Maybe they are just floating trial balloons to see how high they go before popping, but county commissioners would be well advised to think a little longer on a couple of proposals being considered for the county’s planning director position.
In a work session last week, commissioners discussed three issues involving a job description for the currently vacant position of planning director — adding responsibilities for economic development to the job; having hiring and firing authority rest solely at the commission level rather than with the county manager; and removing the position from civil service protection.
We see potential for problems with two of those concepts.
Combining the positions of planning and economic development seems a move toward a job description guaranteed to be schizophrenic.
The goal of a professional planning department is to make objective, legally valid decisions that balance private property rights against the overall good of the county. If the person in charge of the planning department is also charged with spurring economic growth, which in reality means commercial development, how objective can the department be?
In a different context, commissioners discussed how contentious the position of planning director can be. Some of the most contentious issues that have ever been brought before the planning department have pitted residential areas against commercial growth. Having the scales tipped to one side by the job description is sure to make the position more of a lightning rod than ever, not less.
Through its financial support of the chamber of commerce, the county already has access to economic development expertise. Now is not the time to duplicate that effort among county staff, and especially not in such a way as to destroy the objective credibility of the planning department.
Also under consideration is where the authority to hire and fire for the position will rest. Currently, county commissioners have that authority; giving it to the county manager has been proposed, but some commissioners are reluctant to do so.
It is wrong to establish the planning department head as somehow different from those who lead other county departments.
If the county manager can hire and fire the head of the finance department, or road department, or water department, then he should have the same authority with the head of the planning department.
To do otherwise weakens the county manager, and guarantees the polticizing of the planning department job by making it directly responsible to a majority of the elected officials on the board rather than the professional administrator in the county manager’s office.
As to the civil service board, we see nothing wrong with removing all department-head level employees from the protection of civil service.