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Glenn Puit: Commissioner-Elect Tanner Speaks OutPrint

Thriving Communities | November 18, 2008 | By Glenn Puit

A newly elected member of the Benzie County Board of Commissioners says the next couple of months will be a critical time for countywide planning and zoning in Benzie, and he also thinks it’s likely that longtime county Planner Dave Neiger is likely to stay on the county payroll despite previous attempts to oust him from his position.

Don Tanner-who was elected to the Board of Commissioners earlier this month and who also serves on the county Planning Commission-has been a supporter of Mr. Neiger. As Mr. Tanner prepares to join the board of commissioners, he believes the board will reconsider the decision to significantly cut the county planning department’s budget, which would have caused Mr. Neiger his job.

With a couple of new commissioners now on the board, and in the aftermath of public criticism of the decision, Commissioner Tanner thinks the board is going to have second thoughts about getting rid of Mr. Neiger.

“I think with the new board coming on, Dave is in pretty good shape,” he said. “That’s my good guess.”

Clarifying the future staffing of both the planning and zoning departments is even more urgent because the county comprehensive plan is overdue for an update; updates to make the county zoning ordinance consistent with the county plan were never completed.

Furthermore, dysfunction in Benzie County’s planning and zoning departments has continued to fester, and it is apparent Mr. Neiger and Benzie County Zoning Administrator Craig Seger will never be able to get along or even work together. The two men simply despise one another.

Complicating the matter even further is the fact that Mr. Seger-who was the subject of a no confidence vote by the planning commission over his efforts to oust Mr. Neiger-is now the subject of an incident that occurred in the planning and zoning departments office that involved the police responded. According to police reports filed with the Benzie County Sheriff’s Office, Mr. Seger exchanged words with local resident Eric Lee VanDussen, a frequent critic of the county who previously sued and won a lawsuit against the county for its failure to adequately disseminate records under the state’s open records law.

Mr. VanDussen reported to authorities that on October 30, he went to the Benzie County Planning Department to view a topography map for a piece of property he was considering purchasing. Mr. Seger, Mr. VanDussen said, refused to let him see the map and the conversation became quite heated.

Benzie County Deputy Tom Whale said he was at the county building discussing the incident with Mr. VanDussen when Mr. Seger showed up and, according to the deputy, was “very wide eyed and raising his arms, raising his voice and advised me, that, ‘he (VanDussen) needs a police escort if he’s coming into my office.’”

Benzie County Administrator Chuck Clarke later ordered Mr. Seger to allow Mr. VanDussen to see the map, but Mr. VanDussen said he only got to see the map when he asked Dave Neiger for help.

“All Eric wanted to do was review a public document that is available to the public for review,” the deputy said.

Mr. Seger later defended himself in police reports, saying he didn’t trust Mr. VanDussen and that he was making a ruckus.

“I found this behavior totally unacceptable,” Mr. Seger said.

Another witness, Kathie Bruce, disputed this.

“As far as I can say, Eric was not out of line,” Ms. Bruce said.

Adding to the ongoing turmoil at the county government building, the county board of commissioners has scheduled a performance review of Mr. Clarke. He has been the subject of a good deal of controversy for his handling of staff and personnel issues.

Look for more from us in the coming weeks on this and Mr. Clarke’s response to the criticism.

On a more positive note, the county is coordinating a countywide meeting of township representatives, the planning commission, and the board of commissioners to discuss how to best perform countywide planning and zoning. Benzie County Planning Commission Chairwoman Kathy Ralston said at a planning commission meeting last Thursday night that she’s planning on calling the meeting in late December.

“The outcome I would like to see from all of this is the mending of relationships between the county and the townships,” Ms. Ralston told the Institute. “I’m looking forward to getting the townships’ input because what I would like to see (in county planning and zoning) is based on what they (the townships) want to see.”

Mr. Tanner said the planning commission has recommended to the board of commissioners that the board fund a fulltime planner and consider making the position of zoning administrator a part-time job.

But Mr. Seger said his successes since he was hired in 2007 have been extensive, and those successes justify rentention as a full-time employee. Those successes include rewriting the existing zoning ordinance, his work as a deputy drain commissioner, and his support of the crucial Grand Vision transportation and planning study.

“I will continue to do good work and move the programs I am responsible for in a positive direction for Benzie County,” Mr. Seger promised.