CHIPLEY — The Washington County Board of County Commissioners held a public hearing Thursday to discuss proposed changes to the Land Development Code that would apply term limits to the county planning commissioners.
The proposal would also change the requirements for advertising planning commission vacancies, Senior Planner Mike DeRuntz told the commissioners.
“Resident Miles Anderson has proposed amending Land Development Code Section 9.02.04 Membership and Section 9.02.05 Terms of Membership of the Planning Commission,” DeRuntz explained. “He collaborated with Commissioner Alan Bush, County Coordinator David Corbin, and myself on the current form of the amendment.”
The proposals would limit any planning commissioner to a total of an eight-year term, including non-consecutive years of service. The term limitation would be retroactive, and a 10-year span is recommended between eight-year terms.
The proposed changes would also require vacancies on the planning commission be announced in a BOCC meeting, then advertised and posted for at least 30 days prior to a vote on a new commissioner’s appointment.
The proposals also require commissioners to be considered employees of the county, to fill out an application with the county each year and to have background checks performed on them.
Commissioner Todd Abbott asked DeRuntz what concerns he had about the proposed changes.
“I believe the time needed for getting a new person up to speed on the planning commission takes time,” DeRuntz said. “With term limits, we would be losing that institutional knowledge every eight years.”
DeRuntz also said he thought the 10-year span between service was excessive.
“We have criteria for selecting board members in place,” DeRuntz said. “If the board doesn’t feel as if that criteria is working, they can certainly change it.”
Currently, county planning commissioners serve to represent the district of the county in which they live, and their terms run concurrent with the county commissioner who represents their district.
“I came before the board several months ago to address this problem with the planning commission,” Anderson said. “It wasn’t just me who worked on this proposed legislation, it was also Mr. Bush, Mr. DeRuntz and Mr. Corbin.”
Anderson said he appreciated Corbin’s assistance and his willingness to address problems. “Thank you, Mr. Corbin, for rising up and dealing with the issues.”
“I felt during our meeting that you were in favor of these proposals,” Anderson told the commissioners. Anderson said he had been mistreated by the planning commission earlier this year when he was seeking a zoning change for a property that was under consideration as a potential new location for the AmVets lodge.
He had gone before the board to discuss his concerns, and the outcome of those discussions had been the work to limit the terms of the planning commissioners.
Anderson also said that there are no African-American planning commissioners, which means that a portion of the county population is not being represented properly.
The planning commission makes recommendations to the county commissioners, which are usually approved by the board with little discussion or dissent, Anderson said.
“I don’t know that this board has ever not approved a recommendation by the planning commission, which is amazing,” Anderson said. “Normally, the five of you can’t even agree on what day it is.”
He thanked the board for allowing him to participate in drafting the proposed code changes. “I appreciate you going through the process and allowing the public to participate,” Anderson said.
Planning Commissioner Jim Ackerman told the board he would prefer not to be considered an employee of the county, but if he were to be so considered, he would like to have the same benefits as other employees such as health insurance.
“If we are supposed to be employees, tell us what parts of the 83-page employee handbook apply to us,” Ackerman said. “I do think the Conflict of Interest section should apply to the planning commission.”
If the planning commissioners are not behaving in a respectful manner, the BOCC has the ability to correct that now, Ackerman said.
Finding volunteers to serve on the planning commission is not always easy, Ackerman added. “We have gone six months without members, and sometimes we wouldn’t even have a quorum.”
“I think we have been negligent in the past, but now that it has come to light, I think we are more prepared to have discussions on the planning commission selection process and term-limits,” Abbott said.
“There are term limits right now,” DeRuntz said. “The planning commissioners serve four-year terms that correlate with the term of the county commissioner they represent.”
Typically the planning commissioners are reappointed when the commissioners are re-elected.
Resident Jim Town suggested the board consider off-setting the terms of the planning commissioners and the county commissioners by a year.
“That way, if you have a new county commissioner, he has a year of experience when the time comes to make the reappointment. I would suspect that a new commissioner has a different perspective on things after having served on the board for 12 months,” Town said.
The second and final public hearing on the proposed changes will take place at 9 a.m. during the Oct. 24 meeting of the Board of County Commissioners.