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Guest Commentary: Houston County Planning Commission


Fri, Sep 20th, 2013
Posted in All Commentary

By Drue Fergison

The question of term limits for members of Houston County’s Planning Commission has become rather contentious in recent weeks.

Things began to heat up this summer, when various issues – Schroeders and Omodt-Crow come to mind – came before the Houston County Commissioners. No matter what your opinion is on all of this, the newspaper reports, letters to the editor and public’s questions seem to revolve around four main questions.

First, the County Ordinance says that “members of the Planning Commission shall serve at the pleasure of the Board.” Does the Planning Commission accept this role?

Second, is the Planning Commission enforcing the Ordinances?

Third, is the Planning Commission operating within the Ordinance’s stated “Purpose” – “to promote the health, safety, and general welfare of the citizens”?

And fourth, to what extent might the Planning Commission favor business interests over citizen interests?

The stories and letters in the papers have cast doubt in all four areas. The situation is complex, to be sure. However, it also seems certain that having a Planning Commission where nearly everyone on it has served from between 13 to 39 years can be helping neither the situation nor the perception of it. I was actually 11 years old when the longest-serving member began his service back in 1974. I am now 50!

Neighboring counties have term limits that total nine years at the most. Even those counties without term limits tend to have Planning Commission members who serve 5-6 years on average. While I do believe it important to be in some sort of compliance with surrounding counties, let me state one reason why I believe this.

It’s simple. The idea of term limits exists for a reason. It is a best practice in a democracy that supports the free exchange of ideas. In a situation with rotating terms, you will always have some less experienced persons coming on and some more experienced persons coming off – but never all at once. Thus, you always have a healthy mix of experience and fresh ideas.

And, those new ideas are less likely to be dismissed because a long-term cronyism automatically dictates: “We’re going to do it this way because that’s the way we’ve always done it!” Term limits assist in practicing democracy, keeping up with the times and moving in new directions, if warranted. I feel certain that the current situation with the Planning Commission members’ longevity was not the original intent.

As I understand it, the Planning Commission is supposed to be a volunteer Commission, yet if it becomes too buddy-buddy, who from the community will want to volunteer his or her expertise? I believe that there are any number of competent Houston County residents who would be willing to serve, and who could certainly be “brought up to speed” about as quickly as the elected Commissioners are for their big and complex positions.

Oh, and speaking of “getting up to speed.” Our Commissioners have had some discussion recently about the time that it does take to “learn the ropes,” so to speak. This is par for the course. Anyone who has ever started first grade or a new job knows what this is like. It is normal and we should all expect it and be gracious about it.

To be supportive of term limits for the Planning Commission is not in any way a criticism of the Commissioners. I honestly believe that our five Commissioners are operating in good faith. I believe that they care and are doing their best to serve our interests. I understand that they want to, and that it is very, very important to, support the County’s employees and volunteers. This is to their credit.

Without a county administrator, though (another area where Houston is different from surrounding counties), our commissioners are also in the position of supervising and evaluating those same employees and volunteers whom they want, rightly, to support. This is the part of supervising that I’m not sure anyone likes.

I applaud our Houston County commissioners for opening the issue of term limits for Planning Commission members to the public for input. And, I urge the public to offer that input on Monday evening, September 30, at 6:30, in the Commissioners’ Room at the Courthouse in Caledonia, Minn.

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