Community Leaders Want MPC Head Mark Donaldson Fired

About a month ago, we wrote a story about Metropolitan Planning Commission Executive Director Mark Donaldson hiring former MPC Executive Director/Haslam staffer/very close friend Dave Hill. Donaldson hired Hill to replace MPC’s director of comprehensive planning,  Mike Carberry, who retired after  26 years at the agency, but gave Hill the added title “Deputy Director,” even though MPC already has a deputy director, Buz Johnson.

In our story we noted that a large number of MPC employees were angry about the hire, feeling that Donaldson had violated the agency’s hiring policy as laid out in the employee handbook. They also weren’t happy Hill was brought in with a salary of $100,000 during a year when no one else is getting raises because of a tight budget. They also noted Hill’s salary is more than what Carberry had made and more than what MPC’s ostensible second-in-command, Johnson, makes—and he’s been at the agency since 1977.

Well, apparently our story, following on the heels of several critical columns by Victor Ashe and years of general discontent, has spurred a number of community leaders and neighborhood organizers to call for Donaldson to leave MPC. Actually,  let’s amend that—the group is calling for the planning Commission itself, which appoints the agency’s director, to get rid of Donaldson.

Here’s the letter that was sent last week to every MPC commissioner, along with Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero, Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett, and each member of City Council and County Commission (although the latter two bodies have no influence over MPC, the group says it wanted to keep them abreast of what’s going on):

Dear Commissioner:

We are requesting a change in leadership at the MPC. Under the present leadership and management of the present Executive Director, the MPC has lost its status as a trusted and valued professional organization that helps to shape the future development of Knox County and the City of Knoxville. The MPC has lost the respect of the citizens as demonstrated by the attached petition which has been signed by concerned individuals and community associations.

We understand that we are asking you to take one of the most difficult actions possible for any board or commission. Our request is not made lightly. It is based on decades of first-hand experience with MPC and our support of professional, independent planning. We recognize the importance of planning and its positive impact on the future of our community. We support the existing organizational structure of MPC and recognize that effective planning benefits every aspect of our community and, in the long run, saves tax dollars while improving our quality of life.

Yet, unfortunately, we have witnessed the severe erosion of respect and effectiveness of MPC under the present leadership.

There has been a disturbing and continuing pattern of poor work product from MPC which has resulted in a very inefficient planning process. We are not referring to staff recommendations to approve or deny a particular rezoning or use-on-review request. Clearly such decisions are subject to debate and differing opinions.

Instead, we are referring to poorly written, unenforceable and uninterpretable amendments to the zoning ordinance which are placed on the MPC agenda for consideration by the public and ultimately by the MPC, and if approved, by City Council or County Commission. We are troubled as well by erroneous and confusing statements made at public hearings, public meetings or included in staff recommendations, particularly when they conflict with the existing zoning ordinance or adopted plans. We have attached specific and numerous examples.

The result of this too frequent and often incompetent, unacceptable work product is the wasting of incredible amounts of time and effort spent by elected officials, City and County administration staff, the public, and even by the MPC staff itself. This inefficient process, correcting and re-drafting the MPC proposals and correcting misinformation, is a significant waste of valuable public and private resources.

Very often, the proposed language from MPC is so unclear that lengthy discussion centers exclusively on what the proposed language actually means, rather than whether or not the proposed change would be beneficial to our community. Often, it is up to the public to recognize these drafting problems and to bring them to the attention of the public bodies.

Proposed amendments often languish for years before public bodies as they go back and forth, to and from MPC, or are sent to outside entities to draft. The resulting confusion and failures to get things accomplished in a timely manner have unnecessarily frustrated and alienated citizens and stymied progress.

The recent announcement of the hiring of a new Manager of Comprehensive Planning and Deputy Director confirms the belief that the MPC leadership has lost its way and that serving the public interest of Knoxville and Knox County is no longer its mission. This top management, highly-paid position was filled by the Executive Director without the benefit of advertising or interviewing potential candidates, in apparent violation of the MPC Employee Handbook. It is stated at page 12, “Vacancies will be advertised and, when possible, MPC will promote from within…”

The circumstances surrounding the hire, as well as the process used, are totally unacceptable in 2014. We expect a competitive, transparent search process that demonstrates a commitment to both excellence and diversity. Instead, we have been handed a highly paid, top management hire who is, at the very least, seemingly both uniform in thinking and beholden to the existing leadership. The taxpayers of our city and county deserve far better.

For these reasons, as detailed in the attachments to this letter, we request a change in leadership at MPC.

This letter, or at least the version that ended up on our desk Monday, is signed by James A. Bletner, Terry Faulkner, Carlene V. Malone, Larry Silverstein, Pam Owen, Dennis Owen, Sandy Gillespie, Rocky Swingle, Juanita F. Davis-Braswell, Barbara B. Pelot, Reuben M. Pelot, Jean P. Teague, Sue Mauer, James Frank Slagle III, Christine Griffin, Scott Bishop, Timothy C. Bridges, Mary Elizabeth Yates, Lynn Redmon, Charlotte M. Davis, and Ronnie L. Collins.

Malone, Barbara Pelot, and Teague are former members of Council. Many of the other names are current or past leaders of their neighborhood associations. And according to Bletner and Redmon, who are doing the talking for the group, there are a lot more names—and official stances from neighborhoods—coming.

“This is not an inclusive list by any means,” Bletner says.

Adds Redmon,”It’s a very widespread feeling. It’s in the city, and it’s in the county.”

The two-page letter came with a big, fat binder—

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—with tabs of news articles about MPC (including ours); a list of ordinance amendments the group has found problematic; documentation of Donaldson being confrontational with neighborhood groups and others; letters and emails; and a recounting of a similar effort in 2009 raising concerns about Donaldson’s oversight of the agency.

“There are a lot of people who signed the letter in 2009 involved with this,” Bletner says. “But that wasn’t a move to get rid of the director, just an attempt to address issues we had with him.”

This time, however, the group wants Donaldson gone. In addition to the letter, it has drawn up a petition that reads:

The undersigned hereby petitions for a change in leadership at the Knox County MPC.

Under the present leadership and management of the Executive Director, the MPC has lost its status as a trusted and valued professional organization to help shape the future development of Knox County and the City of Knoxville.

The recent hiring process for a new Manager of Comprehensive Planning and Deputy Director of MPC was unacceptable. The hire was done without the benefit of advertising the position or interviewing other potential candidates, an apparent violation of the recently approved MPC Employee Handbook.

The MPC has lost the respect and confidence of the citizens of the community. Its continuing pattern of producing poor work product, including poorly written and at times unenforceable amendments to the zoning ordinance, has resulted too often in a very inefficient, confusing, and frustrating planning process. This has caused endless delays and a wasting of valuable resources, which in turn, have unnecessarily frustrated and alienated citizens and stymied progress.

It is time for a change in leadership at MPC.

Bletner says that once the group has a full list of signees—which is taking a while, because it’s summer—it will deliver that to MPC commissioners as well. He says no one is taking the action lightly.

“We’re putting ourselves out there,” Bletner says.

“It’s embarrassing that it’s come to this,” Redmon adds. “We see a once proud agency that has deteriorated. It hurts the city and county in all kinds of ways.”

We called MPC Chair Becky Longmire and Vice-Chair Bart Carey for comment; neither has responded. (We’ll update if they do.) We also left a message for Donaldson.

Burchett is on his honeymoon this week—and most of his staff is taking their vacation to coincide—so we don’t have a comment from his office, other than confirming that, as Ashe mentioned in his column last week, Burchett did send a letter to Longmire in June with concerns. (Hopefully, we’ll have a copy of that letter in a day or two.) Rogero’s staff confirmed she has received the packet but otherwise has no comment on the matter at this time.

In any case, one former mayor seems convinced this will be the end of Donaldson. In this week’s column, Ashe writes (permalink here):

City Council is clearly uncomfortable with several MPC proposals that have been deferred up to 180 days (half a year). MPC is losing credibility under Donaldson’s leadership with both city and county. Malone has described the MPC work product as “ridiculously poor.”

This letter forces the 15-member MPC to address the matter. Commissioners can support Donaldson and risk seeing themselves replaced as appointments expire over the next year as well as the controversy escalating. Or they can tell Donaldson his days are numbered and he needs to resign or be terminated. Or Donaldson himself can recognize reality and move away before he is pushed. …

This writer believes this may take a few months to play out (unless both mayors request Donaldson’s departure as they did with Gloria Ray), but the handwriting is on the wall for Donaldson as well as Dave Hill. This time next year (and perhaps by Halloween) there will be a new or interim director at MPC. The sooner it is resolved the better for urban planning.

Bletner and Redmon say they have sent an additional letter to MPC requesting a meeting with the Executive Committee, which consists of Commissioners Longmire, Carey, Michael Kane, Janice Tocher, and Brian Pierce. So far, there’s been no response to either letter.