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Why less balance on the planning commission?

By Staff | Apr 27, 2012

The seven-member Sanibel Planning Commission is the city’s land use watchdog. Its primary functions are to advise the city council on land use issues and to act as the local planning agency and land development regulatory commission.

In addition to advising on new legislation and amendments to the Sanibel Plan, it acts in a quasi-judicial capacity, by holding hearings on applications for various permits and variances.

In effect then, we depend upon the planning commission to help preserve the uniqueness of our barrier island sanctuary, while accommodating the needs of its people in the way the land is used.

So how are the seven members of this very important commission selected? And what are the results of the selection process?

The answer to the first question is pretty straightforward. The answer to the second question raises troubling issues of fairness, balance, and the degree to which the commission is – or is not – representative of island residents and property owners as a whole.

Let’s take a closer look.

Under the Sanibel Charter, the city council appoints members of the planning commission. The only requirement for applicants is that they be residents of Sanibel. With the number of high achievers living on the island – some retirees, others still working – there is a large pool of talent for council members to choose from.

So why does it appear almost impossible for anyone not connected to the local business community to be appointed? Why not a process that provides for more balance?

The last four times a vacancy occurred on the commission (I’m not talking about reappointing current commissioners whose terms are about to expire), there have been multiple applicants, public-spirited citizens with good credentials and an interest in serving. Some had ties to local businesses, others did not. However, the appointments all went to people with local businesses or connections to local businesses. What’s even more troubling is that, in two of those cases, incumbents with unblemished records on the commission and no ties to local businesses had applied for reappointment and were instead replaced by newcomers from the business community.

I’m not suggesting that local business people should not be asked to serve; all Sanibel residents have a right to be considered. But the outcomes in recent years do raise questions about the fairness of the process and the representativeness of the commission. It seems to me a body as important as the planning commission should be representative of the island population as a whole, not just those with local business interests.

At the city council meeting on April 3, a replacement was considered for Paul Reynolds, who recently resigned from the commission. There were three well-qualified applicants, Karen Storjohann and Ralph Sloan, two citizens not involved with local businesses, and John Talmage, a local restaurant owner.

For some reason, public comment is no longer invited when council members consider planning commission appointments, despite the council’s long-established policy of taking public comment on all agenda items that are not “first readings.” There was nonetheless a discussion among the council members that highlighted the problem of the current selection process, initiated by comments from Vice Mayor Mick Denham.

The Vice Mayor, to his credit, expressed concern about the personality of the planning commission; he thought it was weighted toward the “business” side rather than the “environmental” side. I would have couched it a little differently and expressed it in terms of the “business” side and the “non-business” side. However, the Vice Mayor was right to be concerned.

During the discussion that followed, Mayor Kevin Ruane made the point that Mr. Denham himself had a distinguished career with a major corporation before retiring to Sanibel, yet was an outspoken advocate for the environment. While that may be true, the comment misses the point. Many of us had careers in business before coming to Sanibel. That is very different from owning or having close ties to a local business while serving on the planning commission. Having a business background, as opposed to a local business, may influence the way we view the world or the role of government, but it does not create actual conflicts or a conflict in values. Here is what I mean by the latter:

Each of us has a value structure, a hierarchy of things we value, be they environmental conservation, childhood education, helping the disadvantaged, or the well-being of the local business community. Most often those values are not in conflict, but they can be. There may be times when a commissioner would have to choose between what may best for the local environment and what may be best for business.

For example, there might be an ordinance proposed to reduce setbacks to allow for expansion of commercial space — good for business, perhaps bad for the environment. Which values will inform the commissioner’s decision? We just don’t know, but because of that potential conflict in values, we need to at least strive for a fair balance on the commission between the business and non-business sectors. We haven’t been doing that.

At the April 3 meeting, members of city council chose the businessman, John Talmage, to serve on the planning commission. He seems well-qualified and I wish him success. However, the process and the pattern of new appointments made by city council in recent years seems to be telling citizens with no local business ties not to bother. That is wrong and needs to be corrected. City council should by its actions encourage, rather than discourage, participation in local government by all qualified citizens.

Committee of the Islands invites your input and ideas on this important subject. Email your comments to coti@coti.org. You can read commentaries on other island issues on our website at coti.org and/or visit Committee of the Islands on Facebook.