in a hearing examiner.

A hearing examiner, especially one that makes the final decision concerning land use applications, would reduce the chance decisions are overturned in court. It would also virtually eliminate the possibility of personal legal exposure of council members, Weed said during the meeting.

The person, or firm, hired to make decisions is usually an attorney who has experience working in other jurisdictions, and is technically adept in land use matters, Weed said.

Having someone apply the regulations would help free the Town Council and Planning Commission to conduct other business, Weed said.

Currently Island County and Oak Harbor use a hearing examiner while Langley does not.

Cons Weed outlined for the Town Council include giving up local control over decisions and the cost incurred for such work.

The town’s insurer, the Washington Cities Insurance Authority, recommends towns have a hearings examiner for decisions,” Weed said.

Coupeville Mayor Nancy Conard said that the town has gone through a number of contentious quasi-judicial hearings in the past. She hopes that a hearing examiner will avoid that in the future.

An examiner would allow councils and commissions to spend more time on planning and policy issues than interpreting the law.

Conard said the contentious hearings held in the past have been a real deterrent for people serving on the town council or planning commission.

“I think I’m definitely an advocate for this,” Councilwoman Diane Binder said, adding that she has been threatened with lawsuits in the past. She pointed out that members of public boards are volunteers and not lawyers.

The Coupeville Town Council didn’t make a decision either way concerning whether to hire a hearing examiner.

In an interview after the meeting, Conard said the council will hold a workshop in March to go into more detail on whether to move forward with a hearing examiner and start looking into what kind of matters the hearing examiner would decide.

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