By Lisa Loomis
After a heated discussion and a split vote, the Waitsfield Select Board approved the town Planning Commission's recommendation on hiring a consultant to help rewrite the Town Plan.
What was to have been a five-minute agenda item instead became a long discussion on the procedural issue of allowing the planning commission (and other town boards) to hire consultants without select board oversight and "course correction" if necessary.
The planning commission has received a $15,000 grant for updating its Town Plan and planners received four bids from planning consultants to work on the project. Planners interviewed the consultants in May and recommended that PlaceSense be hired for the job.
OUR VISION/THEIR VISION
At this week's select board meeting, board member Charlie Hosford made a motion to approve that request and board member Bill Parker seconded it. Board member Sal Spinosa asked the board to discuss the motion before voting.
"We haven't been involved in any discussion with these bidders. I always get concerned, especially with respect to planning matters, and I see this differently than some of you. We weren't part of the interview process. My concern is the gap between our vision and the vision of the planning commission," Spinosa said.
He said that having the planning commission interview consultants without select board oversight left the board in the dark as to priorities of both the planning commission and the consultants.
Parker asked if the interview notes from the planning commission chair would suffice for Spinosa, who said it would help.
"I'm still not going to be perfectly comfortable with this. I'm thinking about the clash of points of view I can anticipate down the line when we're butting heads over the ingredients in the Town Plan," Spinosa said.
Parker, who served on the planning commission during the last Town Plan rewrite, explained the role that consultants play in the process and said that for the select board to ask the planners to let the select board help decide who they work with would be robbing them of their autonomy.
"The select board charges the planning commission with a task and we will review their final product as well as a number of interim products that will come before us. If we're seeing stuff we don't like, we'll give them feedback," Parker said.
Board chair Kate Williams asked if the select board has a precedent of making recommendations on consultants.
"I can't remember a time when we have ever had the blackball or veto power over a town board choosing a consultant," said Hosford.
"We need to have a process in place if we're going to review consultants. We don't want to pick and choose, being more involved in one than another," Williams said.
"This isn't about being able to say no. You can make the argument that it is unfair to the planning commission not to let them know what our thinking is and what are expectations are as they proceed down a path that they think is going to comply with the thinking of the select board," Spinosa responded.
"I have seen the product of this process in the past, and the last time, this board did a whole lot more studying and dissecting of the Town Plan than ever before. I'd imagine there is going to be, by orders of magnitude, more this time around. There are philosophical differences in town and they are going to be aired," Spinosa continued.
"We may need an ample number of periodic reviews of their progress so that if there is some course correction to occur along the way, we can cause it to happen," he added.
Williams reiterated her concern about the larger issue of the process and said that the planning commission was given no direction to handle this consultant any differently than in the past.
"The solution is that we get opportunity to check in before first draft of the Town Plan is done," Spinosa said.
DO THEIR JOB
"I'm not opposed to a page of interview notes from the planning commission, but we can discuss this with the planning commission to make sure we're getting the message across that we are part of the process, to some extent, but what part of the process we are, we may disagree on. The planning commission is charged with coming up with a plan and bringing it to us. I'm not sure I agree that part of our job is to do their job," Parker said.
Board member Paul Hartshorn said given the fact that the select board writes the checks to pay for consultants, he felt it was prudent for the board to be part of the process.
"Somehow, there seems to be a fine line here. If we're questioning somehow that their hiring of a consultant is philosophically and politically charged and that's something we want to weigh in on, I think that's a far different issue than making sure our money is being spent properly," Hosford said.
"That's exactly the reason we need to look at this from a process standpoint. There is this issue of the Town Plan consultant and then there is the process. We can't pick and choose where we want to mettle," Williams said.
"I want to point out that the planning commission is a group of adults who are professionals in some cases and who are very skilled at what they do in other walks of life, and for the most part, our responsibility ends when we appoint them to do that job, and we have the oversight to make sure they are doing it properly. If part of their job is deciding who to work with, the more we constrain them in their decision making, the more stress we'll create between our boards. That has raised itself as a problem in the past and I can see it happening again the more we insist that it's our way or the highway," Parker said.
Williams urged the group to vote on the original motion and it passed 4-1. Spinosa called for a revote, suggesting that it was not clear what was being voted on.
Hosford made a new motion to accept the planning commission's recommendation and ask the commission for interview notes. Parker seconded it.
"I don't know how I can support that decision without having read the information first," Spinosa said.
"I'm with Charlie on this. This is as much about showing some support and faith in our planning commission as it is about the process of vetting. It makes the most sense to support their recommendation and get Sal some more information," Parker said.
"I'm going to vote in favor of this because I feel like we did not inform the planning commission to do otherwise than what they have done. In that spirit they have followed the process that has been laid out by habit. I want to support them in that," Williams said.
The motion passed with Parker, Williams and Hosford voting yes, and Spinosa and Hartshorn voting no.