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Lines of Communication Opening

Committee formed to increase communication between Town Council and Planning Commission.

In an effort to increase communication between the Town Council and Planning Commission, a permanent Joint Communications Committee has been established at the request of Mayor Michael O'Reilly.

Although the group was formally created last year, with Vice Mayor Darryl Smith as chair, the committee is still formulating its mission.

"We, the Planning Commission, would like to see some guidance," said commissioner Bill Tirrell. "We need to make sure there are not two separate bodies where we turn left and they turn right."

Tirrell, a former Town Council member, said because of the lack in consistent communication, there are times when the commissioners would like to know council's views before making a decision.

"If they see something in the initial presentation, something that raises questions," he said, "I hope they would come to the Planning Commission and talk about it."

But, he added, although the commission would like to hear council's opinions, there is the problem of stepping on toes.

"The sense is not to dictate, but rather to tell us how they see it," he explained. "Unfortunately we may overlook stuff sometimes, and I hate when we do that."

For council member Dennis Husch, the boundaries of communication are straightforward.

"I would not be so presumptuous to attempt to tell a professional planning commissioner how to do something," he said. "Town Council historically has not, as a body, done a very good job of communicating policy conditions back to the Planning Commission."

THE DISCONNECT between the bodies was formally identified two years ago. O'Reilly — former planning commissioner of five years — said after becoming mayor he requested a permanent committee.

"We wanted to know how to better serve the public and how to be certain we knew what the Planning Commission was doing," said O'Reilly. "And, that they knew what we were thinking."

A recent example of the disconnect between bodies was a subdivision application for the construction of a 16-lot development that proposed new storm water management practices, or rain gardens.

The development — Elkins Heights — came before the commission in August, but was not approved by council until February, after three continuations, because engineering questions were left unanswered.

In a letter to Smith and the committee, O'Reilly addressed issues he felt "could or should have been discussed at the Planning Commission level."

Commissioners and council members said the memorandum is a good example of how the committee should work.

Husch said by drafting a letter to Smith, committee members will be able to discuss the problem and hopefully create a proactive approach to remedying future, similar situations.

"I was very pleased to see the memo," he said, adding the point was not to take the commissioners to the "woodshed" but look at all levels of the governing process.

Carl Sivertsen, Planning Commission chairman, said along with improving inner communications, there is talk the committee could meet with developers before submitting an application.

"The Joint Communications Committee is something both the council and commission had on their lists of 'to do's'," he said. "I think it will make the business for citizens and applicants a bit more enjoyable."

The committee — comprised of council members Smith and Steven Mitchell and commissioners Jay Donahue and Paul LeReche — has only met three times, and is still determining at what capacity it will operate.

"With the Planning Commission and Town Council working together with the applicant," said O'Reilly, "it may be easier for the applicant to learn about the process, instead of experiencing surprises along the way."

In addition, he and Smith said there is hope the increased communication will "put some teeth" back into the Planning Commission.

"I am at the point where I do not want to do anymore negotiating with developers," said Husch. "That message needs to go out to developers — there are no more negotiations going on with developments at the council level."

Husch said by refusing to negotiate, developers will be required to address planning concerns with commissioners and political concerns with council members.

"That puts a lot of power at the Planning Commission level," he said. "The heart of it is that we need to let the professionals do what they need to do."

Commissioner Jay Donahue, agreed independent decisions need to be made.

"The Town Council is not going to always agree with us," he said, "and they are certainly not bound to go with us."

Because of this, Donahue said if the Joint Communications Committee can maintain its mission, there is the potential for less confusion over agendas.

"We're going to look into a way to summarize findings and get them to the council before voting on an application," said commissioner LeReche.

Council member Carol Bruce said this is not the first time an attempt has been made at increasing communication.

In the past a council member sat on the commission to relay information back to the council and discuss the council's concerns.

"Everybody's busy and everybody's trying to do too much," she said. "There is a disconnect in communication, that's why it's beneficial to have a committee."

Because the council is a political body and approves applications based on the best interest of constituents, whereas the commission has the best use of land in mind based on the town's comprehensive plan, members agree participation needs to be independent.

"As commissioners there is a delicate balance between being visionary and a-political," said Sivertsen. "We have to look at everything without politics."

As the committee continues to evolve, members said they want to guarantee the reason for its formation is not lost.

"It's very important," said Donahue, "that the Joint Communications Committee, I believe, maintain and stick with the purpose in which it was created."

The next Joint Communications Committee is scheduled for April 5 at 6:30 p.m. in Council Chambers.