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Wanted: visibility, accessibility for planning

Acknowledging that the city’s planning department suffered from either “a significant problem or a major public relations problem,” Mayor Darlene Kordonowy said she will look for a new director who can restore public confidence.

“We need someone who can be active and visible, accountable and accessible for both good and bad,” the mayor said in an interview Thursday.

Stephanie Warren, who has been the city’s planning director since 1991, resigned this week effective April 25.

That became official Wednesday when the Bainbridge Island City Council approved a contract under which Warren will work part-time as a special assistant to the mayor through December 2004, at which point she will become eligible for full retirement.

“Warren has performed a difficult job with great integrity,” Councilman Norm Wooldridge said. “I thought that we owed her the opportunity to get her retirement.”

Under the contract, Warren will work an average of 70 hours per month out of her home for $42 per hour, an hourly rate roughly equivalent to her $80,000-plus salary.

While approval of Warren’s contract – a condition of her resignation – was unanimous, council members Debbie Vancil and Deborah Vann voted against creating the position, saying the council should have more input into Warren’s assignment.

Kordonowy plans to hire an interim director – she has several off-island candidates in mind – then launch a nationwide search for a permanent director.

While Kordonowy said this week that Warren initiated the resignation, the mayor was known to have been irked by lack of notification from the director on some high-profile matters, such as proposed shoreline regulations and the imposition of a moratorium on subdivisions.

The key to correcting what the mayor concedes is a widespread public distrust of the department is consistent performance over a sustained period of time.

“We need to be clear about what we want to do, then do it over and over again, one piece of legislation, one community meeting and one piece of the Comprehensive Plan at a time,” Kordonowy said.

Architect and former Planning Commission chair Sean Parker said the prime requisite will be the willingness and ability to tackle the political requirements of the job – dealing with both council and public.

“I suspect if one were to ask Stephanie, she would say her least favorite part of the job was its political nature,” Parker said. “But this may be the most important political position in a growing community. You need to be able to lead and guide the council in forward-thinking ways, but have the strength to stand up to withering criticism.”

Parker said the island would have no trouble attracting qualified candidates.

“Can you imagine how attractive it would be for someone in Cleveland, say, to take on a geographically isolated, educated, affluent, somewhat liberal community?” he asked. “You would have the opportunity to do outstanding work in that environment.”

Environmentalist Vince Mattson, who has frequently found himself at odds with and sometimes in court against the planning department, sees a need for greater consistency in the planning process.

“We need a new director with strong managerial skills who will look at what the vision of the community is and follow it when making day-to-day decisions,” he said.

Mattson said that employees need specific, written procedures to follow when reviewing permits. He also said that greater clarity is needed to reduce the number of interpretations, which, he claims, are too often made in favor of development.

“I’m pleased there is going to be a change, which I don’t mind admitting,” he said.

Developer Rod McKenzie saw the situation almost in mirror image.

“There needs to be flexibility in interpretation instead of always coming down on the extreme negative side,” he said.

McKenzie said a critical element will be the willingness and ability to defend the department, particularly to the council.

“The key will be the extent to which the City Council is prepared to let the planning director do the job, rather than trying to do the job themselves,” he said. “We need someone with the strength and flexibility to deal with the council and the public.”

Councilman Bill Knobloch said organization and leadership issues are the principal problems.

“Instead of preparing an application, getting a punch list of things you need to do, doing them and then getting a permit, it’s ping pong, where the staff tells you that something’s wrong, then you fix it, then they tell you something else is wrong, and so on,” he said. “That draws everybody into frustration.”

Knobloch said the city’s codes need to be clarified.

“The present codes are too gray, leaving room for personal decisions that people suspect are arbitrary,” he said.

City ordinances provide that the mayor appoints the director, subject to council confirmation. Knobloch said the council will have an advisory role throughout the process.

Councilwoman Lois Curtis, who also served on the Planning Commission, said the kind of criticism Warren has endured goes with the territory.

“It’s always going to be a directorship that attracts a lot of controversy,” she said. “Twelve years is an amazingly long time for someone to last in that job.”

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