In today’s Collier County Commission climate, even the noncontroversial is controversial.
A month ago, all five commissioners amicably voted to move forward with the idea of creating a hearing examiner who could decide routine development matters, taking a load off the Collier County Planning Commission.
The thought was the hearing examiner would free up the planning commission’s time to look at the big-picture development issues and at the same time create a more user-friendly environment for residents and businesses to have minor issues decided in a less costly, more efficient manner. What’s not to like?
Today the idea is back on the agenda as the next step in the process, but Commissioner Fred Coyle has flagged language in the proposed hearing examiner ordinance that says the hearing examiner can also be a member of the planning commission.
“They’re manipulating the process to put a specific person in that job,” Coyle said.
The specific person he has in mind is Planning Commission Chairman Mark Strain.
Coyle acknowledges Strain has a great deal of expertise in the development arena, having served on the planning commission since 2001.
But Coyle says creating a paid position and putting him into it would amount to the commission majority, led by Chairwoman Georgia Hiller, rewarding a political ally.
Strain was briefly removed from the planning commission late last year when Commissioner Jim Coletta declined to nominate him for reappointment, nominating instead local attorney Doug Rankin. After Coletta lost his re-election bid to Tim Nance, a new majority coalition of Nance, Hiller and Commissioner Tom Henning voted to remove Rankin and reinstate Strain.
“There is a growing trend of the majority to reward friends and punish people they don’t like,” Coyle said.
Strain, who helped draft the ordinance before commissioners today, says he’s definitely interested in the hearing examiner job, should it be created.
The rules and procedures would need to be clearly drawn so the hearing examiner only hears requests for minor changes and variations with the planning board tackling the bigger land use issues, Strain said.
He said he doesn’t plan to attend today’s meeting to advocate for the idea but he envisions it as less formal and intimidating than a hearing before the planning commission.
He cited a recent case in which a homeowner’s pool enclosure had blown down. In rebuilding it he found he encroached a few inches beyond where it was supposed to be. He had to hire attorneys and spend hours before the planning commission to get the matter corrected, even though no neighbors objected. That’s the sort of thing a hearing examiner could deal with quickly, Strain said.
Another option, having county staff members decide routine matters on their own, never took hold, Strain said. A hearing examiner is a middle ground between having staff decide matters behind closed doors and a full hearing before the 10-member planning commission, he said.
The Collier County Hearing Examiner process wouldn’t be as formal or take on the magnitude of cases as the one in Lee County, Strain said. “It should be public-friendly. If it gets into a courtroom atmosphere, it defeats the purpose.”
Bob Mulhere is a former county planner who now works as a private consultant. He proposed a hearing examiner years ago but the idea was shot down.
He agrees with Strain that a hearing examiner looking at appeals of staff decisions, boat dock applications and minor deviations from county codes would be bring efficiency to the process and free up the planning commission for long range planning, which he called, “critically important.”
However he questioned the need for the hearing examiner to sit on the planning commission. “That surprises me a little bit. It seems unusual,” Mulhere said.
Overall, Mulhere says the concept of a hearing examiner would be a positive one for Collier County. “I think it’s a good idea, actually. The devil is in the details. Keep in mind, the process will evolve.”