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Enshrined under Article XI of the Columbia City Charter, the makeup of the city’s planning and zoning commission has seen service from hundreds of volunteers on what has arguably been and will continue to be the most important of the city’s advisory boards. The recent departure of retired television executive Andy Lee, who was piqued by the commission’s apparent impotence in the CVS zoning controversy, will be seen as an aberration to the normally routine advise-and-consent relationship that has marked P&Z’s 66-year relationship with the city council. Irony abounds in recalling utterances of frustration by the present representative from Ward Three when he was a member of this august advisory board. When the present city charter came into being in 1949, it provided for seven advisory boards and commissions, including P&Z, the Water and Light Advisory Board, the Board of Adjustment, boards overseeing the public library, health and personnel and another commission to help supervise the city’s parks and recreation activities.
The number of boards and commissions began to increase after Dr. Terry Novak (1940-2009) became city manager in 1974, succeeding Don Allard (1929 – ), who had been fired the previous year. Novak — who earned his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Colorado — already had another academic soulmate on the council when he arrived here from Hopkins, Minnesota. H. Clyde Wilson (1926-2010) — who received his Ph.D., in anthropology in 1961 from UCLA — was elected to the city council on April 6, 1971. Described as non-partisan under the charter, the council nevertheless at that time moved to the left after Dr. Wilson was elected. Both Novak and Wilson knew their upward-bound, tenure-track academic colleagues were expected to demonstrate participation in some aspect of civic affairs apart from their work at the university. What better way to show this than to serve on a city-sponsored board or commission? In spite of the plethora of advisory commissions that have been formed over the past forty years, it’s P&Z, the Planning and Zoning Commission, that remains the single most important advisory body to the city council.
Change is constant among these advisory bodies. Selected to serve by consent of the council, most of these volunteers quietly arrive and depart. From being a casual obligation for some to an obsession for others that borders on zealotry, the sometimes testy relationship between the council and P&Z has led to frustration, contradiction and impotence in the past, and it is with predictable certainty that spats like this will occur in the future.
There’s considerable irony in reviewing city history when it comes to planning. Columbia has corralled a boatload of planning documents since their first one was commissioned and received in 1935. It seems like city councils — both past and present — have ordered dozens and dozens of planning documents and reports over the years. We love to look at the pretty drawings, carefully drawn maps with fanciful sketches of monuments, tree-lined, broad-shouldered boulevards and occasional gee-gaws of commemorative art, tributes in stone to a departed personage or a significant historical occurrence.
It is ironic that it took a baker’s dozen of years for Columbia to hire its first planning director after the 1949 charter authorized the P&Z commission. On September 10, 1962, Hiram C. Martin Jr., of St. Louis, was hired as the city’s first director of planning; his salary was $10,000 a year. Something went wrong with Mr. Martin, so City Manager Allard fired him on August 14, 1964. The city fiddled and quibbled for more than two years until the council finally hired Einar Finnson to fill the long-vacant planning director’s position on April 20, 1967.
As planning and zoning matters have come to occupy a larger portion of the council’s business, there have been suggestions to modify the city charter so as to empower the P&Z Commission with sole jurisdiction over planning and zoning issues. Be mindful of the unintended but predictable consequences of this. Although displeasing and perhaps contentious at times, the existing advise-and-consent relationship between the council and its P&Z Commission has been a generally healthy relationship. And it should continue to be so. In the meanwhile, perhaps the number of the city’s boards and commissions should be reduced, given the abundance of vacant positions and the seemingly constant need to restock them.