Erie Board of Trustees passed Ordinance 011-2023 in a 5-2 vote, on the April 25th meeting.
The ordinance clarifies that the Board of Trustees will approve the final Comprehensive Town Plan before it comes into effect. It leaves in place the underlying process and roles for town staff and the Planning Commission in creating the plan, but ensures that the Plan is not adopted before being approved by an elected body in the Board of Trustees.
The vote stemmed from a lack of communication on Planning Commission Chair Kelly Zuniga’s part, her actions during recent public Planning Commission meetings on April 5th and 19th, 2023, her push back on diversity and affordable housing programs, and her lack of availability to meet for discussion without her lawyer present. Several town trustees, the town administrator, and Mayor Brooks all expressed frustrations surrounding Zuniga and presented a comprehensive case as to why this vote needed to be taken.
Town Administrator Malcolm Fleming opened this section of the meeting by speaking strongly in favor of the ordinance. He stated that Zuniga and the Planning Commission were not making an honest effort to update the Comprehensive Plan but were instead accusing town staff of being political over certain aspects, namely affordable housing and the DEI task force, which stands for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Fleming asserted that “without taking the time to be involved in and understand what those outreach efforts consist of Chair Zuniga and Vice Chair Luthi have suggested that they [town staff] are manipulative, and, quote ‘shoving a set agenda down residents throats.’ “
Affordable housing and the DEI task force are at the core of this issue yet the Planning Commission “reflects a gross misunderstanding and a mischaracterization of what affordable housing is. To quote Commissioner Tolson, ‘you bring low income housing, that could be to the detriment of society,’ ” Fleming quoted.
As for the town’s vision of what affordable housing will actually look like, Fleming said “when staff and the board talk about affordable housing, what we have in mind is attractive homes that fit in with the surrounding neighborhood and are affordable.”
Fleming goes on to remind the Board that the Planning Commission also “recently voted to bar members of the DEI Task Force from participating in the Comprehensive Plan Policy Advisory Committee. The Planning Commission’s action reflects clear disregard for the board and staff’s efforts to be inclusive and equitable and to seek out diverse perspectives as we engage the community.” Fleming was not alone in his sentiments.
Trustee Hoback, who previously served as a Planning Commissioner, stated that he went back and watched every Planning Commission meeting from the last ten months to see where the breakdown in communication and problems may have arisen. Hoback said he first saw “in depth, honest, open, transparent discussions and presentation of every single thing this town and staff has been doing to reach out to the entire community.”
But something changed according to Hoback “after the joint session in January, leading up to the April planning commission meeting, I’m confounded and don’t understand where the animosity that was presented in those subsequent meetings came from,” Hoback said of Zuniga’s behavior.
Hoback stated that he observed “ town staff has done an incredible job, very professional, in providing in great detail, the processes and the goals.” But when staff informed the Planning Commission of certain updates and progress, that “no concerns were raised, no input offered, no leadership offered,” Hoback said, “no request made to review it or the content of it.”
Recent Planning Commission meetings on April 5th and April 19th were more acrimonious, such as when Chair Zuniga questioned the need for the DEI task force and her ability to rely on town staff. She also asked that city staff take directions from the Planning Commission in regard to the plan update.
Mayor Pro Tem Loflin apologized for Zuniga’s rude and unprofessional behavior during the meetings. “First of all, I want to offer my sincerest apologies to our staff for the disrespectful nature that our board has allowed to occur and subject you to as employees of our town.”
Loflin laid out several points describing Zuniga’s actions during the April meetings. “It is not respectful to call somebody up publicly to the stand who has worked for our town diligently for years and ask them for their resume.” Loflin references. She goes on to say that “I watched the chair actively question whether or not the consultants or our staff should actually have any role in our comprehensive plan.”
During the April 5th meeting Zuniga asked that city staff take directions from the Planning Department in regards to the plan update. She pontificated that “if not, we need to rethink reliance on staff.” Some worry that this type of behavior will drive away quality staff members who do not want to be berated or given direction by departments they are not part of.
Loflin continued “from my vantage point what the planning commission did at the last two meetings under the leadership of chair Zuniga was absolutely inappropriate.”
The Planning Commission does not have authority over other departments in the town, as does no committee. Comprehensive Town Plans, or similar documents, are typically created by multiple departments working in concert to plan for the future. Loflin continued, “to assert that the Planning Commission and the planning commission alone should be the only body ever charged with comprehensive planning is… inappropriate.”
Trustee Harrison, who also previously served on the Planning Commission, had similar comments “we don’t have these problems with the other boards. We don’t have other boards giving trying to instruct staff, in contradiction to what they’ve been instructed to do from the town’s administrator and the Board of Trustees”
Trustee Baer expanded on the need for stronger leadership to set the proper tone and discussion of updating the town plan. “When the planning commission voted to remove the DEI task force members that sent a very loud and harmful message to the community and to staff,” she said. The town’s comprehensive plan states that diversity, equity, and inclusion are important factors to consider and the process includes a DEI task force reaching out to residents for their input on the plan. Zuniga criticized the task force’s methods and necessity, and suggested that “If we take this outreach to the logical limits we could knock on every single door potentially.”
Mayor Brooks said that he had tried to meet with Zuniga to discuss the matters but after “two weeks of attempting to have a meeting” she ultimately “refused to meet unless she could have legal counsel, which seemed like a strange request.” Zuniga ran for Mayor in 2022 and had ties to dark money being spent on the election, which Brooks ultimately won.
Loflin echoed similar sentiments about Zuniga, “We say nice things about wanting to meet more often, but then have regularly been met with crickets when we talk about actually meeting.”
It was clarified during the meeting that Planning and staff would still be working on the Comprehensive Plan as normal but the Planning Commission now no longer has the power to adopt the plan without the elected Board of Trustees approving it. Trustee Baer asked the town attorney to lend insight into the vote. “Is this ordinance out of the ordinary?” Baer asked. “No, not in my experience,” replied the attorney.
Loflin also laid out the steps for the removal of someone in Zuniga’s position, but did not specifically call for her to be removed during the meeting.
Trustees Bell and Sawusch, both attempted to claim that the ordinance stripped all power from the Planning Commission, but this was verified to be untrue by legal counsel. The change appears to be minor, as the Planning Commission would still be charged with working with town staff to present the final Comprehensive plan for Board approval.
Mayor Brooks noted “It’s apparent that there’s a chasm of understanding between the Board of Trustees, the planning staff and the Planning Commission, and it’s going to require some studying and some self work on those who have not been spending time with some of these subject matters in order to come up to speed.”
Trustee Loflin called for a vote, seconded by Trustee Harrison, the ordinance passed 5-2.