City council delves into proposal for planning commission reconstitution

Mercer Island City Council revisited a proposed reconstitution of the city’s planning commission at council’s April 16 regular hybrid meeting.

The move toward the draft ordinance came about during council’s March 1 planning session when the members reviewed the community and planning development department’s land-use work plan. According to city documents, council directed City Manager Jessi Bon to present a reconstitution proposal at its April 2 meeting. Council’s reasons to move in that direction are: “To increase land-use planning capacity and efficiency as well as provide additional direction to work program priorities,” the documents read.

At the April 2 meeting, councilmembers engaged in a robust discussion and released a 5-2 vote in favor of proposed reconstitution, which would reduce the commission from seven members to five and include two non-resident paid practitioners; two resident lay persons (not compensated); and one resident paid practitioner. Compensation for practitioners (also referred to as land-use professionals) would be $500 per meeting. Any vacancy may be filled by a resident lay person if the city is unable to find a qualified paid practitioner.

On April 16, council conducted a first reading of the ordinance and considered amendments to the city code. Council also passed a motion by another 5-2 vote to schedule a second reading and move toward adoption at its May 7 meeting.

In both votes, councilmembers Craig Reynolds and Ted Weinberg were opposed to the proposed reconstitution.

Reynolds spoke up at both meetings, and noted on April 16: “I’m concerned about bringing in outside forces to make decisions for the Mercer Island community.” On April 2, he delved into the compensation realm and put himself in a lay person’s position: “I know I would personally feel very troubled if I was serving on a board or commission where people around me are getting paid and I’m not.”

On April 2, Deputy Mayor David Rosenbaum explained, in part, why he feels reconstitution is the route for Mercer Island to take: “I think that if we have any hope of getting to the issues that are raised by our residents as it comes to land use or raised by the staff in ways that we can improve our code that are specific to Mercer Island, we have to think of ways to increase the pace that we’re getting through these items.”

Five local residents voiced their opinions on reconstitution during the appearances portion of the April 16 meeting. Here are three of the citizens’ viewpoints:

Chris Goelz, a planning commission member speaking for himself, said, “I urge you not to be too quick to throw aside our venerable planning commission model for a completely untested approach to city planning.”

Marie Bender said she feels it’s a rushed-through proposal that will radically alter the planning commission’s composition and doesn’t take into consideration real input from Island residents. She added: “A commission of three paid land-use professionals and only two members selected based on residency will not allow a reasonable degree of citizen input.”

Daniel Thompson stepped up to the podium, stating, “I agree with this proposal, I think it makes sense. Going from seven to five is a good move and we need more expertise.” Thompson, who was critical of the city not giving what he feels is sufficient public notice on land-use proposals, said he hopes they find individuals with professional land-use experience who don’t have any bias, political ambition or financial interest.