At a packed-house meeting Tuesday night, Sept. 24, the Crosslake City Council terminated the city’s planning and zoning staff and agreed to contract services from Crow Wing County.
The decision passed 4-1, with council member Steve Roe against the measure.
Around 60-70 people attended the meeting, which at times was loud and emotional.
Council members Gary Heacox and Mark Wessels were appointed to a committee in June to explore ways to implement recommendations set forth by the county in an assessment it performed of the city’s planning and zoning department.
It was announced Thursday, Sept. 19, that the county, at the request of Heacox and Wessels, prepared a proposal to provide planning and zoning services for the city, and that the county would decide whether or not to approve the proposal at its Tuesday, Sept. 24, county board meeting. The county approved the proposal and it went before the Crosslake City Council that night.
Contract city administrator Dan Vogt told the council Tuesday night that questions were raised as to whether or not Wessels and Heacox were authorized to request that the county prepare a proposal for services. Mayor Darrell Schneider then proposed that the council take a vote to ratify the work Wessels and Heacox had done. The vote passed 4-1, with Roe against.
Wessels and Heacox, in a memo to the council, attested that hiring the county for planning and zoning services would save the city $140,000 versus the requested 2014 budget from the city’s planning and zoning department.
The county’s proposal is for the city to pay $190,000 a year for services. Crosslake’s planning and zoning department was reported to have a 2014 requested budget of around $327,000.
Ken Anderson, planning and zoning department head who was terminated, argued there was little or no cost savings in hiring the county. He said the county’s proposed costs didn’t include certain line items like legal fees and travel expenses.
Anderson also explained that the requested budget included a third planning and zoning staff member and that the position was optional. He said that currently the planning and zoning department is under budget by $55,000, which would account for other purchases requested in 2014.
Later in the meeting Wessels said he still believed that hiring the county would save the city money.
Anderson asked the council members to state why they wanted to hire the county.
“A $140,000 savings and the county has a 98 percent approval rating. You seem to be happy ... with 78,” Wessels said, referring to a survey the county performed in which 78 percent of those polled agreed or strongly agreed that they received satisfactory service from the city’s planning and zoning staff.
Anderson called the survey “non-random,” saying Chris Pence, county Land Services supervisor who performed the survey, was given a list of people to contact. Anderson said the council had done so to “stack the deck” against the department.
Schneider brought up the city’s list of ordinance violations, which has not been reduced, as another reason to replace the department.
“I would submit that’s because of lack of direction from the council and lack of action from the council,” Anderson said. He said that according to ordinance, a council member or member of the public must initiate ordinance changes, and that as a staff member he could not do so.
He called the situation an “orchestrated assassination” of the department.
Before leaving the podium, Anderson displayed a photo of his daughter.
“I want you to know that you’re affecting the lives and livelihoods of people who have dedicated themselves in this city,” he said.
Bryan Hargrave, the city’s other planning and zoning staff member, told the council he didn’t believe hiring the county was the right choice.
“I really feel that this is not going to solve anything for you. But only time will tell. And with that I say farewell,” Hargrave said.
Around 60 people attended the meeting, and around 10 spoke at public forum, including former mayor Darrell Swanson, former planning and zoning commission chair Pete Abler and Whitefish Area Property Owners Association past president Dave Fischer, who all spoke against hiring the county for planning and zoning. One member of the public spoke in favor of hiring the county.
Council member John Moengen said he believed that by voting to hire the county, he was doing the right thing for the city.
“I believe we need to move this community forward. I believe we need this change,” he said.
Heacox agreed, saying there were inconsistencies in ordinance enforcement.
“I spent a lot of time researching these options and I still believe that (this option) is better and I don’t want to get into any more specifics,” he said.
Roe argued for more time to consider the proposal and work through specifics, but other council members did not express agreement.
After deciding to hire the county, the council placed both Hargrave and Anderson on paid administrative leave for 30 working days.
The decision to hire the county for planning and zoning services was effective immediately, and county employees were in the office Wednesday morning, Sept. 25, at city hall.
Kate Perkins can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Facebook and on Twitter @KateAtEcho.