Committee of the Islands

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Why less balance on the planning commission?

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April 27, 2012

Why less balance on the planning commission ? By Larry Schopp , Board Member , Committee of the Islands , as published in the Island Sun and Island Reporter on April 27 , 2012 . The seven - member Sanibel planning commission is the city''s land use watchdog . Its primary functions are to advise the city council on land use issues and to act as the local planning agency and land development regulatory commission . In addition to advising on new legislation and amendments to the Sanibel Plan , it acts in a quasi - judicial capacity , by holding hearings on applications for various permits and variances . In effect then , we depend upon the planning commission to help preserve the uniqueness of our barrier island sanctuary while accommodating the needs of its people in the way the land is used . So how are the seven members of this very important commission selected ? And what are the results of the selection process ? The answer to the first question is pretty straightforward . The answer to the second question raises troubling issues of fairness , balance , and the degree to which the commission is - - or is not - - representative of island residents and property owners as a whole . Let''s take a closer look . Under the Sanibel Charter , the city council appoints members of the planning commission . The only requirement for applicants is that they be residents of Sanibel . With the number of high achievers living on the island - - some retirees , others still working - - there is a large pool of talent for council members to choose from . So why does it appear almost impossible for anyone not connected to the local business community to be appointed ? Why not a process that provides for more balance ? Four times in a row The last four times a vacancy occurred on the commission ( I’m not talking about reappointing current commissioners whose terms are about to expire ) , there have been multiple applicants , public - spirited citizens with good credentials and an interest in serving . Some had ties to local businesses , others did not . However , the appointments all went to people with local businesses or connections to local businesses . What''s even more troubling is that , in two of those cases , incumbents with unblemished records on the commission and no ties to local businesses had applied for reappointment and were instead replaced by newcomers from the business community . I’m not suggesting that local business people should not be asked to serve ; all Sanibel residents have a right to be considered . But the outcomes in recent years do raise questions about the fairness of the process and the representativeness of the commission . It seems to me a body as important as the planning commission should be representative of the island population as a whole , not just those with local business interests . At the city council meeting on April 3 , a replacement was considered for Paul Reynolds , who recently resigned from the commission . There were three well - qualified applicants , Karen Storjohann and Ralph Sloan , two citizens not involved with local businesses , and John Talmage , a local restaurant owner . Vice Mayor Denham expresses concerns For some reason , public comment is no longer invited when council members consider planning commission appointments , despite the council’s long - established policy of taking public comment on all agenda items that are not “ first readings . ” There was nonetheless a discussion among the council members that highlighted the problem of the current selection process , initiated by comments from Vice Mayor Denham . The Vice Mayor , to his credit , expressed concern about the personality of the planning commission ; he thought it was weighted toward the “ business ” side rather than the “ environmental ” side . I would have couched it a little differently and expressed it in terms of the “ business ” side and the “ non - business ” side . However , the Vice Mayor was right to be concerned . During the discussion that followed , Mayor Ruane made the point that Mr . Denham himself had a distinguished career with a major corporation before retiring to Sanibel , yet was an outspoken advocate for the environment . While that may be true , the comment misses the point . Many of us had careers in business before coming to Sanibel . That is very different from owning or having close ties to a local business while serving on the planning commission . Having a business background , as opposed to a local business , may influence the way we view the world or the role of government , but it does not create actual conflicts or a conflict in values . Here is what I mean by the latter : Hierarchy of values Each of us has a value structure , a hierarchy of things we value , be they environmental conservation , childhood education , helping the disadvantaged , or the well - being of the local business community . Most often those values are not in conflict , but they can be . There may be times when a commissioner would have to choose between what may best for the local environment and what may be best for business . For example , there might be an ordinance proposed to reduce setbacks to allow for expansion of commercial space - - good for business , perhaps bad for the environment . Which values will inform the commissioner’s decision ? We just don’t know , but because of that potential conflict in values , we need to at least strive for a fair balance on the commission between the business and non - business sectors . We haven’t been doing that . At the April 3 meeting , members of city council chose the businessman , John Talmage , to serve on the planning commission . He seems well - qualified and I wish him success . However , the process and the pattern of new appointments made by city council in recent years seems to be telling citizens with no local business ties not to bother . That is wrong and needs to be corrected . City council should by it actions encourage , rather than discourage , participation in local government by all qualified citizens . Committee of the Islands invites your input and ideas on this important subject . Email your comments to coti @ coti.org . You can read commentaries on other island issues on our website at coti.org and / or visit Committee of the Islands on Facebook .

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