A special election — asking voters whether the planning commission should be elected — will be June 6.
In March, Tom Morphet and nine other sponsors of the petition garnered 317 signatures, more than the required 260, to get the question on the ballot. A positive vote would make the seven-member body elected to three-year staggered terms.
A controversial planning commission meeting in December motivated Morphet to seek turning the commission into an elected body after the commission voted 3-2 to permit a heliport at 24 Mile Haines Highway and recommended filling two vacant seats with incumbent commissioners over two professional engineers. The decision to permit the heliport was later overturned by the assembly.
Proponents of electing planning commissioners argue that commissioners will be more accountable to the public if they’re elected, that the appointment process is overly politicized and that commissioners have a history of voting based on personal agendas over the public interest.
Planning Commissioner Diana Lapham disputes those claims. She argues that the appointing commissioners takes politics out of an otherwise political electoral process.
“We have a rubric of how we vote for new members, highest value wins the seat,” Lapham said. “From there we make a recommendation to the Mayor. (The Mayor) has full authority to rule against us, or agree.
“From there it goes to the assembly for approval. The commission and the Mayor look for a balanced commission. By making the seats on the planning commission elected, then you have a political commission.”
Despite the commission voting for long-time commissioner Rob Goldberg, he was removed from the commission by Mayor Douglas Olerud late last year. He’d served on the commission for 20 years and served as chair for nearly half that time. He says recent decisions have resulted in a planning commission that is ideologically homogenous, made up mostly of people who live within the townsite.
“We’ve ended up with a planning commission that essentially votes as a block,” Goldberg said. “There is very little diversity in point of view of the people on the commission. I don’t think that point of view represents the will of the people of the borough.”
Current chair Zack Ferrin thinks the opposite is true and says the planning commission has a track record of including members with diverse viewpoints, made up of residents who don’t necessarily want to get involved in politics but still want to serve the community.
“You get people like me,” Ferrin said. “I have no desire to run for assembly, but I do still feel that my time is valuable, and the planning commission is a good way to do that. It’s a good way to be heard. That being said, if the yes passes, we’re going to get politicians.”
Sarah Chapell was one of 10 sponsors who circulated the petition. She says she was motivated to get involved largely because she wanted a conversation to take place about making changes to a commission she thinks requires more accountability.
“I think there is a problem that needs to be solved, and maybe electing our planning commission could help that process,” Chapell said. “It’s a body that has a lot of power. I think bringing questions to the electorate is generally a good way to make decisions.”
Travis Eckhoff was recently appointed to the planning commission. He was passed over by commission members when he applied, but Mayor Olerud appointed him anyway. A professional engineer, Eckhoff said while it’s great that the public has the opportunity to vote on the matter, he thinks commission members should be appointed based on professional qualifications and experience subject to the approval of the assembly.
“This minimizes political influence in the planning process while allowing elected representatives a chance to weigh in on appointments on behalf of their constituents,” he said.
Morphet circulated a petition in 2018 that placed on the ballot a question about whether or not voters wanted to elect members of the planning commission, port and harbor advisory committee, public safety commission and tourism advisory board. The initiative failed 592, to 277.
All Haines Borough advisory boards are appointed bodies. Petersburg is the only community in Southeast that elects its planning commission members.