Planning director complains about oversight committee

Jun. 08, 2014 @ 05:12 PM

City/County Planning Director Steve Medlin says a joint committee of City Council members and County Commissioners that watches over his department has overstepped its authority and harmed his staff’s productivity.
The panel, the Joint City/County Planning Committee, is essentially usurping the supervisory role of Durham’s city and county managers, Medlin said during a recent City Council budget review.
“Over the years, the line has been blurred as to what the function and role of that body is,” Medlin said in answer to a question from Councilwoman Cora Cole-McFadden, the current chair of the joint panel. “It’s a very odd, odd arrangement in some ways.”
He added that he’s in the midst of rewriting the soon-to-expire pact between the city and county that governs Planning Department operations, and among other things would like to add to it “clarity as to what the role of” the committee should be.
Medlin’s view received support from the council members who sit on the joint panel.
Cole-McFadden encouraged Medlin to speak up. “Don’t feel you might get reprimanded,” she told him.
“We know we’ve been a challenge sometimes,” Councilwoman Diane Catotti said. “I would suggest, Mr. Medlin, you have a candid conversation with your two bosses and see if you guys can make recommendations on how to rein JCCPC in, to streamline that process to benefit the department and your function.”
“What we’re talking about now is critically important to address,” added Councilman Steve Schewel. “I worry about the whole two-bosses thing in general. I know that can’t be easy. And to insert the [JCCPC] in there as a third and extremely confused boss seems even more problematic.”
Schewel added that the Planning Department’s fiscal 2014-15 budget request – drafted by Medlin and endorsed by City Manager Tom Bonfield – had candidly laid before elected officials the problems they’ve been causing.
Those include the habits of assigning new work to the department knowing it doesn’t have the staff to perform, and of changing directions with little notice.
And they include the retaliatory budget cut Planning nearly took last year because County Commissioners were unhappy with the withdrawal of city funding for an otherwise-unrelated, joint law-enforcement program.
The threat raised the prospect of layoffs in Planning. And it “resulted in lower department morale,” Medlin and Bonfield said in the city’s draft budget.
Neither Medlin nor the draft elaborated on the new-work and changing-priorities issue, but it likely alludes in significant part to the ongoing debate about the regulation of cellphone towers.
Facing complaints about a south Durham tower application, JCCPC members asked the department to draft an ordinance change to subject so-called “monopine” antennas – towers dressed up to look like trees – to review by Durham’s Board of Adjustment.
But when the draft was ready, neighbors of the south Durham project joined with a key political group, the Inter-Neighborhood Council, to ask for a wholesale rewrite of Durham’s tower rules, which have been in place since 2004.
JCCPC members, without actually endorsing the new request, eventually signaled that they wanted Medlin to work on it. He warned it would be a long project that could crowd out other thing elected officials have said they want, but included it in Planning’s 2014-15 work program.
The JCCPC in practice orchestrates the Planning Department’s work on land-use law rewrites. But at least from the city’s end, Medlin was on solid legal ground in complaining that the two governments’ chief executives should be doing that.
State law bars city elected officials from giving orders directly to any administrator but the city manager.
Medlin also noted the panel has stretched boundaries in other ways, for example holding endorsement votes on who the City Council and the County Commissioners should appoint to the Durham Planning Commission.
“That’s actually a really good example of how [the JCCPC] has inadvertently made processes a little more complex,” he said. “There really is no legal basis for [it] to make recommendations on board and commission appointments.”
County commissioners at times have made a point of disregarding the joint panel’s advice on appointments – most notably in 2012 when they elected a Durham County Sheriff’s Office captain, Rickey Padgett, to the planning board instead of the candidate a JCCPC majority favored.