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Glenn Puit: An Apology, a Defense of CutsPrint

Thriving Communities | October 7, 2008 | By Glenn Puit

Benzie County Zoning Administrator Craig Seger apologized to the planning commission Tuesday night for the furor caused by his role in the ouster of longtime Benzie County planner Dave Neiger.

Mr. Seger has faced sharp criticism from some observers for advocating for Mr. Neiger’s dismissal, including a “no confidence” vote by the planning commission.

Mr. Seger told commissioners last Tuesday night that he was trying to improve the Benzie County Planning and Zoning Departments, but admitted his “methods” were flawed.

“When I was hired for this position, I was asked to make improvements” Mr. Seger said. “When I started, I was under the impression there was a great sense of urgency that was necessary to make those improvements and move this forward.

“I think that because of the methods I chose to use, the result was your message to me during the last meeting,” he said of the no confidence vote. “I’m here to apologize tonight for the methods I used that did anything other than build trust. I am asking for your forgiveness for the methods that I used to move this forward.”

But whether the apology helps him regain the commission’s confidence remains to be seen.

Also unknown is whether Mr. Neiger will actually lose his job, or if the county will bring him back in the face of anger over his dismissal.

The Benzie County Board of Commissioners, in a controversial vote two weeks ago, ousted Mr. Neiger by sharply cutting the planning budget and his salary. Now there appears to be a growing movement to restore his position.

When commissioners cut the planning budget, they said that it was necessary due to projected budget shortfalls. But Mr. Neiger’s supporters believe the budget was used as an excuse to get rid of him; he had frequently been criticized over the county’s longtime failure to update its zoning ordinance.

The board hse since asked the planning commission to study its budget and make recommendations. One rumor is that the group will recommend firing Mr. Seger and rehiring Mr. Neiger. Or the group might spend its remaining budget, $15,000, to rehire him as a planning consultant.

Complicating the controversy is the upcoming county board of commissioners’ election; if the board’s composition changes it might change the decision regarding Mr. Neiger.

Don Tanner, who as a county commissioner candidate criticizes Mr. Seger, said in a recent interview that he believes the dismissal controversy may well affect the election.

“There’s a lot of ramifications to this, because Dave is liked on a lot of levels,” Mr. Tanner said. “I don’t know that the county board, as a rule, has any understanding of the dealings of the planning commission on a daily basis.”

County Administrator Chuck Clarke is also taking heat over the matter. Some allege that he has not performed adequate job performance evaluations for Mr. Neiger, something he denies.

“Both Seger and Neiger were provided their evaluations and…each sat down with (the former planning commission chair) and myself to go over their reports and discuss where we have been, where we’re going, what they had been doing good and not so good, and their goals for the future, with some tips on how to accomplish them,” Mr. Clarke said. “I thought this process was quite extensive…”

The administrator also insisted that the budget cuts were necessary.

“The budget process is not about performance evaluations,” he said. “It is about cost efficiency and methods to address that and stay within the revenue you have…It is no doubt that performance does factor into these thoughts…and if we can get the same or better results with fewer dollars than it is prudent…Planning is one area that can be successfully contracted…to be both economical and operationally efficient…the budget committee thought that a shift in direction with planning would be a prudent, cost-efficient move…”

What happens next is unclear. The planning commission meets again next week to study its options; we’ll keep you up posted.