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Comprehensive plan task force wins reprieve

The Oak Harbor City Council settled with a compromise in the unusually contentious and confused dispute over whether or not to dissolve the 15-member comprehensive plan task force.

In the end, the council voted unanimously Tuesday on a resolution that keeps the task force intact but changes the process by which amendments to the city’s comprehensive plan come to the council.

City Development Services Director Steve Powers proposed the compromise, which he says will mean “slightly fewer meetings” for the task force and more involvement in the amendment process for the city planning commission.

In fact, Councilman Richard Davis complained in the workshop before the meeting that the changes have become “largely cosmetic.”

“I’m not sure what we’re doing,” he said, “and why we’re doing it and why there’s so much controversy.”

The compromise resolution includes a four-point addition that states the focus of the task force will be on reviewing draft language. The planning commission will have a more direct role in the process and the members will have the ability to make suggestions to the task force during the process.

“The two bodies will be working in tandem in a sense,” Powers said, adding that the change “slightly reduces the number of task force meetings.”

The controversy itself was pretty bitter. A couple of council members and task force members complained that losing the task force would mean less community involvement in city government.

They also saw the resolution as a move by Oak Harbor Mayor Cohen to have greater influence over the city in supporting development over strong growth management planning.

City Councilman Paul Brewer was so angry he declared that he will no longer “be silenced,” but will more openly challenge Mayor Patty Cohen’s policies from now on.

Several task force members spoke out against the resolution during the council meeting, while one newer member said reducing or doing away with the task force isn’t such a bad idea.

“The city government, from the outside looking in, seems to be getting less and less participatory,” said task force member Sue Karahalios.

“It was a really healthy thing and I don’t think it was cumbersome,” she added.

“The growth management job is never done,” task force member Jerry Jones said. “There’s so much still wrong with the comp plan. The water reservoir ... the widening of Highway 20.”

The idea of dismantling the comprehensive plan task force, at least for a year, came from the city administration. Cohen has made an on-going commitment to increase the efficiency of the city’s operations and cut costs. A consultant suggested doing away with, at least temporarily, the comprehensive plan task force and letting the planning commission handle the work. This would end the redundancy of having two volunteer bodies going over the same work. It would also cut staff’s work hours spent at night meetings.

In addition, members of the planning commission have complained that they want a larger role in the comp plan amendment process. In the past, the task force created the amendments and passed them on to the planning commission, which then passes them on to the city council.

The task force’s job is to review and amend the city’s comprehensive plan. Under the state Growth Management Act, each city and county must have a plan for dealing with growth. The plan needs to be amended yearly.

The original resolution, which repeals the current task force but calls for the formation of new community groups after the year 2002, was rejected by the council in November by a 3-2 vote.

Yet under a change to normal council rules adopted early in the year, two council members who were absent from that meeting were able to bring the resolution back before the council Tuesday. Normally, only a council member who votes against an issue can bring it back for reconsideration.

Councilman John LaFond, who was sick during the November meeting, said that Cohen urged him to make a motion to bring the resolution back, which he did. Tuesday was his last meeting since he didn’t run for reelection.

Brewer and Councilman Bob Morrison complained that bringing the resolution back to the table for a second vote was bad politics, though City Attorney Phil Bleyhl said the move was perfectly legal.

Brewer also complained that getting rid of the task force and depending on only the planning commission for comp plan amendments gives Cohen more power. Each council member appoints one person to the task force while the mayor appoints eight people. All the planning commission members, however, are appointed by the mayor.

Of course, in all levels of government administrative appointees have to be ratified by the legislative body. In this case, Cohen pointed out that the city council approves all her appointees.

There was also some confusion about what the original resolution would have done.

Cohen said during the workshop that there never was any intention of disbanding the task force, but just to convene the group for larger projects.

However, the original resolution itself clearly disbands the current task force. It repeals the old resolutions that created the task force in the first place. It also calls for new community groups to be formed after the year 2002 to work on major updates to the comprehensive plan.

“In order to continue this high level of public involvement in the future,” the resolution states, “the City intends to form community focus groups and task forces when considering complex, major updates of the Comprehensive Plan after 2002.”

Council member Nora O’Connell said she was so confused about whether the proposal would disband the task force that she went to Attorney Bleyhl, who said the task force “will go away as we know it.”

But now that the controversy has been settled harmoniously, Powers said he will work on scheduling task force meetings in the new year. He said the work will start early in the year because a state-mandated major update to the comprehensive plan is due in September.

“It’s really more of a technical update,” he said.

Community Events, April 2014

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