MPC’s New Director To Be Named Soon; Hill Resigns (Updated)

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UPDATE 5/4/15: The City of Knoxville announced today that Gerald Green, the candidate who was the planning director for Jackson County in western North Carolina, has been selected by Mayor Madeline Rogero and Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett to be the new executive director of the Metropolitan Planning Commission.

“I have returned to Knoxville often over the years, and I am impressed with all of the progress and growth the area has seen,” Green says in the press release. “I look forward to helping to build on that momentum through all of the planning services that MPC can provide.”

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One out, one in: A new director of the Metropolitan Planning Commission is likely to be named in the next week or two, even as the office’s deputy director resigned last week.

Last summer’s controversial hiring of Dave Hill as deputy director and comprehensive planning manager led to community protest and staff unrest. A few months after taking heat for that decision, MPC director Mark Donaldson announced his own retirement. He worked through the end of the year, ostensibly to help train his replacement, but the search process was run differently than in the past and didn’t move so quickly. Jeff Welch, director of the Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning Organization, has been serving as interim executive director.

In 2003, Hill himself served briefly as MPC director before taking over South Waterfront development under former mayor Bill Haslam. Mayor Madeline Rogero eliminated that position when she took office, and Hill’s new job in Asheville paid only about a third as much. Metro Pulse reported last summer that Donaldson, a longtime friend of Hill’s who followed Hill from Texas in 2005 to take the MPC job Hill vacated, doubled Hill’s Asheville salary last year by bringing him back to MPC. Without posting the job or holding interviews, Donaldson offered Hill a $100,000 salary, more than he paid Hill’s predecessor (at the agency 26 years) or the other MPC deputy (37 years).

Welch says Hill resigned last week and “is no longer with MPC.” Hill gave the change in leadership as his reason, Welch says. “He said it was time to move on.”

This is the second deputy director position left empty at MPC in the last six months. The openings give the new executive director even greater potential to shape the MPC for years to come as he hires all new top office leadership. But it also means less continuity and potentially a longer learning curve, since a newcomer won’t have the benefit of experienced deputies. The new MPC head will still have Welch, who has directed the Regional Transportation Planning Organization (housed within MPC) for 29 years. This is Welch’s second stint as interim MPC director and he says he’s looking forward to passing the baton.

A change in state law led to a new process for choosing a director: The decision lies with Rogero and Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett rather than the MPC board of commissioners. The two mayors appointed a six-member search committee with representatives from their administrations, the MPC, and the community (former county commissioner Wanda Moody and Stephanie Welch from the Great Schools Partnership).

Committee co-chair Bill Lyons, deputy to Mayor Rogero and Knoxville’s chief policy officer, says the committee started with more than 30 candidates before interviewing 10 or 11 by phone and Skype. That list was winnowed to three, who have all came to Knoxville to interview with the committee, the mayors, and MPC staff, Lyons says. The city and county are negotiating with the preferred candidate and hope to announce the appointment within the next week, he says.

Given the rocky ride the MPC leadership has undergone in the last year, the transition might be easier if the new executive director has some local or regional experience. Lyons says that for the committee, “That was a plus but not a requirement.” Two of the three candidates fit that bill.

Alan Travis, currently the director of planning for the University System of Georgia, was a principal planner at the Knoxville-Knox County MPC in the 1990s, and he earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees at the University of Tennessee. Travis also served as director of research for the Atlanta office of an international commercial real-estate firm, Cushman & Wakefield.

Gerald Green is planning director for Jackson County in western North Carolina. He previously served as chief planner for Asheville’s planning and development department during the period when key downtown areas were being revitalized. Green, who earned his master’s degree at UT, has been a longtime advocate of walkability in cities. He even proved willing to enforce a sidewalk-construction ordinance against a town commissioner in tiny Sylva, N.C., the Smoky Mountain News reported.

The third candidate, Stephen M. Park, left his most recent job a year ago after working for the firm 26 years, according to his LinkedIn profile. He was senior vice president for development at a commercial development firm, the Alter Group of Skokie, Ill. Park’s term on the Gurnee, Ill., Village Board ends this week; he has also served on its zoning board and planning commission and in the 1980s served as a planning and zoning director in the Village of Mt. Prospect. According to the Alter Group website, Park used his knowledge of government to help negotiate public-private partnerships and incentives for developer clients; the company credits him with developing more than 7 million square feet of office, industrial, and retail space, as well as 5,000 acres of land.

Lyons says planning experience was not the only emphasis for the committee as they evaluated director candidates. Communication skills were a critical requirement. “That was underscored by the situation last year,” he says.

Last July, a community group including former City Council members and neighborhood association leaders signed a petition calling for Donaldson’s removal. In a written explanation, the signers indicated that the process used to hire Hill was the final straw after years of dissatisfaction with MPC producing an “incompetent, unacceptable work product” in the form of poorly written, unenforceable zoning amendments and contradictory staff recommendations.

S. Heather Duncan

S. Heather Duncan has won numerous awards for her feature writing and coverage of the environment, government, education, business and local history during her 15-year reporting career. Originally from Western North Carolina, Heather has worked for Radio Free Europe, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, and several daily newspapers. Heather spent almost a dozen years at The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., where she spent most of her time covering the environment or writing project-investigations that provoked changes such as new laws related to day care and the protection of environmentally-sensitive lands. You can reach Heather at heather@knoxmercury.com

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