WRA Comments to Common Council on Monday, April 3, 2017

The following is the complete text of the comments given by WRA Chair Jennifer Mahr to the Common Council on Monday, April 3 regarding items 7A and 8B on the agenda:

Good evening. My name is Jennifer Mahr and I am the chair of the Westfield Residents Association. I’m here tonight, on behalf of the association, to ask you to vote against amending the Director of Planning, Conservation and Development’s job description as proposed by Mayor Drew.

The WRA was formed in 1981 to ensure the rational development of Middletown. Our longtime Chair, Arline Rich, and her contemporaries, dedicated their lives to preserving the process of good governance, believing that city government exists to protect and promote the interests of the people whose tax dollars pay for the process.

If you google the question, “why should a city hire a certified planner?” The American Planning Association’s website says this about the American Institute of Certified Planners’ (AICP) certification process: “Planners with an AICP certification have the academic qualifications, relevant work experience, and mastery of essential skills required to serve communities effectively. Hiring a certified planner demonstrates your commitment to the highest standard of ethical practice.”

So, first, for the Director of Planning, Conservation and Development to serve Middletown effectively, he or she needs academic qualifications, relevant work experience, and a mastery of essentials skills. Perhaps, if we were a sleepy bedroom community like Middlefield, we could accept the argument that a great manager could gain on the job experience, and be certified after the fact. So you know, the AICP certification process requires 4 years of job experience for a candidate without a degree certified by the Planning Accreditation Board before the candidate can even take the certification test.

But Middletown isn’t a sleepy bedroom town. It’s a complex, robust city that occupies, literally, a central role in our state. Middletown hosts a university, college, a hospital, multiple high schools, critical junctions of interstate highways, an envious position on the CT river, and a host of other rich, competing qualities that set this city apart from other cities. Why would we settle for someone without the academic qualifications, relevant work experience and mastery of essential skills? We’re about to rewrite our zoning code and redevelop our waterfront. We don’t have 4 years to give someone on the job experience before certification: Middletown needs someone now who can jump in and provide relevant leadership based on previous experience.

The second reason for hiring a certified planner took me by surprise: “Hiring a certified planner demonstrates your commitment to the highest standard of ethical practice.” The your in that sentence is you, the Common Council and the Mayor’s office. The words “ethical practice” are hyperlinked to a page that summaries the AICP Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct: “Certified planners…pledge to uphold high standards of practice, ethics, and professional conduct. As such, the AICP Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct helps members negotiate tough ethical and moral dilemmas they sometimes face.” It is notable that the certification process exists to ensure that city planners are properly trained to serve the public’s interest. It’s not a side benefit of certification, it’s the purpose for certification. To me, it means the job comes with a danger, and to protect the interests of the citizens of this town, you, the Common Council, would hire a certified planner to demonstrate your commitment to clean, efficient, and honest government.

The entire process that got us to tonight’s vote is the opposite of good government. Don’t just take my word for it – consider the multiple Middletown Press and Hartford Courant articles which have commented on the highly irregular process that was the job description revision and subsequent nomination of Mr. Samolis to the position. This job cannot be tied to the Democratic city machine or the Mayor’s future political aspirations. The Director has to work for us, the citizens, not you, the politicians with favors to collect and dispense.

For that reason alone – the appearance of a conflict of interest or a manipulation of the government process to benefit something other than the public interest, you the Council should not approve this new job description or appointee. If that’s not enough, the appointee does not have the education or experience for the job Middletown requires. Taken together, voting tonight to approve the changes to the Director’s job description and to approve the nomination of Mr. Samolis would constitute an utter failure on the part of the Common Council to govern responsibly and ethically. There is no other way to consider your actions.

At the very least, if you are determined to let the mayor have his way, you must also create and fund a second job for a certified city planner. These two jobs have to be approved together to demonstrate a commitment to transparency and propriety. In other words, you can’t approve the mayor’s proposals tonight and just promise to try to create a planning job later. If our budget cannot support hiring a separate city planner, you can’t vote tonight to change the job description to drop out this expertise. Stephen Devoto, the Chair of the Planning and Zoning Commission has already publicly stated that he and the other elected members of the Commission cannot do their jobs without support from a planning professional.

Please – put the citizens of Middletown first. Our long term stability and prosperity depends on the choices you make right now: don’t make a short-sighted choice based on political convenience to deprive our town of the professional experience we need at this critical moment. Thank you.