Our view: City needs a better plan for its planner

February 9, 2011 10:41:00 AM



Do we need a city planner? 


Columbus'' latest attempt to forge a comprehensive city plan died Thursday with the resignation of Patricia Southerland, who had occupied the new position of city planner for just five months. 


Forging your way in a newly created job can be daunting, and by most accounts, Southerland wasn''t up to the task. Whether that was due to her own faults, or if she was set up for failure, is unclear. Southerland can''t be reached, and City Hall employees aren''t talking. What we do know is she had at least two run-ins with city employees. The first led to a suspension, the second to her resignation. 


What also isn''t clear is what exactly Southerland did for the past five months. Council members said they didn''t get updates on her progress putting together a city plan. When asked what exactly occupied her time all day, Chief Operations Officer David Armstrong had trouble explaining until he could get his hands on her job description. 


Southerland came with good qualifications. She''s a veteran city planner who has worked in Chattanooga, Atlanta, and other cities. She had a stint with the Federal Department of Commerce along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. 


Despite her experience, she clearly had a lack of oversight by her new employers. The council allowed her to blaze through half of a $50,000 annual salary without getting a handle on her progress. 


So, we wonder: Do we need a city planner? Was this a personality conflict that couldn''t be resolved, or is the job so ill defined that it invites failure, no matter who takes it on? 


The city already has in-house staff and outside contractors who do what a city planner should be doing. Christina Berry, the project coordinator for the city''s Office of Federal Programs, has a degree in urban and regional planning. Kevin Stafford, with Neel-Schaffer Engineers, is the city engineer and has been the de facto city planner. The city''s annexation project, which a city planner should take the lead on? Also farmed out to an outside firm. 


The city hasn''t decided whether to refill the job, or even if it will do so. We think that the money is probably better spent elsewhere.  


But if the city council does decide to hire a planner, we urge it to do the taxpayers, and the next person in the job, a favor: Make the position clearly defined, and demand more oversight.