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Benzie OKs Eliminating Its Planner

Board vote heightens furor over competence, personality, and process

September 18, 2008 | By Glenn Puit
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Critics say eliminating Benzie County’s longtime planner will worsen strained relationships with officials from places like Inland Township, which is leaving county planning and zoning.

BEULAH—Benzie County Planning Director Dave Neiger is out of a job.

On Tuesday, the Benzie County Board of Commissioners voted to eliminate Mr. Neiger’s position from the county budget, saying the move was necessary to balance the county budget in the face of future revenue shortfalls.

County Commissioner Mary Pitcher, who voted for the decision, said the county could save money by hiring a consultant to handle its planning functions.

"I believe that we can get considerably more bang for the buck if we contract for services," Ms. Pitcher said.

But the dismissal of the county’s longtime planner has outraged his supporters and raised concerns about the future of county planning and zoning. Some observers predict that the move will eventually backfire against county leaders by further straining already troubled relationships between Benzie County and townships currently served by the county’s planning and zoning department. Last year, two townships, Inland and Homestead, pulled out of that service; the fear is that ousting such a well-known official will prompt more townships to jump ship.

"I think time will tell as to how it plays out, but these kinds of things undermine trust," said Kathy Ralston, the newly elected chairman of the county planning commission. "That’s part of the reason why some of the townships have already left county zoning."

Furthermore, the Neiger ouster has fueled a string of other controversies, including a possible backlash against County Administrator Chuck Clarke and a handful of county commissioners, who critics contend mishandled Mr. Neiger’s dismissal by using the budget cuts, instead of proper personnel management techniques, as a disingenuous way to get rid of the veteran planning director, instead of simply firing him.

Commissioner Pitcher readily acknowledged the problem and said the board of commissioners is taking steps to solve it.

"The county has not done well at completing annual performance evaluations," she said. "It is the commissioners’ job to complete performance evaluations of Chuck Clarke and it is Chuck Clarke's job to complete performance evaluations of department heads. I made the motion, and the county board of commissioners committed to completing a performance evaluation of Chuck Clarke by Dec 31, 2008. I regret and I apologize that this has not been occurring annually."

The controversy is also snagging the county’s zoning administrator, Craig Seger.

Mr. Seger—who the county hired to clean up problems in county planning and zoning often attributed to Mr. Neiger, and who has repeatedly clashed with the planner—has been accused by Benzie County Planning Commission members of actively pushing for his firing. That allegation prompted a no confidence vote in Mr. Seger last week by the planning commission, raising doubts about his ability to work with the planning commission in the future.

Planning commission member Katherine Ross said on Tuesday Neiger’s dismissal was botched by the county, and she places the responsibility on Mr. Seger and Mr. Clark.

"I think this process was extremely flawed," Ms. Ross said. "The budget is not the place to deal with personnel issues, nor is it the place to deal with personality issues. From the beginning of Craig Seger’s tenure here, we’ve had this extreme tension in that department. The tension begins at the top, with Chuck Clarke."

A Long History
Officials have long been aware of how dysfunctional its planning and zoning departments have been. Last year, a report commissioned by the county, entitled Halting the Crisis of Confidence, urged Benzie administrators to take strong steps to fix its planning and zoning departments and consider consolidating them under one director. Mr. Seger’s appointment also fueled speculation that Mr. Neiger was on his way out; since that hire, the two have repeatedly displayed a mutually hostile working relationship.

Mr. Neiger has faced intense criticism for the county’s failure to update its zoning ordinance to match Benzie’s award-winning master plan, completed in 2000. Efforts to complete the process by updating the zoning ordinance went nowhere until last fall, when, after Crisis was released, Mr. Seger began leading the newly formed Zoning Ordinance Rewrite Committee.

That committee is now almost done with its work.

Mr. Neiger, however, said Tuesday the blame for not updating the ordinance belongs to the county for never adequately funding the planning and zoning department when he was its sole administrator. Last year, the planner survived a similar round of proposed budget cuts that threatened his job, and the board of commissioners deadlocked on a proposal to place Mr. Neiger under newcomer Seger’s supervision.

When news surfaced two weeks ago that a budget committee had recommended eliminating the planning department budget and Mr. Neiger’s position, the controversy flared anew. Last Thursday night, the furor over the planner’s fate degenerated into a name-calling, finger-pointing debacle at a heated Benzie County Planning Commission meeting. That commission voted to recommend to the Benzie Board of Commissioners that Mr. Neiger’s budget be fully reinstated. That was same evening the commissioners issued a vote of no confidence for Mr. Seger.

The previous Monday, the same commission had voted no confidence in its then- chairman, Cliff Graves, who immediately resigned, and in County Commission Pitcher, its vice-chair, for not sharing information they had about eliminating Mr. Neiger’s position.

Those tensions carried over into Tuesday morning’s Benzie County Board of Commissioners meeting to approve the proposed budget: Some planning commission members accused the board of hijacking their authority by seeking to axe Mr. Neiger without first consulting them.

"I view it as is a continued assault on the integrity and independence of our county planning commission," said planning commission member Don Tanner. "The board and its administrator intend, it appears, to interject their control, philosophy, and influence over all aspects of county planning."

At Tuesday’s meeting, before the budget vote, Mr. Neiger made an impassioned plea to the board of commissioners for his job, telling them he was just starting to realize success in updating the county’s master plan. He said part of that process involved improving the county’s relationships with disaffected townships, and with his dismissal, that process would halt.

He added that he was dismayed at the way he’d been treated by the county.

"I also heard another rumor going around today that if I am hired back, I will be fired within two weeks," he said. "Who in the hell would want to come back to a county with that kind of reputation?

"I found out that people knew in the community that I was being laid off at least a week and a half before I did," he added. "And that’s the way things go around here. I just can’t fathom that kind of thing. With all the dirty tricks and stuff going on behind the scenes over the last few years, people have been saying, ‘I’m surprised that you are still here.’

"But I like the job, I like the people, and I want to stay here. I’m a trusted person."

But Mr. Neiger’s plea didn’t help. The board, by a 5 to 2 vote, eliminated the planning director’s position.

The commissioners also voted to remove Mr. Seger, an engineer with no formal planning background, from any future planning responsibilities, thus limiting his work to zoning matters. And they voted to carry out a performance review of the county administrator in the aftermath of Mr. Neiger’s dismissal.

County Commissioner Don Smeltzer defended the decision to eliminate the planning department budget.

"We talked about this," Mr. Smeltzer said. "We also put two building department inspectors on part-time positions. Maybe if the revenues shape up, we can go back and look at it again as far as the general fund is concerned. But with this budget, we’ve already had this debate. We worked hard on it and we got this budget to where it’s balanced."

Countywide Planning in Doubt?
It remains to be seen how much Mr. Neiger’s ouster will harm countywide planning and zoning, or when the storm surrounding the dismissal will fade.

Mr. Neiger, in his speech to county commissioners, predicted his dismissal would not go over well in the townships.

"People are going to pull out of zoning," he predicted. "People are going to pull away from county planning. So what happens? We have fractionalized planning and zoning in Benzie County, and that was never the intent."

Ironically, Mr. Neiger may still end up doing some work for the county: The newly approved budget calls for up to $15,000 for a planning consultant to cover Mr. Neiger’s former duties. Several planning commission members said Tuesday they will consider using that money to rehire Mr. Neiger, nullifying any attempt to get him out of county government.

Besides laying off Mr. Neiger, planning commission chair Ralston said, "the issue is the planning budget. They are taking the budget for planning from approximately $62,000 to $15,000; it is [designated by law] that the planning commission contracts with the planner. It would be up to us as to who we want to hire, and how we want to use that $15,000."

Mr. Seger, interviewed Tuesday afternoon after the budget vote, said he was saddened by the controversy. He said he’s been shocked by the planning commission’s backlash against him, but that, despite the rancor, he hopes to re-establish a good working relationship with the group over time.

"Through chaos comes order, and I’m looking for good things to come from this," Mr. Seger said. "It is a difficult time, but I see opportunities ahead for the county to build a positive, efficient, and strong planning program."

County Commissioner Pitcher defended Mr. Seger’s work for the county.

"I have witnessed Mr Seger's job performance," she said. "He is capable and productive. He has completed two zoning ordinance updates in a short amount of time and a third is almost completed. I believe that the planning commission's vote was based on personalities and not on abilities."

Ms. Pitcher said that she, too, hopes the wounds from this week's budget decisions will heal.

"My goal is that everyone work together to make Benzie County planning and zoning the best that it can be," she said. "We have too much at stake to not work together. We need help mending fences. We need to stop blaming and move forward."

Veteran reporter Glenn Puit is a Michigan Land Use Institute policy specialist. Reach him at glenn@mlui.org.

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