A convenient target 

Reinventing the Office of Planning and Grants

Toward the end of the hearing, County Chief Administrative Officer Ann Mary Dussault scooted her chair close to that of Cynthia Klette, director of Missoula’s Office of Planning and Grants, and placed her arm around Klette’s shoulders. Klette leaned in briefly. For more than two hours on Wednesday, Sept. 22, the floor had been open for public comment on the county’s proposal to terminate, by next July, the agreement between the city and the county that created the current Office of Planning and Grants (OPG) in 1996. Criticisms and compliments flew.

OPG administers grants, reviews development and provides long-range planning for both the city and the county. Its 2004 budget is $5.3 million, of which $3.6 million comes from non-tax revenue sources like grants and fees. By most accounts, the office is a pressure cooker. Since 1973, the city and county have had six different agreements with varying incarnarnations of the office, each ostensibly designed to better manage planning in Missoula. In its lifetime, the office in its various iterations has seen 10 directors, with current Director Klette having served the longest—eight years so far.

Recently, the pressure dial jumped.

In late June, retired UM professor Fred Reed resigned from the Consolidated Planning Board, which advises OPG, alleging, in part, mismanagement by OPG administration and inefficiencies in long-term planning. In July, City Council member Myrt Charney of Ward 4 proposed terminating the current contract—the Interlocal Agreement—between the city and county, citing a desire for more direct control over the office, and over planning functions in particular. In August, City Council asked Missoula’s Chief Administrative Officer Janet Stevens to present the Council with a review of OPG functions to help the city consider whether the splitting of certain services is really in its interest. Then, on Sept. 2, the Board of County Commissioners announced that it would conduct a public hearing on whether to terminate the Interlocal Agreement, effectively stepping ahead of the city. Last week, despite a plea from Stevens on behalf of city administration to slow the wheels, county commissioners, under recommendation from Dussault, swiftly and unanimously voted to terminate the current agreement as of July 2005.

Terminating the contract, Dussault believes, gives the county the opportunity to evaluate and augment planning services in the county’s more rural areas, as well as the opportunity for more direct control over planning.

County Commissioner Bill Carey hopes that a new agreement between the city and county will look similar to the terminated agreement, and that most city-county relationships remain intact. He is, however, eager to see more resources directed toward planning in the county’s rural areas. In the past few years, county planning has focused on the urban area. (Further discussion, Carey believes, will reveal how best to structure a planning office that cooperates with the city but reports directly to the Board of County Commissioners.)

County Commissioner Barbara Evans is a critic of current OPG administration and welcomes the decision to cancel the Interlocal Agreement, as well as the chance to take a closer look at OPG and some of what she believes are its shortcomings, like long-range planning. She points to the Wye-Mullan West Comprehensive Area Plan, which is expected to be adopted soon but, she says, took almost 10 years to complete. “I don’t care whatever excuses are given for that [delay],” says Evans. “It’s not a good enough excuse in my mind.”

While deadlines for plan completions were never set, former Consolidated Planning Board member Reed pointed out in his resignation letter that “substantial building and subdivision” was taking place in the Wye-Mullan area “with no final [Wye-Mullan] draft…in sight.” Klette, though, points to the bigger picture. In the past nine years, OPG as it is currently structured will have finalized 15 plans once the Wye-Mullan plan is approved. During the 10 years before that, she says, 16 plans were completed. “We’ve either kept on par or we’ve done slightly better,” says Klette.

Dussault had another reason for recommending the county move quickly in terminating the agreement. She hoped that promptly undoing the agreement would deflect some of what she believes has been unwarranted criticism of OPG staff by some City Council members. She recalls Ward 2’s Anne Kazmierczak’s comment that “OPG staff is not reflecting the values of city and county residents”—a comment Dussault describes as “insulting.”

“In my opinion, the City Council is very frustrated by the policies adopted by former Councils relative to growth,” she says. “But I firmly believe that they are scapegoating [OPG] staff in the process.”

Over at least the past six months, Council has been inundated with a public frustrated by growth. OPG staff are quick to point out that they do not write the policies that govern growth. Rather, OPG staff is charged with carrying out the policies of elected officials. Whether OPG recommends that projects be approved or denied, its decisions are bound to be unpopular with either the preserve-neighborhood-character camp or, alternately, the development community. Tensions over growth, says Mayor Mike Kadas, all land at the desk of OPG.

“We’re trying to figure out who to blame for the problems we’re having,” explains Ward 1’s John Engen,” and [OPG is] sort of a convenient target.”

And, Engen believes, an inappropriate target.

Now, says Kadas, the city will spend a fair amount of time looking at the office, on top of other workload priorities, including growth management. “At some point,” says Kadas, “there’s a limit to how much you can get done.”

Klette remains at the helm of OPG. During Wednesday’s hearing, she wore a black suit criss-crossed with fine white lines and a pair of black pumps. During watchdog Will Snodgrass’ criticisms on behalf of himself and Loreen Folsom, including a request for a director who “will comply with the law,” she gazed unflinchingly at her accuser, poised and still. It was the compliments that threatened Klette’s composure. When county employee Dave Dewing told commissioners that they’d lose a good employee if they “run [Klette] off,” Klette turned her head away. “What do you do with a compliment?” she said after the meeting. “It was unexpected. It was unexpected to me.”

Myrt Charney says Council will continue along the path it selected prior to the county’s decision to end the contract. He expects that Stevens will soon provide Council with a review of OPG functions. Engen has asked the city’s administration and finance committee to estimate the cost of setting up the city’s own planning and grants office; he suspects that a combined office is more cost-effective but would like to know for sure. Currently, city government contributes $438,000 toward OPG’s budget.

Both city and county governments will now set about determining how a new agreement, if any, might be structured. In her comments last Wednesday, Klette described the task as “inventing, and then reinventing, and then reinventing again the organizational structure.” kszpaller@missoulanews.com

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