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Sitka’s Planning Department handles zoning issues and the laws that determine who can build what, where, along with long-range planning and economic development. Sitka’s Building Department deals with making sure new construction in the city is done up to code, and is safe.
City administrator Jim Dinley doesn’t need Assembly approval to merge the two departments, but he DOES need it to appoint a department head. And so the question of whether to combine Sitka’s Planning Department and its Building Department went before the Assembly on Tuesday night.
“This proposal of a community development department, as proposed by the administrator, is something I do not agree with, it is something I’m against, and I would recommend you also be against it,” said Mike Reif, who has been a contractor for the last 25 years.
He says his professional experience, plus 10 years on the Planning Commission and 3 years on the Assembly have helped him develop a close relationship with both departments.
Reif says the two have very different functions, and it doesn’t make sense to combine them. He also questioned the extra money it would take to pay O’Connell as a new department head.
“And then why are we adding another layer of bureaucracy to this small town of Sitka?” Reif said. “Is it necessary? It’s a pretty simple town and the city government should be fairly simple also.”
Dinley told the Assembly he made the suggestion because he wanted greater focus on the way the city deals with builders and contractors, and further efficiency in the department. And as far as added bureaucracy, Dinley says there will be no increase in the number of staff.
“There are four people involved now, there will be four people involved tomorrow if you approve this,” Dinley said. “We are not creating an additional position, not creating an additional layer.”
Dinley also said that under the reorganization, various commissions, such as planning and zoning, long range planning and the historic preservation commission, will all see more support from city staff.
For his part, city Planning Director Wells Williams says the plan will mean confusion among city staff.
“If someone comes in with a concern, who reviews the staff report that goes to the planning commission?” Williams asked. “Does it go with to the community development director? With regards to appeals, it’s unclear what that hierarchy is.”
Williams told the Assembly his last job evaluation, 10 months ago, included comments on the city’s GIS, or geographic information system, and on the historic preservation commission. And he says those comments have been acted on.
“So we’re able to do this without any disruption to the organization,” he said, “without myself being demoted, without an additional $10,000 to Preston O’Connell, who may deserve $10,000 in some other portion. We put our heart and soul into this town for the last 22 years. My job evaluations have been good to excellent.”
A number of people, including Reif, Dinley and Mayor Scott McAdams, said the question before the Assembly wasn’t one of personalities or job performance, but instead was specifically about the structure of the two departments.
“I think that sometimes restructuring the same four desks, the same four skill sets, can create great efficiency if it’s managed right, and I think it’s worth taking a look at,” McAdams said.
In the end, the Assembly voted 6 to 1 to postpone the measure. Cheryl Westover voted against postponement. It’s up for discussion again at the next regular meeting, which is set for Sept. 14th.