More on MPC Head Mark Donaldson’s Retirement

We’re here at the monthly Metropolitan Planning Commission meeting, at which, as we reported this morning, MPC agency Executive Director Mark Donaldson will announce his retirement, effective Jan. 1, 2015.

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Donaldson, on the left above, sent an e-mail to staff around lunchtime confirming the news:

This afternoon at the conclusion of the MPC meeting I will be announcing my RETIREMENT from MPC. At the request of the MPC executive committee I have agreed to stay on until a new director is hired.

I’ve enjoyed working with all of you and the planning commissioners, but I am really looking forward to working only on those things I want to do and are fun.

Best wishes to all. Carry on the good work.

Mark

This means it’s going to be a while before Donaldson says something—MPC meetings tend to go on for ages. And this room is currently packed with people interested in various things on the agenda, from a downtown distillery to new childcare regulations.

MPC chair Becky Longmire told the News Sentinel that Donaldson made the decision to retire on his own and and was not forced out. But there are signs that if Donaldson hadn’t made the decision now, it might not have been his to make.

On Monday afternoon, the Tennessee Technology Corridor Development Authority held its regular monthly meeting. At the end of the agenda was an item, “Introduction of new TTCDA staff support.” Buz Johnson, MPC’s deputy director and the TTCDA executive director, is retiring from MPC on Oct. 1 after 37 years, and his last day in the office will be Sept. 12.

But at the end of the meeting, Johnson didn’t introduce his successor. A board member asked Johnson what had happened to that agenda item. Johnson said the agency wasn’t quite ready to name the person who’d be handling his duties yet.

“But we think we know who it is,” Johnson said. “And I look forward to working with him. … If it’s who I think it is, we’ll announce that at the September meeting.”

The “he” Johnson mentioned is Mike Reynolds, a MPC planner. Last week, according to sources within the agency, MPC management congratulated Reynolds on his promotion—a promotion for a opening that had not been advertised within the agency and for which no one else had had the opportunity to apply, raising questions about another Dave Hill situation. We called Johnson about it last week; he didn’t call us back. Then, Monday morning, Donaldson sent an e-mail to staff asking anyone interested in Johnson’s job responsibilities to contact him.

After the TTCDA meeting, we asked Johnson whether Reynolds had already been assigned to take over the former’s responsibilities with the authority. He declined to comment. So we went up to Donaldson’s office to ask him. The ensuing conversation went something like this:

MP: Have you interviewed anyone else for Mr. Johnson’s position besides Mr. Reynolds?

Donaldson: It’s not time for that yet.

MP: But have you talked to Mr. Reynolds about the position?

Donaldson: He has expressed his interest in it in an e-mail, yes.

MP: Has anyone else expressed interest in Mr. Johnson’s responsibilities?

Donaldson: It’s not time for that now.

MP: But the TTCDA agenda said new staff support was to be introduced today, and that agenda was posted last week. Was Mr. Reynolds told last week that he already had the job?

Donaldson: We have not made a decision about the job.

MP: But you have talked to Mr. Reynolds about the job?

Donaldson: There have been no interviews.

MP: Has anyone other than Mr. Reynolds expressed interest in Mr. Johnson’s position?

Donaldson: We have not made a decision about the job.

MP: Has anyone other than Reynolds expressed interest in Johnson’s position, yes or no?

Donaldson: That’s not a yes or no question.

MP: That most certainly is a yes or no question. Has anyone other than Reynolds expressed interest in Johnson’s position, yes or no?

Donaldson: The time to talk to any others is not here.

MP [slowly enunciating each word]: Has anyone other than Mike Reynolds expressed interest in Johnson’s position with TTCDA, yes or no?

Donaldson [very quietly]: Maybe.

MP: Are any of those people female MPC staff members?

Donaldson: I don’t know.

This absurd exchange actually went on longer than this—Johnson was in the room, too, but didn’t say anything. Eventually Donaldson pulled up his e-mail and discovered that since that morning he had received responses from “two ladies and from four gentlemen” for a variety of duties, including the TTCDA ones.

“The end result might be that … all the comprehensive planners do some development work,” Donaldson said.

Donaldson was clearly very uncomfortable and unhappy about our line of questioning. Announcing his retirement the next day (at least, to MPC’s Executive Committee) isn’t a bad way to sidestep any additional personnel drama that could come from promotions of existing staff to replace Johnson.

We expect there will be a national (not just a regional or local) search for Donaldson’s replacement this fall. And one person we’re very sure won’t get the job is the former director, Hill—apparently in recent years, he’s let his certification from the American Institute of Certified Planners expire. Under current state law, a director of a planning agency must have AICP certification. (Donaldson actually has never had AICP certification,  but he’s grandfathered in—the law changed after he was appointed in 2005.) Unless Hill jumps through a lot of hoops relatively quickly, he’ll be ruled out of the running.