County caught city by surprise, leaders say

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By: Tia Lynn Lecorchick

The City of Madison leadership reacted to the Board of Commissioner’s (BOC) decision last week to split up the Planning Commission, a joint advisory board between all four cities in the county for planning and development, with dismay and disappointment. The decision, to take effect January 1, 2015, will retain a Morgan County Planning Commission that absorbs the smaller cities of the county under its jurisdiction (Buckhead, Bostwick, and Rutledge), but will no longer include Madison’s planning and zoning process, leaving Madison to create its own stand-alone planning commission. City Manager David Nunn regrets the loss of an interconnected and integrated planning commission. “The process was beneficial in that it afforded every jurisdiction within Morgan County a voice in zoning actions regardless of where that zoning action was initiated.  Under the new planning commission model County residents will have no representation when zoning actions are heard within the City,” said Nunn, who noted that the joint planning commission was a 30-plus-year effort of city and county cooperation.” “We also feel we weren’t informed properly of any perceived problems and we were not even notified about the meeting, so a city official wasn’t even present,” added Nunn. Connie Booth, planning commission member, believes the split will have negative ramifications for both the city and the county. “I am truly concerned that there will be unintended consequences from this action; there can’t help but be,” said Booth. “The synergies that came from the decisions of the joint board will be difficult to replicate and I can’t help but think that all parties will be the worse for it.” Booth believes the decision came as a shock to the city of Madison. “I wish the county commissioners had not taken this action but I was not privy to the decision-making process.  The city was caught off-guard (it had received no notice that this meeting was to take place so there was no city official present) and is justifiably, I believe, upset. Staff is now working hard to revise ordinances that would permit the formation of its own planning and zoning board.” Nunn, too, believed the city was not given adequate official notice, only “informal” information without a clear timeline of action. “City leadership was disappointed to not have an opportunity to participate in the discussion of the fate of this long-term shared commitment before the City was cast aside,” said Nunn. Booth also believes the public letter to the editor aimed at the county from City Councilman Joe DiLetto, which appeared in the July 3 edition of the Morgan County Citizen, enflamed the already burning tensions between the city of Madison and the county. DiLetto wrote about Madison’s superior contribution to the county in property and sales taxes and how the city’s residents are clearly “shortchanged,” writing that “anyone who is knowledgeable and rational would say the city is not getting what they are paying for.” DiLetto took issue with the county’s treatment of Madison. “I do, however, get tired of some county officials talking and acting like we are on different continents. Please let’s give it a rest.” Booth disagreed with DiLetto’s sentiments. “I do know that the county was extremely unhappy with the letter and felt that the sentiments expressed were unfair to its staff and I concur.  I wish the county commissioners had not taken this action but I was not privy to the decision-making process,” said Booth. “There seems to be an impatience [and] a lack of knowledge of the process on the part of some in the City who see matters as not moving quickly enough for them, all the while failing to understand the processes that are employed to protect the City.  You don’t have to like the process but you absolutely need to understand why it exists.” Booth believes the Planning Commission is not only suffering the consequences of impatience and ignorance regarding the methods of the planning commission, but of the county-city tensions. “No member of the commission ever advanced an agenda. There was never an ‘us versus them’ attitude from any of the members.  There was always a sense that we are all in this together and that decisions for one jurisdiction would inevitably affect other jurisdictions.  But outside the commission there was the understandable tension between the City of Madison and the county, a tension that is not unusual between counties and their county seats,” said Booth. But County Manager Michael Lamar denies any notion that intergovernmental tension is the motivation behind the BOC’s decision. “It’s not unusual for tension to occur between cities and counties, but that was not the catalyst for this decision. The catalyst was that the joint process has become cumbersome and difficult for people and splitting the commission into separate entities, in my opinion, was the best decision for everybody,” said Lamar. “It’s a business decision, it’s not personal.” Lamar cited the additional planning, development, and zoning regulations unique to Madison, such as the historic and corridor districts, as examples of how the county has to “spend an inordinate amount of time managing the process when Madison is capable to do it with its own stand-alone planning commission. “It just added a level of unnecessary complexity and complication by adding us into their mix.” Lamar contrasted how the smaller cities do not have the staff or resources like Madison to have their own planning commissions. Lamar noted that the Morgan County Planning Commission will still accept applicants to serve on the board from Madison and believes the split will be more efficient for both the county and the city. “It just makes more sense that the entity that is making the regulations should manage the process,” said Lamar. “We make the regulation for the smaller cities and we manage the process, Madison makes their regulations and they can manage that process. It’s just a better way for the county and city to operate in our opinion…It’s just taking responsibility for the entity for which you serve.” Regardless of the city and county irreconcilable perspectives on the matter, Nunn committed to making the transition as smooth as possible. “Madison chooses to convert a negative action into a positive result.  Although taxpayers within the City will no longer receive the same planning services as their fellow county taxpayers, everyone seeking zoning action within the City limits will experience no inconvenience nor drastic change in the process.  The City of Madison remains committed to providing its citizens with the most efficient and professional service possible.”

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