Resignations in response to reorganization plan follow report of strained ties with council
The Forest Lake Planning Commission is going through a turbulent time. The advisory body of the city entered the week with three empty seats following the recent death of one member and resignation of two others.
The City Council was scheduled to interview and appoint new commissioners on Tuesday, and a newly constituted Planning Commission was to hold a special meeting the following night to act on a pressing land use matter.
Meanwhile, recent comments by the group’s chair and the rationales given for the pair of resignations point to an uneasy relationship between the commission and the council. A joint meeting of the two groups is in the works, at the request of Mike Freer, the council’s liaison to the commission.
The turnover began with the passing of Craig Andersen. The former architect died from lymphoma on Oct. 17 at the age of 73. His term runs through January 2015.
Commission members Bill Loushine and Margaret Vogel-Martin resigned three days apart last month following the unveiling of a city staff reorganization proposal that is set to affect the Community Development and Building Inspections departments, among others. The City Council approved the general tenets of the reorganization.
Both former commission members cited the proposal exclusively as their reason for resigning.
“I have always felt that if you were not part of the solution, then you are part of the problem,” Loushine wrote in his resignation letter. “My conscience will not allow me to be associated with these changes.”
Vogel-Martin echoed that sentiment.
“As a Planning Commission member, I was frustrated that I was powerless to affect this change,” she wrote. “I decided that I cannot work for an organization that I fundamentally disagree with.”
Loushine’s term runs through January 2016. Vogel-Martin’s is set to expire at the end of next month, but her replacement will hold the position through January 2017.
The council on Tuesday was to interview eight applicants: Ed Eigner, Kevin Gamelin, Destiny Holiday, Michael Kuehn, Gary Lee, Kevin Miller, William Weiss and Lee Zutz. Mayor Chris Johnson that night was to nominate applicants. A vote of the council majority is required for approval, but each vote must follow a nomination from the mayor.
Wednesday’s Planning Commission meeting was rescheduled from Nov. 13 due to a lack of quorum on the original date.
When Planning Commission Chair Richard Damchick went before the council Oct. 14 to provide an annual update, discussion quickly turned to feelings of confusion among commission members about the role of their group.
“Some of the comments from members of the commission have been there seems to be a butting of heads between the council and the Planning Commission,” Damchick said at the council meeting. “We will make a decision on something and send it to you guys, and you guys will do a 180 on it. Somewhere along the line, we’ve got to get together and work those kind of things out because we’re responsible for the health, safety and welfare of the community – as you are – and when we butt heads, one of us is wrong. That’s an important thing to figure out.”
Citing the Forest Lake City Center project, Damchick also said the council more and more had been bypassing the commission on land use and building design issues.
“It’s kind of a useless thing for us to come to a meeting and do something that’s already been approved,” he said.
At the time, Damchick and the council members expressed interest in Freer’s idea of a joint meeting to iron out philosophical differences and go over the protocol regarding how each group’s responsibilities mesh. That meeting is still in the works, City Administrator Aaron Parrish said this week. Parrish wants to wait for Community Development Director Doug Borglund to return from medical leave before holding the meeting. It will also be a convenient way for the new commission members to get to know the council members, Parrish added.
Parrish said that the City Center project is unique, especially in that the city and its Economic Development Authority, as lessee and owner, played the role of applicant. He felt the Planning Commission members had opportunities for input between a special planning workshop open to all city committees, the components that landed on their regular meeting agendas and several public input sessions.
Parrish said the commission’s work is valued and that the council adheres to its recommendations the vast majority of the time.
Damchick this week reiterated his comments from October and said he expects more commission members to resign.