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Glenn Puit: Seger Out, Neiger InPrint

Thriving Communities | January 9, 2009 | By Glenn Puit

In two head-turning reversals, Benzie County has fired its zoning administrator, Craig Seger, and revoked its earlier decision to eliminate longtime county planner Dave Neiger.

The county hired Mr. Seger about 18 months ago to fix problems in its planning and zoning services, but his tenure has been stormy. It was marked by a push within the county administration to fire Mr. Neiger, frequent clashes between him and Mr. Seger, and complaints that Mr. Seger’s temper was harming his effectiveness.

The recent actions by the board of commissioners mark another chapter in the county’s attempt to solve ongoing problems in its planning and zoning department.

At one point last fall it looked like Mr. Neiger, not Mr. Seger, was on his way out-but a significant power shift on the board following the November election changed that. The new county board fired Mr. Seger on a four-to-three vote, and two of those votes came from newly elected commissioners Kristin Hollenbeck and Don Tanner.

That leaves Mr. Neiger in the driver’s seat through at least next September-and the county’s planning and zoning staffing back to where it was before Mr. Seger arrived.

New planning commission chair Kathy Ralston said she believes the county will successfully rebuild its planning and zoning service, which is critical to determining how Benzie grows and develops.

“I have hope,” Ms. Ralston said of Benzie’s planning and zoning problems. “If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be doing this.”

Those problems are both chronic and well chronicled; in addition to the clash between Mr. Neiger and Mr. Seger, long-simmering public dissatisfaction over county communications andcompetency led two townships in the county-Homestead and Inland-to leave county planning and zoning, form a joint planning commission, and establish its own new master plan and zoning ordinance.

Planning Commissioner Ralston said that a Dec. 17 meeting among township representatives, county commissioners, and members of the public to discuss the county’s planning ordinance, which outlines a structure and guidelines for how the planning commission operates, marked an important step forward in solving the county’s land use decision-making problems.

She said that critical issues her commission is addressing including countywide representation on that body. The commission is trying to address complaints from townships that feel they are under-represented at the county level, but has run into several legal obstacles. For example, the county can’t mandate that each township be represented on the planning commission.

“You can’t require it by law,” Ms. Ralston said. “However, I believe the (newly proposed planning) ordinance would bring us a lot closer.”

She added that there was widespread sentiment for retaining Mr. Neiger. She also said there was some talk of her commission managing the planning and zoning staff, but that “a lot of people were seeing the cons in that.”

Ms. Ralston acknowledged that Benzie has been slow in following the recommendations of Halting the Crisis in Confidence, a 2007 consultants’ study of Benzie County’s internal problems. And, she said, the county has had an inadequate personnel policy to deal with the kind of inter-office squabbles that Mr. Neiger and Mr. Seger produced.

“We’ve seen progress,” she said. “We’ve gotten every one to the table, and there is no short cut…we want to get it done.”

The county is now planning a summit on intergovernmental co-operation for planning and zoning. The meeting will be February 21 at the Platte River Association Hall in Honor. For more information on that meeting, call the county at 231-882-9671.