Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Stick to the Plan

“Here goes everything,” the British folk musician Linda Thompson sings, on the title track of the album “Won’t Be Long Now,” released on Oct. 15. “No more lies.”

The same morning as the album’s release, Harrisburg’s own Linda Thompson held a press conference to announce what appears to be the outgoing mayor’s last hurrah. The conference concerned a proposed update to the city’s comprehensive plan, a document that’s meant to spell out a broad vision for the city’s development, which Harrisburg has not updated since the mid-70’s. I wrote a bit about the history of comprehensive planning, and about the disarray at the first public meeting on the plan, in a column last Friday.

It’s with a certain amount of disappointment that I return to the plan this week. As I’ve already written, comprehensive planning, however lifeless it sounds, ought to be a chance for a positive, community-driven discussion about what the city needs in years to come. The usefulness of a plan is not trivial: having a well-drafted roadmap in place can significantly help the city attract state and federal funding. And even if the announcement was mostly for show, so that the mayor could claim credit for one more initiative at the end of her run—well, no harm, no foul.

But, as a number of sources now show, the process that has guided the plan thus far meets virtually none of the marks laid out by the mayor last Tuesday. This week, the city responded to a request for records of the bidding process and eventual contract with the consulting firm, Mullin & Lonergan, to draft the plan. The city’s COO and the receiver’s office have provided a few clarifying comments. And yesterday it was revealed that the office of city controller is withholding its stamp from the latest contract due to concerns about the process. Taken together, these sources are a window onto the dysfunction, half-truths, and contempt of procedure that seem to hover over Harrisburg government.

Here’s a run-down of the ways in which, in my view, the Thompson administration has botched the process:

1. A comprehensive plan should start with City Council.

The Municipalities Planning Code, which contains the state statutes that govern city planning, clearly says that comprehensive planning should begin with City Council. Nevin Mindlin, previously an independent candidate for mayor, expressed this during public comment at last week’s meeting. The code explains that a planning agency “shall at the request of the governing body have the power and shall be required” to prepare a comprehensive plan. It defines “governing body” as the elected council in cities of the third class, like Harrisburg.

This isn’t a technicality. Council, unlike the mayor’s office, holds regular, public meetings during which residents are invited to offer comments. Its members come from neighborhoods across the city, and more than any other elected body, its makeup reflects the actual composition and values of the population. If the goal is a community-driven process, the best way to achieve it is to put council in the driver’s seat. Instead, this process began behind the closed doors of the mayor’s office sometime in 2012.

Thompson, last week, made a few flimsy attempts to justify council’s late involvement. First, she said she’d invited them but that, in a reflection of “apathy,” none of them had replied. Then she acknowledged that Bruce Weber was indeed a member of her appointed “steering committee.” Then, when Mindlin raised his objection on Wednesday, she pointed to where Weber was sitting in the audience to show that council was part of the process. Either Thompson can’t tell the difference between council driving a process and merely participating, or she doesn’t think the difference matters. Neither possibility is reassuring.

2. The plan should be driven by a planning commission, not a steering committee.

Another subject on which the Planning Code is rather clear is the makeup of the agency tasked with overseeing the comprehensive plan. The governing body (council) can elect to create a planning commission of “not less than three nor more than nine members.” All of its members must be residents of the municipality, and the majority—from two on a three-member commission up to six on a commission of nine—are to be ordinary citizens, meaning residents who are not officers or employees of the city. Their appointments, meanwhile, are to be approved by council.

Instead, the mayor’s office has handpicked a “steering committee” of more than 30 members. Some of them are developers. Some of them are elected officials. Several are city employees, or directors of city authorities. They appear to have been invited at different times, and are reportedly communicating primarily by email, with varying degrees of involvement. One of the members is Dave Black, the CEO of CREDC, who appears to be more closely involved than anyone so far—he sat beside the mayor on stage during the first public meeting and helped with the presentation.

The city has a planning commission, but rather than engage it, the mayor’s office came up with the novel invention of her committee. This is unfortunate, because a commission, at least, would have a clear guide on how to conduct itself in the planning code. (Among the guidelines is a requirement to keep records on all of its business.) Instead, the plan has a steering committee whose rules, meetings, and methods of appointment are based on Thompson’s whims.

3. The contract for a consultant should be awarded in such a way as to be above suspicion.

Initially, when Thompson was asked about the consulting firm hired to draft the plan, she said they had not been part of a competitive bidding process, because they were already working on the city’s housing strategy. Then, at the public meeting, she corrected this, saying they were one of several firms that submitted proposals in the spring of 2012. She promised to provide records of the request for proposals and the records of the firms that submitted, which were obtained this week.

The actual sequence of events is more complicated than either version Thompson presented. Mullin & Lonergan did indeed bid for a consulting contract in 2012. They were chosen, as the lowest responsible bidder, for a three-year, $30,000-per-year contract to provide consulting on a range of community development projects. Among the proposed services is a pledge to assist with “revisions to the City’s Comprehensive Plan,” although the item is one of 11 under the heading “Other Technical Services.” But this fall, they were awarded a second contract, this time specifically concerning the comprehensive plan, for $153,000 over 18 months.

It’s not clear exactly what negotiations led to the new contract, or whether the new contract’s services were actually included in the older one. Mullin & Lonergan did not return calls, but Bob Philbin explained in an email that, each year, Mullin & Lonergan and the city “negotiate a contract to provide services that will assist the city based on what the city needs for that year.”

Does that mean the initial contract got the firm’s foot in the door, but that subsequent costs and services were open-ended? Philbin wrote that the “Comp Plan work is a service/product that is beyond the typical HUD…consulting services. That is why this is a separate work/contract.” However, he added, the “work still falls under the original procurement of services.”

So whether the comprehensive plan was in the original bid depends on which question you’re asking. If the question is whether the new contract should have been competitively bid, the answer is no: comprehensive planning was part of the original contract. But if the question is whether there needs to be a new, larger contract for planning, the answer is yes: comprehensive planning was not part of the original contract.

All of this muddle should have been avoidable. The planning code outlines a clear process for comprehensive planning—but the city abandoned it and needlessly decided to chart its own irregular course.

Thompson seems to have done this partly because she’d been given Lynch’s nod. A spokesman explained that the receiver reviewed the plan’s scope and budget and gave it his blessing, because a qualified firm “was on-hand to do the work and there was no issue from our standpoint in having them do it.” He also explained that, in the interpretation of Fred Reddig from DCED, a competitive bidding process was not necessarily required for projects of this sort, and that “an internal decision was made” to engage Mullin & Lonergan, based on their knowledge of Harrisburg. (The firm has been consulting the city on various projects since 2001.)

But I think there’s something else that explains the blunder better: a persistent culture of dysfunction in City Hall. There was a way to do this correctly, readily available to the mayor had she wanted to use it. That she didn’t, and that her advisors didn’t point her towards it—and that no one, short of the controller’s office, felt it necessary to halt the process until it was done properly—speaks to an attitude of indifference or, worse, distaste for the actual work of governing. The citizens of Harrisburg deserve better management. Well, as the other Thompson had it—it won’t be long.

This article was updated to reflect that the city does have an active planning commission, whose regular schedule of meetings can be found here.

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