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Change aims for user-friendly government

March 5, 2014

In a week dedicated to reducing bureaucracy and presenting a simpler and less intimidating face to people with business ideas — and to the general public — the city took steps to strengthen the role of the Plan Commission, and took duties away from the Community Relations Committee.

The movement for change is the result of intensive discussions that began in July, motivated by the ongoing work of the Economic Development Advisory Committee, a citizen body that over a period of years has developed a set of recommendations to make the city more welcoming to development.

Reducing redundancy

The redundancy inherent in the work of the Plan Commission and the Community Development Committee is the point at which discussions began.

Both groups review development plans, both give members of the public a chance to weigh in and both recommend for or against final approval of the plans, sometimes coming to opposite conclusions.

The difference in the two panels is that the CDC is made up of members of the council, and five of the seven members of the Plan Commission have been, until recently, unelected appointees, together with just one council liaison — Kathleen Causier — and Mayor Kathy Ehley.

Because the membership of the two committees is different — with the exception of the Common Council member — the Plan Commission has often seemed to work in isolation.

Uneven powers

The weight of the discussion and the vehemence of public input at a Plan Commission meeting has been infrequently conveyed in full to the CDC, and the CDC often held a similar discussion and heard the same input all over again. Frequently, even, the two meetings were held on successive nights — a burden to developers and residents alike.

"It's frustrating for developers to do their dog-and-pony show two nights in a row," Alderman Bobby Pantuso said.

When decisions have been in conflict, the Community Development Committee has prevailed because it has the authority to make recommendations to the Common Council, while the Plan Commission does not.

The notion of simply removing the Community Development Committee development review has proved more complex than some may have thought.

Worried about oversight

Aldermen are wary of city endorsement of projects they haven't approved —they will, after all, receive the calls of complaint from upset Tosans and potentially lose votes at election time.

"Our citizens look to us to have, shall we say, the final say," Alderman James Moldenhauer said.

The fact that anything recommended by the Plan Commission would have to be approved by the Common Council helps, he said.

But it is true that most of the work, debate and modification on any issue is done before the matter hits the council, and the council usually does not vote down a proposal approved at the committee level.

Safeguards

The recommendation approved by the CDC last week — which still needs Common Council approval — tries to provide some safeguards.

Proposed by Alderman Dennis McBride, it will allow the Plan Commission to send recommendations of certain items directly to the council. These decisions — on conditional-use permits, scheduling of public hearings on zoning matters, and land combinations and divisions — represent almost two-thirds of items reviewed by the Plan Commission that will no longer be reviewed by the Community Development Committee.

But weightier matters, such as ordinance changes, development agreements, planned-unit developments, historic designations and items referred by the city attorney, would continue to come to the CDC.

Also, any matter brought to the council that the council feels needs more discussion can be referred to the Community Development Committee. In addition, any matter sent by the Plan Commission can be sent to the CDC without appearing before council if five council members submit written requests to that effect.

Plan Commission to change

The makeup of the Plan Commission also will change. The mayor and four residents who are not municipal officials, appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council, will serve, along with one alderperson appointed by the mayor, and one by the council.

Alderman Jason Wilke recently was appointed to the Plan Commission, to serve along with Causier.

While the measure was approved, the safeguards did not convince Moldenhauer and Alderwoman Cheryl Berdan, who voted against the proposal in committee.

"I believe that this does not streamline our activities," Berdan said. "It removes a chance for a public input in front of an elected body, and leaves it in front of a non-elected body."

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