The never-ending story of Harrisburg’s comprehensive planning process could soon be in for a plot twist, if the mayor gets his way with City Council.
Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse told members of council on Tuesday that he intends to replace all seven members of the city’s Planning Commission, a volunteer board that makes recommendations to council on zoning, land use and other planning matters.
The Planning Commission is also tasked with preparing a comprehensive plan and submitting it to council for approval. It’s been three years since Harrisburg launched its comprehensive planning process, and the project is currently more than a year behind deadline due to disputes between a planning consultant and the city.
Papenfuse blames the Planning Commission for failing to furnish a draft plan for review. His solution is to gradually replace the entire board.
“I do not think the current planning commission has served the citizens well,” Papenfuse said recently. “I can only replace two a year, so it will take four years.”
And that’s only if City Council confirms all of his appointments. Council tabled two of his nominations at Tuesday’s work session: Christopher Nafe, a sustainability manager for the city, and Joseph Link, a former city engineer.
Nafe and Link would replace commissioners Anne Marek and Ronnie Shaeffer, whose terms expire this year, said Planning Commission vice-chair Vern McKissick.
Ausha Green, a council member who also serves on the planning commission, said she recognizes the mayor’s right to nominate board members. However, she is reluctant to bring on new members while the commission is in the process of reviewing and editing the comprehensive plan.
“The timing is not right,” Green said. “More time will be spent bringing someone up to speed rather than getting work done.”
McKissick, who is an architect by trade, agreed that the mayor’s efforts to repopulate the planning commission did not come at a good time.
“It’s ill-advised, but we don’t have a say,” McKissick said.
Council members also bristled at the fact that Papenfuse had picked current and former city employees as his nominees.
Harrisburg City Code allows two city employees to sit on the planning commission. Papenfuse argued that Green, as a council member, counts as one city employee. He believes that appointing another will improve communication between the Planning Commission and the city’s planning bureau.
“The advantage of having another city employee on the commission is that he can actually work with the planning director and has time and expertise to get things done,” Papenfuse said.
Green acknowledged that her role on Planning Commission has led to better communication between City Council and the Planning Commission. She also said she will judge any nominees on their own merit, and won’t discount them if they work for Harrisburg.
But Councilman Cornelius Johnson suggested that Papenfuse’s nominees could create the perception of administrative overreach.
The idea that city officials have tried to wrest control of the comprehensive planning process has permeated much of the discourse about why the project has lagged. Bret Peters, the consultant and lead author of the plan, told TheBurg in December that his relationship with city officials dissolved after they asked him to change recommendations in his draft. They also accused him of failing to pay subcontractors (a charge Peters denies.)
Papenfuse and City Solicitor Neil Grover insist that Peters was fired after submitting material behind deadline last year. Peters says he assiduously followed the terms of his contract but suspended it in 2016, after city administrators allegedly failed to provide timely feedback on drafts.
For his part, Papenfuse rejects the idea that city officials could overstep their role in the planning process.
“The problem with our current Planning Commission is that they see the city as an adversary rather than a collaborator,” Papenfuse said. “This false doctrine… flies in the face of all municipal planning efforts throughout the commonwealth, and is why we don’t have a comprehensive plan yet.”
Even so, Johnson thinks it would be inappropriate to appoint more members of the city’s staff to the Planning Commission. He also said that the commission shouldn’t shoulder all the blame for the delays in the comprehensive planning process.
“The administration played an active role in selecting the [comprehensive plan] consultant, so they share a lot of the responsibility on where our current status is now,” Johnson said. “I think it’s unfair to blame solely the Planning Commission and say they are not doing their job. I don’t think the ultimate answer to solve the problem is to replace everyone.”
The mayor still believes that his nominees will add expertise and a sense of expediency to the volunteer board.
“I tried to suggest two individuals who actually have the time, energy and expertise to roll up their sleeves and get a working draft of a comprehensive plan to City Council,” Papenfuse said. “I’m afraid the current group doesn’t have a clue what they are doing.”