City planning, parking boards have struggled with quorum issues, delaying some projects

Most major proposals that come before the City Commission first go through advisory boards comprised of Great Falls residents.

The boards are filled by those who apply and are appointed by the City Commission, on the recommendation of whichever body they’ve applied to.

Often it’s a challenge to get enough applicants to fill vacancies on those advisory boards and lately it’s been tough to get a quorum so that some of the most important boards can conduct business.

So far this year, seven meetings of the Planning Advisory Board/Zoning Commission have been canceled due to lack of quorum. After those cancelled meetings, the board had a 3.5 hour meeting in June to conduct five public hearings on projects that had been delayed due to the lack of quorum.

At the same June meeting, Craig Raymond, city planning director, presented a memo to the planning board on discussion points to find a way to address the attendance problem.

The lack of meetings “has had a significant effect on the flow of project review and approval on the front end of some major projects,” Raymond wrote.

He continued that the memo was not intended to provide answers to an ongoing issue, “nor is it intended to put undue pressure on a group of volunteers to respond in a way that would endanger or compromise their primary individual duties.”

During their board discussion on June 27, some members indicated the quorum issues were an anomaly this year as one member died earlier this year and another member resigned in January.

City Commissioners recently appointed new members, Charles Pankratz and Dave Bertelsen,to fill two vacancies on the 9-member board, but another vacancy remains and the terms of two other members expire in December.

Most members of the planning board work in construction, engineering, architecture, or other aspects of the development industry. They are appointed for three year terms and several members indicated during their discussion that this was the first year they’d struggled with attendance.

The planning board was created in lieu of the Great Falls City-County Planning Board and has jurisdiction within the city limits to make recommendations to the City Commission on issues generally involving growth policies, subdivision applications and plats, annexation applications, zoning and rezoning petitions, conditional use permits, long-range and transportation planning, Community Transportation Enhancement Program administration, historic preservation and more. City employees and elected officials are not eligible for appointment to the planning board.

During their June 27 meeting, the board discussed issues affecting quorum and how to fix the problem. One board member, Sophia Sparklin asked if the board could get more information about projects before their meetings. Raymond said they could work on that but staff wanted to be careful not to create situations where discussion on projects was happening outside the public meeting, as that would be a violation of Montana open meeting laws. Raymond and Sara Sexe, city attorney, said it would completely appropriate for board members to individually get in touch with staff if they had questions or were curious about specific projects.

Sexe and Raymond said they understood the formality of the process could feel awkward, but they have to be sure to follow the law for open meetings and the development process. Raymond said that’s why staff added a question and answer section to the planning board meetings for each project to allow for better discussion.

“You guys need to have your voice,” Raymond said. “That’s why we’re here.” 

Michael Wedekind, of Windsor Plywood and a board member, said they wanted to know more about what’s going on. Raymond said staff prefers to run everything through the planning board first, but when they can’t get a quorum, some things have to get done and staff has to move forward.

One discussion point was reducing the frequency of planning board meetings from twice a month to once a month.

Pete Fontana, board member, said that the group needs to meet to help people proposing projects to spend money and develop the town.

“If you can’t commit to the two times a month then don’t apply,” Fontana said.

He added that board members could do a better job recruiting new applicants so that there’s a wider applicant pool and less lag time in filling vacancies.

Another discussion point was whether to change the size of the board as some in other Montana cities have only seven members while others have as many as 12.

Nate Weisenburger, the board chair, said they should stick with the 9-member board as it helps to manage ebb and flow of membership and attendance.

Weisenburger also mentioned that in addition to Raymond’s memo, he got calls from the city manager and a city commissioner about the quorum issue. He told fellow board members that it wasn’t something the city was taking lightly and had been noticed at the top levels.

The city is currently seeking applications for one vacancy on the planning board.

Another board facing quorum and membership issues is the Parking Advisory Commission. They’ve cancelled three meetings this year due to a lack of quorum and the city is currently seeking applicants for three vacancies on the PAC.

Two new members were recently appointed by the City Commission to replace a member who had moved out of state and one termed out.

Another three members of the 5-person board also have expired terms and two have not expressed interest in remaining on the board. One, Dave Campbell, termed out last year but has offered to stay on the board until the positions can be filled.

The PAC was established in 1974 and advises the city on issues related to downtown parking.

It’s been a tough to recruit applicants for the parking board and recently it’s been tough to get a quorum.

“No matter what you do, somebody won’t be happy,” Raymond said of downtown parking decisions. That can make it a hard sell for potential applicants, he said.

A recommendation to reinstall meters along 2nd Avenue South near the Rescue Mission is coming to the City Commission soon, Raymond said. Earlier this year, Officer Adam Hunt requested that meters be reinstalled since the lack of enforcement was creating a dumping ground for abandoned cars and people sleeping in their vehicles in the area.

City staff working to address continued parking woes

While the PAC has failed to meet, city staff has moved forward with several parking related projects.

One of those is a contract for a study of the program, not to exceed $20,000, to develop a strategic framework for the parking program. Another is which a recently approved professional services agreement not to exceed $58,000 with McKinstry Essention, LLC to perform an investment grade energy audit and develop a comprehensive energy services proposal for the parking garages.

City staff is also looking at options for adding security gates and pay stations as well as a new surveillance system.

There have been security concerns at the city’s two parking garages and the north garage was recently vandalized, a crime that’s being investigated by the Great Falls Police Department.

But improvements to garage security and other upgrades are pricey and the parking program funds itself with no general fund support.

A ballpark estimate for new equipment in the garages is $250,000  and surveillance equipment is another estimated $50,000.

Raymond said he believes the planning board will get the attendance issue under control soon, but if the parking board can’t maintain regular quorums, the isuse might rise to the City Commission in terms of changing the makeup of the board or dissolving the PAC.