Monday, June 6, 2011

PLANDEMONIUM: Raucous in-fighting hampers Columbia planning groups

COLUMBIA, 6/6/11  (Beat Byte) -- In-fighting between members of two volunteer commissions is hampering Columbia-wide efforts to develop comprehensive community planning guidelines, sources tell the Columbia Heart Beat. 

Shouting matches and strident email exchanges filled with ALL CAPS screaming and exclamation point excesses (!!!) are among the conflicts that have divided members of Columbia's Comprehensive Plan Task Force and Planning and Zoning Commission, in some cases over simple matters. 
An April email exchange between members of both commissions featured angry words over a meeting venue.   "THIS WAS NEVER COMMUNICATED TO ME," one member screamed.  "You lied...YOU dropped the ball... I am sorry to be so harsh...but this is not the first time this has happened." 
Divide Drivers
The internal discord has been going on so long, community watchers have expressed concern and even distress over its negative, potentially long-term impact. 
Reportedly driving the divide:  personality conflicts, miscommunications, unanswered questions, and unfulfilled information requests from City Hall administrators charged with facilitating information "who don't seem to want this community to have a comprehensive plan to guide development," explained a person close to the situation who spoke to the Heart Beat on condition of anonymity. 

(For critics who don't like that condition, type "spoke on condition of anonymity" into Google and read from the 12,400,000 hits that include journalism institutions such as the New York Times, Associated Press, and UK Guardian). 
Columbia Planning Director Tim Teddy, development liaison Pat Zenner, and staff liaison Denise Clark "control what Commission members see and when they see it," the source explained, adding that a staff song and dance inevitably ensues "whenever they want to withhold something or shut down inquiry."
The Ol' Staff Shuffle? 
A recent staff stall commenced over a Columbia Comprehensive Planning Facebook page designed for public outreach, the source explained.  "Staff has used every excuse in the book as to why this can't be accomplished, including that it might violate the Sunshine Law."  
On May 27, an email with attachments sent to Planning and Zoning Commission members through City Hall staff liaison Denise Clark was allegedly stripped of extensive comments in the body of the email and forwarded on May 31 "with only the attachments."   The comments, about an elementary school outreach effort using a children's book about planning, cited successful approaches in other cities, including qualities that make central city urban areas more livable
In still other instances, staffers "won't answer Commission questions directly, instead talking over Commissioners so much that the questions either don't get answered or get lost in the shuffle," the source explained.  Called on the carpet by a Planning and Zoning Commissioner over one such discussion disruption, City Hall's Zenner "got upset and walked out of the meeting." 
Another chronic communications headache:  "thin, incomplete meeting minutes" that don't accurately or completely reflect agendas and discussions, the source said.  "I know Commissioners have complained about this.  A lot of important stuff gets left out."   
The Heart Beat has forwarded questions to Clark, Teddy, and Zenner regarding these issues for confirmation and clarification.
Fractious Frictions
Facilitators who won't facilitate are like oil that won't lubricate.  The end result:  friction.  Members on all-volunteer panels who challenge uncooperative staffers risk alienating fellow members who fret about "going against the establishment" or "asking too many questions." 
This writer is a former member of several city commissions, including Historic Preservation and Finance (which I chaired for a couple of years).  The paid staff/unpaid volunteer dynamic can be complex.  Staffers have the professional training and experience, and the public perceives that they are the experts.  
These qualities set up a power differential between staff and volunteers -- almost like a superior-subordinate relationship. 
When staffers aren't perceived as facilitating commission and board member service, they can create friction between those members who may feel intimidated or don't want to rock the boat for whatever reason, and those members who believe it's their duty to keep pushing for the facilitation, whether it be the question that remains unanswered; the research that remains incomplete; the meeting that remains to be set up; or the idea staff may not like, but that seems stuck to the volunteer like glue. 
This conflict can become emotionally charged, and ultimately hurtful because the glue that holds these volunteer commissions together isn't based on pay -- it's based on service, human society, and the good will that should emanate from volunteerism.  
Volunteers can end up feeling marginalized by the situation, rather than empowered by the idea that they are helping their community.   
Frictions have spilled out publicly on several volunteer boards and commissions over the years, and happened with last month's conflict of interest allegation against Planning and Zoning Commissioner Ann Peters.  Fellow Commissioner David Brodsky reportedly sought Peters' removal from the Commission for "disruptive behavior."  He later apologized, blaming the media for "blowing things out of proportion."
"I think we look foolish with some of the sniping that’s going on," Peters said at a recent meeting. "I think the citizens of Columbia deserve better than that."
(Questions are out to Commission members, Councilwoman Helen Anthony -- a former P&Z Commissioner -- and City Hall staffers, and will be followed up in subsequent stories). 

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