The process for appointing residents to volunteer on city boards and commissions is under scrutiny after the mayor personally asked a state legislator to serve on the Planning Commission despite other residents already applying for the post.
State Rep. Tom Taylor said he recently applied to serve on the Planning Commission after being asked to do so by Mayor Denis Shortal. But Taylor, who is not seeking reelection to the state legislature, said he learned later from some City Council members that the process traditionally involves filing an application and joining a list. He withdrew his application after learning that.
“A few weeks ago, out of the blue, the mayor called me and said that since I was leaving office he would like to appoint me to the Planning Commission,” Taylor explained. “I said sure, I would be glad to do it.”
Taylor submitted his application on June 19, according to city records. He said he later learned there were other applications before him from residents wanting to serve on the Planning Commission and that his application had caused a “rift” on the City Council.
“I got a couple calls from some council members who are all friends, and I was not aware there is a backlog of people who wanted to be on the Planning Commission,” Taylor said. “I hadn’t sought the job, but when asked I said I would do it. But I was not aware of any backlog to serve on various city boards.”
Taylor did not say who on the council called him, but he said he was told there would not be enough votes from the council to support his appointment to the Planning Commission, so he withdrew his application.
“It was about the process,” he said. “I wanted to avoid any controversy and I withdrew my name. I didn’t want to be on the agenda and then not have the votes and there be a lot of confusion.
“I felt uncomfortable being in that position and causing a rift on the council because of the process and because of that I decided to step aside,” Taylor added. “There was no secret agenda. There was just concern about how the process was handled.”
In an interview, Shortal said he reviews many applications for the 12 city commissions and boards. “But not all have the qualifications needed,” he said.
His process includes interviewing applicants in person, he said.
“There’s been times when we’ve been thin on applications,” he said. When asked about Taylor’s application, Shortal suggested calling Taylor for an explanation.
An open records request shows that between March 19 and July 19, there were 21 people who submitted applications to serve on various city boards.
Of those 21, there were six people who sought to serve on the Planning Commission, including Taylor. Three of the six applications were submitted in May, two in June, including Taylor, and one in July.
Frustration with the process was evident at the July 9 council meeting when Shortal asked for approval of his appointments of Ed Wagner, a technologist at Cox Enterprises, and Jared Adams, a small business owner, to be on the Planning Commission. Appointments are traditionally approved without discussion during the consent agenda, but Councilmember Lynn Deutsch asked Shortal how he selected people to serve.
“I feel like I’m starting to embarrass myself asking a lot of people to spend a lot of time to fill out applications” to be considered but then not selected, she said.
Shortal told her he reviews all applications submitted to the city and tries to ensure people from various districts are serving on everything from the Planning Commission to the Alcohol Review Board to the Audit Committee. He told her he always selects the most qualified people to serve.
The vote was 6-1 to approve the appointments, with Deutsch casting the lone dissenting vote out of visible dissatisfaction with the mayor’s response.
This is not the first time city board appointments have been scrutinized. Shortal and the rest of the council came under fire two years ago when Shortal and the city’s legal staff told DHA executive board members serving on city boards they had to resign from one or the other due to a potential conflict of interest.
DHA members often see development plans before they go to the city’s Planning Commission or ZBA and the mayor expressed concerns that developers could sue due to that potential conflict of interest.
At the July 23 council meeting, the mayor appointed, and the council unanimously approved, Erika Harris to serve on the Planning Commission. Harris was vice president of the DHA executive board but resigned that seat to serve on the Planning Commission.
“With the best interest of the city and the DHA in mind, I stepped down from my executive and board role on the DHA in order to avoid any conflicts of interest that may present themselves,” she said.