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Tanner: Time to Fire Administrator Clarke

New commissioner eager for solutions to Benzie’s planning, zoning problems

December 4, 2008 | By Glenn Puit
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Benzie County Administrator Chuck Clarke has drawn criticism for his handling of personnel matters, particularly in the county’s planning and zoning departments.
BEULAH—A newly elected county commissioner is calling for Benzie County Administrator Chuck Clarke’s dismissal because of what he and others say is ongoing dysfunction in the county’s planning and zoning departments.

Don Tanner, who was elected to the Benzie County Board of Commissioners on Nov. 4, told the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service that the well-chronicled problems in planning and zoning, which include a long-running public dispute between its zoning administrator and planning director, indicate that Benzie County Administrator Chuck Clarke has failed to adequately address “a disaster” in the planning and zoning departments.

“I think we need a new county administrator,” Mr. Tanner said.

He added that the Benzie County Board of Commissioners contributed to the problem by micromanaging both departments. He predicts the newly elected board will closely scrutinize the departments and their staffing when they take office in January.

“I think you are going to see a complete culture change in the new board,” he predicted. “A complete shift of power. I ran for commissioner as a candidate who openly said, ‘You put me in office, and I’ll do what I can to get rid of Chuck.’ That’s what the townships were telling me (needed to be done.)”

The pronouncement from the first-term county commissioner comes as controversy continues to swirl around county planner Dave Neiger and county zoning director Craig Seger, their respective departments’ effectiveness, and how they and other officials have responded to criticisms and recommendations contained in a study of the county’s management, entitled Healing the Crisis of Confidence.

The report, issued in the spring of 2007 by two experts in planning, zoning, and municipal administration, called for quick but not necessarily drastic action by the county to resolve its management and communication problems.

That move came almost seven years after the county first published a master plan that drew heavily on citizen participation, but then failed to back it up with the ordinances needed to put it in effect. Mr. Neiger was heavily criticism for that failure, and it is one reason why administrator Clarke wants to remove him. But his recent move to eliminate Mr. Neiger’s position as a budget-cutting move exploded into an intense, months-long controversy.

Now Mr. Clarke, who hired Mr. Seger, finds himself in controversy’s crosshairs. He is moving to defend himself, as he did in a recent in-depth interview with the Institute’s news service. But Mr. Tanner remains unmoved.

“I don’t know if Chuck is going to survive, and I don’t know if Craig Seger is going to survive,” he said. “My preference is we look elsewhere.”

Review Time
Meanwhile, the board of commissioners has commenced a review of Mr. Clarke’s job performance. That review should be completed prior to the swearing in of the new Board of Commissioners in January.

Longtime County Commissioner Mary Pitcher, who was re-elected for the fifth time to her district seat, said the review of Mr. Clarke’s job performance will be thorough, and that she believes it would be a mistake to let him go.

“The board of commissioners is committed to completing an evaluation of the administrator before the end of this calendar year,” Commissioner Pitcher said. “I’m not aware with this current board of commissioners of anyone who wants him gone. I can’t predict what is going to happen with the new board. It has been almost two years since Chuck’s had a performance evaluation. So, we are behind, but we are making a commitment to do it every year, and I personally think it would be really irresponsible to just can the guy.”

Mark Roper, the county board chairman, did not respond to a specific request for comment on this story. Commissioner Roper was among the majority of commissioners who publicly welcomed the recommendations contained in a study of the county’s problems that the board commissioned almost two years ago.

It was plain to many observers long before that, however, that the county had a problem in its planning and zoning departments. Not only did officials fail to updated its zoning to match its award-winning master plan, they often made seemingly routine decisions that quickly morphed into stormy political controversies.

That history, combined with the results of the 2006 county election, which brought several new faces to the board of commissioners, prompted the board to hire two respected planners, Mark Wyckoff and Kurt Schindler, to help Benzie County officials figure out what they were doing wrong. Their study, Halting the Crisis in Confidence, concluded that the county was in jeopardy of losing the support and participation of its townships, including Homestead and Inland, whose officials expressed strong frustration with the planning and zoning services that the county was providing.

Among other suggestions, the report recommended that Benzie County commit to building the best rural planning and zoning program possible and dramatically improve intergovernmental cooperation with other local governments, stakeholders and citizens. The study also urged Benzie officials to establish and consistently apply new procedures for hiring, supervising and evaluating county employees. It also said that the county must evaluate its organizational options and staffing levels in the planning, zoning and building departments and make the appropriate changes.

How much progress county officials have made on these and other points is unclear, but it is clear that the county still has not selected a new department organizational option—which critics say is an important key to resolving the conflict between planner Neiger and zoning administrator Seger.

Problems Pile Up
Meanwhile, critics say, problems continue to pile up. Two breakaway townships, Inland and Homestead, now have their own, independent master plan and ordinance. Mr. Neiger and Mr. Seger have publicly displayed their mutual disdain, wearing down their departments’ credibility.

And, in early October, the Benzie County Planning Commission revolted against a proposal supported by administrator Clarke to drastically cut the planning department’s budget and lay off Mr. Neiger.

The planning commission’s revolt brought out Mr. Neiger’s supporters in full force. The respected chairman of the planning commission, Cliff Graves, resigned, and the planning commission voted “no confidence” in Mr. Seger. Mr. Tanner said he now believes that Mr. Neiger should remain as the county planner and that Mr. Seger’s position should be made part-time instead.

Former planning commission head Graves said the planning and zoning departments need a single, clear leader.

“The most effective planning and zoning operation would consist of a senior, seasoned leader and at least one other fulltime professional,” he said.

“There has been an absence of coaching, training and evaluating employees,” Mr. Graves added. “I think that has hurt the county. Rather than a discussion about being treated fairly and hidden agendas, the board of commissioners ought to really be concerned about employee recruitment, training and evaluation. The lack of that being done is obscuring the correct path.”

It also remains unclear what Mr. Neiger’s role will be if he does remain with the county.

Although Mr. Tanner has predicted Mr. Neiger will likely stay, he already has a track record in planning and zoning that attracted a lot of criticism. So, while the longtime planner does have strong supporters in Benzie, some observers believe putting him charge of both planning and zoning would be a bad idea.

Crunch Time?
Mr. Neiger has long maintained that any problem with his or his department’s work can be traced to inadequate funding and staff shortages. Mr. Clarke, however, does not see it that way.

“There is a perception out there that Neiger completes things and does things well,” Clarke told the Institute. “The reality is, that track record does not exist.”

Mr. Schindler, one of the authors of the Crisis report, said he could not speak to implementation of his study’s recommendations because he had no familiarity with recent events there. But he did reiterate that the solutions to Benzie County’s planning and zoning can be found in the report.

“We tried to make it real clear that following all of the recommendations of that report, in the order given, is what was necessary,” he said. “It wasn’t a café. It wasn’t a pick list.”

Meanwhile, the board’s review of Mr. Clarke is moving forward. Outgoing county commissioners Marcia Stobie said she is in the process of filling out her review of Clarke’s performance—something all commissioners must do. Like the others, it must be filed by December 9; Ms. Pitcher and Mr. Roper will compile the results.

While Ms. Stobie did not reveal the contents of her evaluation, she did say that mistakes have been made by the county regarding planning and zoning, and that Mr. Clarke has his strong points as a county administrator.

“I just felt that by cutting the planning budget, that was not a good step,” she said.

Click here to read an in-depth interview with Benzie County Administrator Chuck Clarke. For additional reporting on Benzie County’s planning, zoning, and administrative problems, visit the Benzie page of the Institute’s Web site, www.mlui.org.

Veteran journalist Glenn Puit is a county policy specialist for the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at glenn@mlui.org.

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