City considering change to planning board membership

The city’s planning board/zoning commission voted this week to recommend that the City Commission reduce the board’s membership from nine to seven.

During their Dec. 17 meeting, commissioners will consider that recommendation and are scheduled to vote on whether to adopt the change.

The board, which is a required step for many major development projects, has struggled with making a quorum over the years.

The board had nine members for years, dating back to when it was a joint city-county board that had nine members and when the governments split and each had their own planning board, the city’s board stuck with the nine member number.

With nine members, the board needs at least five present to constitute a quorum and conduct business.

In 2017, the board had significant attendance issues, delayed multiple projects and frustrating staff and commissioners.

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

The board at the time discussed the possibility of reducing the membership number to make it easier to reach a quorum.

In October, commissioners adopted a code change that allowed the planning board to range from seven to nine members, giving the city some flexibility.

With a seven member board, four constitutes a quorum.

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One of the board’s members, Patrick VanWorth, recently resigned, and another member, Tony Houtz, is terming out.

That naturally brings the board to seven members, which staff and members of the board said would be a good time to reduce the membership number.

State law requires that the planning board have at least seven members.

“By lowering the number of board members to seven, staff is confident issues with establishing a quorum will be resolved and no new appointees to vacant membership positions will need to be filled at this time,” according to the staff report.

If adopted, the change will become effective Jan. 1.

During the Dec. 10 planning board meeting, the meeting started late due to a lack of quorum. There were two matters on the meeting agenda, changing the membership number of the board and the reappointment of two current members.

“If we can consistently get a quorum on this board, projects can go through and we can get some development done,” Assistant City Attorney Joe Cik said during the Dec. 10 meeting.

The board didn’t discuss the matter much during their Dec. 10 meeting since they had a lengthy discussion about it during their Nov. 12 meeting.

Pete Fontana, the board chair, said during that meeting that they’d had trouble getting a quorum during their previous meeting when a city commissioner was in attendance and it was “a little bit embarrassing.”

Fontana said it was pretty clear that there were typically four to five people at every meeting so the lower membership number would make a quorum more consistent.

He said he recognized that most of the members worked in the business community and have to deal with work demands, but it was troubling when they couldn’t make a quorum, which is “not fair” to the applicants.

The city adopted an attendance policy in recent years that allows for removal of city board members that miss a third or more of meetings. There have been a number of board members with poor attendance, but typically the matter is addressed through discussions and resignations versus formal removal of a member.

Mike Wedekind, a board member, said he didn’t want to react to a few problems over a few years versus a consistent issue. Other members and staff said it had been a consistent issue for years.

He said if they reduced the membership number they might miss the opportunity of getting two new members with new perspective and better attendance.

“If we eliminate them without even knowing…it just starts to worry me,” Wedekind said.

Other members said that many of the matters before the board were routine and additional members wouldn’t necessarily improve the quality of discussion.

Fontana said he’s been a fan of seven members for years and believed they should try it.

The board can always go back to nine if needed.

“We have a real unique opportunity,” because of the two vacancies,” Fontana said. “I think that it’s worth a try.”