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Planning director search hits a roadblock

jacksonJackson County had been without a planning director for half a year when commissioners sent out a job offer this month. But the offer came back rejected, and the position will have to stay vacant for a little while longer.

The mismatch was less about the specifics of the offer than about the job itself, said County Manager Chuck Wooten. Though the county had been advertising a planning director’s job all along, the candidate in question had his eye on a position that hadn’t yet been created — director of development services. 

The position, which would be an upper-level administrative job over the planning and permitting/code enforcement departments, had been recommended in a performance audit the county had done this fall of the two departments, but creating such a job is far from a done deal. It may never even happen. 

“He was almost asking for a position that didn’t exist,” said Commission Chairman Brian McMahan. 

“We never got to the point about talking about whether the salary was satisfactory, unsatisfactory or not,” Wooten added. The candidate had simply decided that a development services job, like the hypothetical one being batted around in Jackson, would be a better next step for him than a department head role. 

Which was unfortunate, because commissioners had already decided that the other two people in the final three wouldn’t be right for the job. Commissioners won’t necessarily have to re-open the search, however. The search committee had initially narrowed the pool down to five people, referring the final three to commissioners for in-person interviews. 

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“We felt like we ought to go back and at least interview the other two we didn’t do face-to-face,” McMahan said.

If one of those two people winds up coming on board as the county’s new planning director, Wooten said, then the timeline on getting a new person in place will be set back only another two to three weeks — which, when you consider the position has already been vacant for six moths, isn’t too significant. 

But there’s a real possibility that commissioners will have to completely start over, which will involve advertising, reviewing resumes and going through multiple rounds of interviews.

“If that’s the case,” Wooten said, “we’re looking at 60 to 90 days.” 

Commissioners are committed to finding the right person for the job. But they’re also aware that the to-do list for the yet-to-be-found planning director is piling up quickly. Since Green left, they’ve been putting planning-related decisions and hires on hold as much as possible until a new director could be hired. 

In the recently completed planning and permitting/code enforcement audit, filling the director’s position and hiring an empty planning position in the Planning Department were listed as the first and second organizational priorities, respectively. Commissioners had decided to hold off on hiring the vacant planning position until a director came on board to help choose someone. 

In addition, the planning department is now responsible for enforcing the county’s steep slope ordinance, so extra manpower is needed there. And since the county has passed its new cell tower ordinance, applications have been coming in. Then there’s the slate of ordinances that commissioners would like to see the Planning Board — assisted by the planning director — review. It will take a full staff to deal with all that in a timely manner. 

“We need to move forward and get that staffing level at the level that it’s budgeted to,” Wooten said. “Right now we’re reactive rather than proactive, so we want to move forward as quick as we can.”



The background

Jackson County’s last planning director, Gerald Green, resigned in May to take a job overseeing the Metropolitan Planning Commission, which handles planning for Knoxville and Knox County, Tennessee.

But commissioners didn’t move to replace him right away because Green’s departure lined up with an explosion of concern over how responsibilities were being shared and rules enforced in the planning and permitting/code enforcement departments. The myriad questions that arose at that time prompted commissioners to ask for a performance audit of the two departments from Charlotte-based Benchmark Planning. 

They decided it would be best to wait on hiring until after those recommendations came back. 

The report took four months to complete but returned with largely favorable feedback. Issues in the two departments, Benchmark said, were due mainly to misunderstanding, not to negligence or nefarious intent. But the report did offer a number of suggestions for improvement. One of those suggestions was that the county hire an assistant county manager to jointly oversee the two departments. 

That’s a job description that piqued the interest of the candidate to whom commissioners ultimately extended an offer for the planning director job. But such a position would demand a high salary that commissioners don’t seem to consider worth the benefit, especially with a county revaluation coming up that would lower the property tax base. 

“At this point I don’t know that we’ll ever create that position,” said Commission Chairman Brian McMahan. 

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