Planning commissioners resign before terms expire

Last week, two Ashland Planning Commissioners submitted resignations before their terms expired.

Olena Black, a commissioner since 2004, tendered her immediate resignation two months before her term ended. John Fields, who's held a seat on the commission for nearly 10 years, also submitted his resignation but will stay on until April 30. Fields' term is scheduled to end in 2010.

Commission Chair John Stromberg said Fields and Black contributed much to the group and that their absences will be felt.

Mayor John Morrison said, "Certainly both have served a significant time with the commission, especially in John Fields' case. There will be a loss of institutional memory, and he brought a lot of energy in trying to reform and review land use laws."

Morrison said the city had contradictory ordinances that were confusing and Fields had a good eye for sorting out those types of issues.

Looking ahead

Both commissioners had very different reasons for stepping down.

Black said she resigned because she's still recovering from both of her parents' deaths last year.

"I'm not able to focus on planning right now. I just don't have the stamina," she said.

Black also said she was frustrated about a few issues that never got addressed, such as not having standards for public buildings.

"As an example, the Bellview Elementary school packet came to the commission telling us the standards that we should apply," she said. "We must compare the merits of the application to the ordinances. The problem is we don't have any standards for a public building. The planning staff had to follow the underlying zone, which is residential. This isn't a residence, it's a school. And this should have been addressed way back when we had the bond issue."

Black also pointed out that Ashland has 14 buried, underground creeks and the city does not have a wetland and riparian ordinance addressing that issue &

something that comes up often during planning commission meetings.

"The current ordinances are tying up the planning commissioners' hands and are out of date," she said. "Trying to do long range planning issues one issue at a time is not effective.

"First we look at the downtown, then we look at Croman, then we look at this, and then we look at that because no one is willing to tackle the big picture of what citizens want Ashland to look like 30 years from now."

Despite her concerns, Black said that's not why she stepped down.

"These are important issues," said Black. "But they're not the reasons I left."

Stromberg said, "Olena comes from a longtime pioneer family in this community. She understood how things worked and brought a unique view to the commission."

He said Black had a global view of planning decisions and understood the future ramifications.

"The rest of us couldn't see that," said Stromberg. "Planning is all about looking to the future; but we've been looking at it from an 'approve construction applications' point of view."

Stromberg agreed that visioning needs to be integrated with land use planning, comprehensive plan revision, economic development planning and transportation.

"They all affect each other," he said. "We need a sense of what is the direction this city wants to take and then follow up with a concrete vision."

Legal concerns

Fields stated in his resignation letter, "I am freeing up my schedule for other interests that are calling for my attention." The letter also stated, "The last five years have been trying" and "the work is unrelenting and sometimes our course of action has been less than clear."

Morrison said, "I get a sense that he was tired. It is a difficult job and planning in this city can be a very difficult process. The area is very political and there are many differing views that all come together at the planning process. It can be difficult to deal with."

Stromberg said, "I think we're just lucky we got him to serve as long as he did. It's very unusual for someone to serve a third term."

Fields said the city council put all the pressure on the planning commission.

"We kept thinking we were helping with new ordinances; but if you keep plugging the dyke with new ordinances, it's difficult to make decisions," he said. "Today our ordinances are so convoluted and complex, I don't think anything we do is legal anymore."

Stromberg said, "I think what he's saying is that our system of planning rules and regulations is extremely complex. And if you really apply it in an scrupulously fair way, it's really hard to deal with &

it's hard on the applicants, the staff and the commission."

Hearings officer

Fields said because of the complexity of land-use and planning ordinances, he supports the idea of a hearings officer for the planning commission.

"The commission needs good legal advice," he said. "The city attorney is now sitting in on our meetings. We didn't need that before."

Morrison said he thinks the idea of a hearings officer should be looked at.

"Whether we adopt one or not is up to the council. But I think it has real advantages," he said.

Fields said that he stayed on the commission until the city got through its "time of instability," referring to the high turnover rate among the city's upper level positions, including the planning department.

Planning leadership

Fields, who owns a construction company, started with the commission when John McLaughlin was the community development director. McLaughlin left the city in 2005 under "a cloud of insinuations," he said.

David Stalheim, who assumed McLaughlin's vacated position after a protracted search by the city, resigned from the community development director position in 2007. He had served eight months on the job. Stalheim's only comment regarding his speedy departure was that he missed his home state of Washington. But there was heavy speculation that a city councilor's request for Stalheim's scheduled meetings, phone calls, e-mails, names of individuals with whom he met or planned to meet and any notes he may have taken, might have been one of the main underlying factors.

"David Stalheim saw the writing on the wall and realized he should exercise his option before it was too late," said Fields.

Bill Molnar, a longtime city planner, accepted the position last year and Fields said, "Bill Molnar is going to be around to provide that institutional memory. He can hold the fort and the community development department together."

What's next?

Morrison said he and city councilors are already advertising the two open planning commission positions.

"We're out there talking to the community," he said.

Morrison said the top goal of the land use system is public involvement, and that the state determines the parameters.

"But with that in mind, I want someone with some degree of land use understanding who is devoted to this community and has a high degree of intelligence. I want someone who understands the mission, which is to review things, but follow criteria. And I'm also looking for a balance of perspectives on that board," he said.

Two other commission appointments end on April 30. Michael Dawkins and Melanie Mindlin both said they have no plans to step down. Dawkins said he hopes the mayor will reappoint him.

Morrison said his position is not to just re-appoint commissioners simply because they are already there.

"They don't get an automatic re-appointment," he said. "I look at them and the other candidates and base my decision on their merits. They have been there a while and that does have to be considered. But in the end, I base the appointments on a candidate's merits."

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