Planning vacancy a challenge

Like an American president whose greatest impact may be felt through judicial appointments, who affects American civic life long after his or her presidency has ended, a mayor’s most important impact may be the department heads he or she names.

Mayor Darlene Kordonowy has an opportunity to define her tenure through her choice to replace Stephanie Warren as director of Planning and Community Development, the most visible and politically sensitive administrative position in city government.

Because of the passion that land-use disputes engender in this community, the planning director wears the proverbial target. Any protested application creates a situation where there will be winners and losers. Losers sometimes head to court, and invariably cry “foul,” complaining that they were not heard.

In many respects, the director’s job description is like that of a judge: to decide, based on the city code, whether a particular project should or should not go ahead. And like the planning director, judges create a situation where there are as many losers as winners.

Yet good judges retain the consistent respect of those who appear in their court, even those on the wrong end of a decision. They do so by giving all sides a fair shake, maintaining scrupulous impartiality and taking the time to address the arguments of both parties, explaining why one position prevails over the other.

Those temperamental qualities of impartiality and thoroughness are key requirements for a planning director, but unfortunately, they aren’t enough. The director must be a strong leader and effective administrator internally, and – this cannot be overstated – must also project the aura of confidence and competence that will restore the community’s faith in the department.

While the director does not make the rules – that’s the council’s job, through its land-use ordinances – the department and staff are looked to for ideas and information on how best to carry out those objectives. We would hope the new director can contribute ideas on how to accomplish some of those perplexing objectives on which we generally agree, such as affordable housing, farmland retention and preservation of wildlife habitat.

Perhaps it’s just parochial hubris, but we would like to think that despite the often-thanklessness of the job, it will be viewed as highly desirable within the planning profession. Bainbridge offers a fine place to live, a discerning and involved populace, and a wealth of architects and developers who generally propose quality, challenging projects.

Because the department needs a fresh start, bringing in a baggage-free director from the outside is essential. Given the importance of the appointment, we applaud the mayor’s plan to conduct a broad and thorough search, bringing in an off-island interim director to relieve the pressures on the search.

Ten years from now, when much else done by this administration will be forgotten, this director may still be on the job. We wish the mayor wisdom in her selection.

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