A majority on the Sitka assembly wants to re-establish a long-range planning commission, but a cautious minority is reluctant to repeat some mistakes of the past.

The two sides will get together over the next couple of weeks and hammer out the details of what they hope will be a more a results-oriented group.
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Assembly members Michelle Putz and Matt Hunter sponsored the ordinance, which would revive Sitka’s defunct Long-Range Planning and Economic Development Commission as the Long-Range Strategic Planning Commission.

The title for this commission has always been a mouthful, and it’s never sounded particularly exciting, but the group was at the forefront of major development issues in the past, often locking horns with the assembly on everything from allocating economic relief funds after the close of the mill to tourism planning.

The assembly finally disbanded the commission in early 2011, but its absence has been felt, according to Michelle Putz.

“We have at times all agreed on this assembly that we want to be true leaders for this community and we want to be more strategic, and less reactive.”

“Reactive” is important idea. The assembly meets a couple of times a year for visioning sessions, and to discuss strategy for the future. Putz suggested that there was a piece missing in turning vision into reality.

“We feel like this commission could provide that place for this assembly, community, and staff to provide input on things like priority of services and facilities, and vision, and could help to implement our strategy.”

The assembly, for example, has struggled to come up with a way to replace worn out paving on city streets. Matt Hunter wants to bring more minds to bear on issues like these.

“As problems we have — specifically — funding city services and infrastructure. We’ve met briefly in a few visioning sessions, but I’ve figured out that we don’t have a time as a body to do a good job of it. So if we have a commission of people who are interested in it, we could get a lot of people involved to talk about these issues publicly, and invite people to come, and come up with ideas for the assembly, and plans that are actually vetted. I think it’s a great idea.”

Hunter and Putz are two of the assembly’s newest members. But even some longer-serving members were on board, like Phyllis Hackett.

“I am pro-planning, and I think that it’s really important to have a public arm for planning. And I agree with what Matt (Hunter) said in that we don’t have time. When I got on the assembly five years ago I thought, Great, we can be proactive, and take a look, and do good planning. But the truth is we don’t have time.”

But Hackett’s five years of service on the assembly also gave her perspective. She was not quite ready to ride this bandwagon.

“Sometimes commissions get an idea and they take off running with it. We’ve seen it. I’ve seen it in my time here. Where they take off running with an idea and put a lot of time and effort into it, and work really hard on it. And then they come forward, and the assembly didn’t really know what they were doing, and isn’t necessarily in favor of it.”

Thor Christianson, like Hackett, was on the assembly that disbanded the Long-Range Planning Commission two-and-a-half years ago. He also had concerns over a runaway commission.

“And I just get nervous when a group of self-appointed people — self appointed, unelected people (because rarely do we have more than one person applying for a position) — having that much power with what’s going to happen with the city.”

The Long-Range Planning Commission’s power stemmed from its involvement in reviewing and updating Sitka’s Comprehensive Plan. Christianson suggested that the commission lacked diversity, and did not always act in the best interests of Sitka.

“You really don’t get a broad spectrum of the community because the people who are interested in being on it are the people who are interested in — usually — a little less building, frankly, and more, We don’t want to do that, rather than, We want to do that.”

Christianson also noted that, during testimony on the fate of the commission in 2011, some members asked to disband.

As it happens, Mayor Mim McConnell was on the Long-Range Planning and Economic Development Commission, and that’s not the way she remembers it at all.

“What I was hearing from the commission was not, Disband us, but Give us clear direction. That’s why the commission came to the assembly — for help with this — and they ended up getting disbanded.”

McConnell said the commission was spending a lot of time trying to make Sitka’s Comprehensive Plan a “living document,” and not just a reference. She supported the idea of reforming the commission with this as a goal, and tweaking the ordinance to get there.

Putz said the basic language was already in place: The ordinance would bring the commission into an assembly visioning meeting once a year… “To essentially have the assembly assign them what you want them to do that year. So you would have a very specific opportunity to say, This is what we would like you to do as a goal for this year.”

Other fixes, like adjusting the number of commission members, and giving them a flexible meeting schedule also seemed like good ideas. Chrisitianson, Putz, and Hunter agreed to sit on a committee over the next two weeks to work out the details that might prevent a repeat of the circumstances that caused the original commission to fail.

Assembly members Mike Reif and Pete Esquiro supported the vote to postpone the issue two weeks to allow the committee to work, but otherwise held their cards. Reif said he wanted the ordinance to be “a framework for success.” Esquiro cast a vote two years ago to disband the commission. He said he was “looking for a reason to change my position.”

The assembly will take up the ordinance re-establishing a Long-Range Strategic Planning Commission at its next meeting on August 27.