Macon County turns out to debate planning board’s futureWritten by Quintin Ellison
Macon County’s planning board lived to plan another day. Proposed retroactive term limits, which some considered punitive because they seemed to mainly target the most experienced, pro-planning of the board’s members, were rejected by commissioners.
Planning Board Chairman Lewis Penland and longtime members Susan Ervin — very pro-planning — and Lamar Sprinkle — very much not pro-planning — can continue serving under this compromise.
“We have a wonderful planning board,” said Democratic Commissioner Ronnie Beale prior to the vote. “And you’ve been lampooned, laughed at — that’s not right.”
Beale and fellow Democratic Commissioner Bobby Kuppers flatly informed their Republican colleagues that they would not support retroactive term limits, setting the stage for a compromise proposal by two of the board’s three Republicans.
“This is the 500-pound gorilla in the room, so we might as well talk about it,” Kuppers said. “I believe that retroactivity — by making them retroactive — that is a thinly veiled effort … aimed at individuals.”
Many of those individuals were in fact present at the meeting. Some spoke earlier that same evening during a nearly two-hour public hearing on term limits for the planning board. Penland was not there.
Out of bounds?
The brouhaha over Macon County’s planning board ignited after Republican Commissioner Ron Haven sent a recent email expressing his concerns and misgivings about the planning board to fellow commissioners. It is unclear whether Haven understood that his email was by state law a public document. But it was, and the contents of his missive landed with the commotion of a pussycat being thrown into a dog party.
Haven, in his email bomb, accused the planning board of running amok and disregarding commissioners’ instructions. Haven openly demanded Planning Board Chairman Penland be ousted, thus targeting the planning board’s most vocal advocate for development regulations. Haven suggested the board possibly be abolished. He dubbed Penland a “dictator.”
Beale, who earlier that evening had drawn laughs and guffaws from the crowd at the expense of speaker and developer Michelle Masta because she doesn’t reside in Macon County, reprimanded Haven for what Beale considered unseemly behavior.
“To attack a volunteer is out of bounds,” Beale said. “To call them a dictator; that is out of bounds.”
Kuppers, too, proved eager to defend the planning board as a whole and Penland in particular. Kuppers is running for re-election. Corbin and Republican Jimmy Tate are running for their commission seats, too. Both Corbin and Tate were originally appointed, not elected, to the board.
“We don’t have to resort to accusations and ridicule,” Kuppers said.
Haven, for his part, acknowledged that he “brought the people tonight.” There was standing room only at the Macon County courtroom, which meant with overflow into the hall probably 150 to 200 people were there.
Clearly emotional and visibly red faced, Haven took a microphone in hand and stood in front of the jury box and addressed the crowd. The four other commissioners remained seated during their public comments.
“I’m not here cutting no one down,” Haven said, then accused some of “flying to conclusions.”
“‘Oh,’” Haven suddenly hollered into the microphone in an apparent imitation of those upset, “‘they are trying to throw us off the planning board.’”
“I done it out of fairness,” he told the crowd. “And this has nothing to do with politics. I want to be fair.”
A victim perhaps of his emotion, Haven never quite successfully elucidated what exactly he had intended to accomplish with the email and subsequent proposed term limits.
Thirty-three people spoke during the public hearing on the term limits. Most appeared to support at least the concept of planning, which, in Macon County, should never be considered a given.
Former Planning Board Chairman Sue Waldroop defended the work done by volunteers on the board, calling it a “thankless, sometimes frustrating, undertaking.”
“Contrary to recently published charges that planning board members wish to dictate to their fellow citizens, no planning board … has that power,” she said.
Waldroop spoke against term limits, saying that it would “cripple” the board’s ability to conduct business.
Bill Crawford also spoke against the concept, saying it seemed an attempt “to remove some specific people. And that’s not right.”
But, several speakers called on commissioners to pass the term limits exactly as Haven had proposed.
“Requiring a turnover in planning board membership will lead to broader citizen participation,” said Vic Drummond. “I believe greater diversity would improve the board.”
Bruce Thorne said he believes a “new infusion” of thought via new board members was needed.
“We need new blood in the system,” Thorne said.
Planning Board Member Jimmy Goodman said he knows “plenty” of residents who want to serve but “can’t get on for political reasons.”
At times the debate went beyond term limits, as when Loretta Newton told commissioners that no one should be allowed to tell her what she can or cannot do on her private property, but that they do anyway.
“You can regulate my private use of my property. You can make it so I can’t even enjoy my property.”
Other Macon County residents called for a more “civil discourse,” as planning board member Larry Stenger put it, when discussions vital to the county surface as they surely will.
Term limits passed for planning board members
The Macon County Board of Commissioners agreed to term limits that start only after each of the planning board members completes another term in office. And, instead of the harsh three-year boot off the board before possible reappointment that was originally proposed, commissioners voted on a shortened one-year timeout.
Planning board terms of service will consist of two three-year terms, for a total of six years before the required one-year respite.
The vote was 4-1 with Commissioner Ron Haven, who made the original proposal to enforce retroactive term limits, voting no. Commissioners Kevin Corbin, Jimmy Tate, Ronnie Beale and Bobby Kuppers voted yes.