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Planning department overhauled

Just five months into her term, Port Orchard’s newly elected Mayor Kim Abel has launched a shakeup of the city’s planning department, a move she said is intended to bring Port Orchard more in line with its peers.

Abel announced Thursday she intended to eliminate the city’s top planning position and replace it with a new position — planning director. The director, who will join the city’s four existing department heads, will report directly to the mayor — a first in the city’s history.

Previously, the planning department fell under the public works department and reported to the city engineer.

Abel said by eliminating that extra layer of bureaucracy, the planning department will be able to work more efficiently and command more clout in its dealings with other cities’ planning departments.

“When I saw the list of planning things we have to accomplish and the growth we have coming, we need someone to direct this,” she said.

There is still much left to be done before the city can start looking for a new planning director. For starters, the City Council must approve the move, most likely at its May 24 regular meeting. Also, Abel must determine what responsibilities the new position will handle, including what staff will report to the director.

Although the position of city planner is being eliminated, the assistant planner position is being retained and other departments, such as code management, have in the past reported to the city planner. Abel will have to decide what other functions will become part of the new, independent planning department and which will remain under the authority of public works.

The new director’s salary will also have to be established.

“That’s why we’ll be going out (to advertise the position) in two weeks, not tomorrow,” she said.

One thing at least is clear — current city planner Rob Wenman will not be a candidate for the job. Abel said she wanted to look outside the county for a planning director and said she didn’t think Wenman’s qualifications would fit the yet-to-be-drafted job description.

Abel said Wenman would stay until a new planning director could be found, then leave the city’s employ.

She said she didn’t know how hard the blow was for Wenman, who was hired almost exactly four years ago out of the Kitsap County planning department. Abel did say he took the news “quietly.”

Wenman did not return calls seeking comment.

Although Abel said the decision to fire Wenman and eliminate his position was done purely to put the city in a better position for future planning efforts, not everyone has been so diplomatic about his departure. The Port Orchard Planning Commission has submitted ongoing complaints about the city planning department, particularly Wenman.

Planning commissioners have said Wenman was difficult to work with and often appeared biased toward applicants requesting land-use action approval.

Commissioner Fred Chang said the commission at one point considered giving Wenman a vote of no-confidence but decided not to bring the matter to a formal vote.

“I’m not sure how the vote would have turned out, even if the planning commission could have taken up the subject,” Chang said. “(But) ever since the election and the planning commission’s retreat (earlier this year), the council has been very aware of the planning commission’s concerns.”

He added, “I think it is a very positive step for the city.”

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