Benzie’s Battle Over Dual Directors Reaches a Crossroad
Budget committee’s push to eliminate planning director stirs intense controversy
September 11, 2008 | By Glenn Puit
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service
|Benzie County provides planning and zoning services for many of its townships, but a budget cut would replace the county’s planning director with a part-time consultant.|
Veteran Benzie County Planning Director Dave Neiger is on the verge of losing his job.
A long-running dispute over the effectiveness of the county’s planning and zoning department and whether Mr. Neiger should keep his job there came to a head this week after a county budget committee moved to eliminate his position to help balance the county’s finances.
Fallout from the proposal has been intense and has already played a role in the abrupt resignation of the Benzie County Planning Commission’s volunteer chairman.
Word that Mr. Neiger may soon be unemployed surfaced last week during budget committee meetings about Benzie County’s 2009 finances. The committee, faced with a significant cut in state funding, voted to eliminate the planning director’s position, place the zoning administrator in charge of the planning and zoning department, and hire a part-time planning consultant.
The decision has ignited a major controversy. Many observers criticized the move as a backdoor attempt to fire Mr. Neiger, who in recent years has attracted both strong praise and criticism for his work as planning director. Last year, he narrowly survived a motion by the county board of commissioners to cut his department’s budget and place him under the supervision of Benzie’s newly hired a new zoning administrator, Craig Seger.
County Administrator Chuck Clarke, who played a major role in the controversial hiring of Mr. Seger, said that the decision to eliminate Mr. Neiger’s position was a financial one. Due to cuts in state revenue sharing, Mr. Clarke said, the county is facing a $100 thousand budget shortfall next year.
He added that, in addition to cutting the planning budget, the county would also eliminate an assistant prosecutor position and reduce a fulltime staffer to halftime.
Most planning commissioners reacted angrily to the decision to eliminate the planning department director. The commission held an emergency meeting on Monday night to discuss the matter, voted to recommend restoring Mr. Neiger’s position and, in a highly unusual move, also approved a "no confidence" motion against their chairman, Cliff Graves, for apparently supporting the budget committee’s elimination decision without first talking to the rest of the planning commission.
Another Crisis of Confidence?
Planning commission member Karen Roberts said Tuesday that her colleagues opposed eliminating Mr. Neiger’s position because they believe he has made progress in restoring badly damaged relationships with the county’s townships, many of which use the county’s planning and zoning department.
"This is a mistake," she said. "A key element to the planning department is relationships with other units of government, and Dave is good at that."
The renewed controversy about Mr. Neiger’s employment comes more than a year after a report commissioned by the county, entitled Halting the Crisis of Confidence, called on Benzie administrators to quickly repair what it said was a deeply flawed county planning and zoning department. Among many other recommendations, the report urged the county to consider consolidating its planning, zoning, and building departments under one director.
Since then, although both Mr. Neiger and Mr. Seger have been working hard to improve relations around the county, they have both openly displayed a hostile working relationship with each other.
The previous attempt to remove Mr. Neiger partially stemmed from the Crisis report’s suggestion of departmental consolidation, as well as from the criticism he’s received in recent years for his job performance.
Some people blame Mr. Neiger for the county’s failure to update its zoning ordinance to match Benzie’s award-winning master plan. The plan, widely viewed as a model of community participation and smart growth, was approved eight years ago. But efforts to implement the plan with a revised zoning ordinance went nowhere until last fall, when, after Crisis was released, Mr. Seger began leading the newly formed Zoning Ordinance Review Committee. That committee is now nearing completion of its work.
When asked if the failure to update the old zoning ordinance to match the "new" master plan played any role in the proposal to eliminate Mr. Neiger’s position, County Administrator Clarke said he thought so.
"I think it was in the back of their minds," he said of the budget committee, "that we are not getting the best bang for our buck."
Two Sides to a Public Spat
Mr. Neiger and Mr. Seger have clashed repeatedly in public, and it is well known that the dual department heads do not work well together in private, either.
On Tuesday, Mr. Neiger claimed that Mr. Seger is behind his proposed ouster.
"Its been orchestrated by Mr. Seger and that was admitted to a planning commissioner," Mr. Neiger said. "I don’t know what the justification is. He is their golden-haired boy, but it’s proven he’s got unscrupulous ways of getting things done. He’s using unscrupulous methods, and people don’t trust him.
"I’m a trusted person by the townships," he continued, "so I was humbled by the fact I was getting those statements of support [from the planning commission]."
Mr. Seger sees it differently. He said on Tuesday that he supported the elimination of Mr. Neiger’s budget line because he believes he and his zoning staff can cover planning services with the help of a consultant, and save money by doing so. He said small counties like Benzie rarely have both a fulltime planner and fulltime zoning administrator.
Mr. Seger added that the Benzie County Planning and Zoning Department was "a mess" when he was hired, and that he has simply highlighted the fact that the department, in the past, was not served well under Mr. Neiger’s direction.
"The board of commissioners made a good decision in moving these issues forward because of the problems in the past," he said. "The zoning ordinance [which Mr. Neiger oversaw before Mr. Seger’s arrival] was described by our own attorney as a disaster."
Meanwhile, planning commission member Roberts said the majority of her colleagues voted "no confidence" in Mr. Graves because they were upset that, according to minutes from the budget committee meeting, Mr. Clarke said that Mr. Graves supported eliminating Mr. Neiger’s job.
Ms. Roberts said she backed Mr. Graves because she thinks he’s been a good leader, but that most planning commissioners felt they should have been consulted about the proposed elimination of the department head.
Mr. Graves said Tuesday that he did not act precipitously in regard to the initial decision to eliminate Mr. Neiger’s position, but that he also had no hard feelings about the no confidence vote which prompted him to resign.
"I certainly agree that it makes sense to check the feasibility of any course of action before budgeting," he said. "I literally had informal hallway discussions about ‘what if’ and ‘what would you do if this were the case.’ My answer was, ‘I wouldn’t rule it out. Let’s wait and see what happens and we’ll address it.’"
"I am totally free of rancor," Mr. Graves added. "I feel fine. I paid my respects to all my fellow planning commissioners and staff, and at least from my point of view, it was all on good terms. In my parting email, I said we’ve been through a lot together, and that all of them are hard working and dedicated."
The county board of commissioners will vote next Tuesday morning on whether to formally adopt the budget cuts, which in turn will determine Mr. Neiger’s fate.
Glenn Puit is a policy specialist for the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
UPDATE: SEPTEMBER 12, 2008
The intense fireworks surrounding the county planning and zoning department continued at the Benzie County Planning Commissions on Thursday evening, Sept. 11.
The planning commission elected Kathy Ralston as its new chairman, replacing Cliff Graves. Katherine Ross was elected as vice-chairman, and Karen Roberts as secretary.
Then planning commissioner Don Tanner initiated several motions.
First, he moved to recommend to the county board of commissioners that it remove commissioner Mary Pitcher from the planning commission. The harshly worded motion passed 6-0.
Mr. Tanner then moved for a “no confidence” vote concerning zoning administrator Craig Seger’s performance. Asked to respond before the vote, Mr. Seger challenged the planning commissioners to state their specific concerns. Mr. Tanner and others accused him of negative attacks and unprofessional behavior toward Dave Neiger, although several members said that they were satisfied with his performance of his zoning duties. The motion passed 5-1; Karen Roberts voted no.
Mr. Tanner then made a motion recommending that the county board zero out the entire budget for Mr. Seger’s zoning and zoning enforcement. It failed 5-1.
Clearly, the planning commission is upset that, in its view, former fellow commissioners Pitcher and Graves conspired with the budget committee and county administrator Chuck Clark to parlay a genuine budget shortfall into a backdoor elimination of planning director Dave Neiger.
One planning commissioner observed that the administration has tried to fire Mr. Neiger for nearly three years; several noted that Mr. Seger has been quite public in his opinion that the planning director should go. Apparently, the planning commissioners rallied around Mr. Neiger because they see him as a nice guy who has good relationships with township officials and the community and because they see the process used to unseat him as unscrupulous.
The entire board of commissioners will act next Tuesday on the budget proposal, which still would eliminate Mr. Neiger’s position. However, at its last meeting, the county board approved a motion recommending that it look at the entire planning and zoning budget to find a way to keep the planning functions intact. That could still happen at next Tuesday’s meeting.—Jim Lively