Dunwoody City Council has asked the city’s Planning Commission to take a new look at a controversial rezoning request after ethics questions were raised following an earlier vote.

City Council voted 6-1 during its May 13 meeting to return the Sterling Point proposal to the commission for a new round of debate. Council members worried that campaign contributions from a law firm representing the developer to a planning commissioner raised questions about the approval of the project.

“This should go back,” Councilman Terry Nall said at the May 13 meeting.

Cecil McLendon, the city’s attorney, said he recommended the council’s action because of the “totality of the issues.”

Developers of the Sterling Point project propose to build a hotel, a restaurant and several retail buildings on the southeast corner of Ashford Dunwoody Road and Perimeter Center North. Their plan has stirred opposition from residents, including the Dunwoody Homeowners Association, because it calls for a new “curb cut” to allow a traffic connection onto Ashford Dunwoody, one of the city’s busiest streets.

Before the planning commission vote on April 23, the project’s developer and lawyers representing the developer filed papers with the city saying they had not contributed more than $250 to any council or planning commission member in the prior two years, according to city documents.

A member of the law firm later amended the statement to say contributions had been made to Planning Commissioner Bob Dallas during his unsuccessful campaign for mayor in 2011, city officials said. Dallas said he had accepted contributions from both the lawyer and the firm, and properly disclosed them on campaign finance reports.

Councilman John Heneghan, who cast the sole vote against returning the proposal to the planning commission, said he did not think the council’s action went far enough. Heneghan said the plan should be sent all the way back to the city’s Community Council, the first step in the zoning process, for reconsideration.

“The Community Council is part of the process, and I don’t believe they had all the information,” Heneghan said. “I don’t believe the process is being properly followed. I believe this issue is flawed.”

Both the Community Council and the Planning Commission approved the proposal.

Dallas said he has written city officials asking for guidance regarding the city’s ethics code. He said he hoped for a response before the Sterling Point development again is considered by the Planning Commission.

In his letter, Dallas said he had taken campaign contributions from the applicant’s legal representatives and that a fellow planning commissioner is an officer of the DHA.

“The questions raised here will likely be raised in future matters before the planning commission, and will likely be raised in matters before other Dunwoody boards and council,” Dallas said in the letter.

Dallas said he did not think the campaign contributions are a conflict, and that he should be able to vote on the rezoning. “I think the best legal analogy I can give to you is judicial campaigns,” he said. “Attorneys do give contributions to judges, and they represent clients before those judges.”

He said the city’s Ethics Board needs to consider the questions of what constitutes a conflict of interest and how members of city boards and commissions should respond in these circumstances.

Dallas wants to know what members of city boards should do if asked to consider an application from a political contributor or another person or group affiliated with that city board member.

“Dunwoody has a lot of very active people, thank goodness, who may run for office in the future,” he said. “I think it’s important for the board to make that pronouncement.”

Joe Earle

Joe Earle is Editor-at-Large. He has more than 30-years of experience with daily newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.