By DOTTY NIST
Presented with an organizational chart showing a potential restructuring of the Walton County Planning and Development Services Department, the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) has unanimously rejected such a change to the department.
The decision came at the March 9 BCC regular meeting. While seeming to surface just days before the meeting, according to meeting discussion the restructuring plan had stemmed from BCC direction to staff in November 2020. This direction had included calls for county administration to look at the planning department customer service system—and to audit the department, applications, and personnel, with an eye to any needed in-service training.
At the March 9 meeting, the commissioners agreed that there had been successful implementation of previously-directed planning department changes involving increasing efficiency/reduction of time in processing applications for single-family home permits.
The planning department restructuring chart appeared on the agenda under administration items without accompanying explanation. Walton County Administrator Larry Jones introduced the chart, calling it “one potential scenario,” and “probably a bold step,” but one that administration was prepared to work on if so directed.
He highlighted progress in the planning department over the past few months, indicating that administration was looking for guidance from the BCC on the restructuring issue. Jones assured the officials that if the BCC direction was to retain the current planning department structure, that administration would continue to work with the department under the current structure, possibly with “tweaks,” and strive to make it “the best planning department in the state.”
District 2 Commissioner Danny Glidewell said he would defer to District 3 Commissioner Mike Barker, who in November had asked for the planning department customer service review and audit or the department, as to whether the restructuring was in line with what Barker had had in mind.
Glidewell commended Walton County Planning and Development Services Director Mac Carpenter and his staff for accomplishments reported since November, including reducing the public’s time for obtaining a permit for a single-family home down to one day for property north of the bay and down to six days for property south of the bay.
He said of the restructuring plan, “I believe that you don’t reward people who have done a good job by kicking them in the teeth—and some of this that we’ve been presented with is a pretty good jolt to Mr. Carpenter, Ms. Shell, and their other staff.”
Glidewell continued, “So… if you boil this down into the essence of it, it doesn’t add anybody under their purview and it creates a $100,000 position and another position for an administrative assistant.”
This was a reference to the Community Development Director position and Administrative Assistant positions shown atop the other planning department positions on the chart.
Glidewell was of the opinion that the money that would go to these new salaries could be better used for other purposes, including for facilities maintenance, housekeeping, and road department staff.
“I have no interest in such…as this right here,” Glidewell concluded about the restructuring plan. He urged for the department to move forward under the same structure and leadership and be given the opportunity to continue to “please the board.”
“I concur with Commissioner Glidewell on everything you said,” District 5 Commissioner Tony Anderson responded. “The whole county is understaffed,” he continued.
Anderson agreed on the planning department’s success in implementing the task presented to them by the BCC in November. Anderson spoke to the need to hire additional planners under the leadership of Carpenter and Walton County Planning Manager Kristen Shell. He said that this is difficult to do under the current economic conditions because planners tend to want to work for developers rather than for government.
“An overworked staff has done a great job of adhering to what we asked them to do,” Anderson said.
District 1 Commissioner Boot McCormick said his issues with the planning department had not been major ones that could have been addressed with communication from the BCC through the planning director. He said it had never been his intent to put across that personnel changes were needed but instead “more of a culture change.” He concurred with Glidewell and Anderson that the restructuring plan was not the direction that the county needed to go.
McCormick did make a suggestion regarding one element that he had noticed on the chart, the land use attorney position. He suggested that the land use attorney be tasked with “double checking” projects before they are presented to the BCC to ensure that the projects are “where they need to be before they come to the board.”
“I’ll echo what the other commissioners have said,” responded District 3 Commissioner Mike Barker. He observed that there had been a big improvement with permitting by the planning department and that permitting had been “a big issue for the entire county.”
Barker acknowledged that the planning department had worked hard to reduce the length of time to get a permit to what was acceptable to the citizens.
He explained that when he had brought up an audit of the department and also of the building department, he had been referring to evaluation of workload, performance evaluations for employees, and recommendations for improvement.
Barker was of the opinion that if any restructuring were to be considered, that the latter were things that would need to be looked at first, along with any reason for a restructuring, and what a restructuring would be based on.
“I think the planning department is doing a wonderful job,” said County Commission Chairman Trey Nick, acknowledging the department’s “great strides” made since November. He observed that the department is staffed with “great people” starting with Carpenter as director and said he was glad to have all of the personnel on staff.
Nick suggested that the BCC work together with administration and the planning department “to get the best solution for this.”
Glidewell then suggested a BCC workshop to “look at everything at one time,” the structure of all county departments.
The other commissioners were in agreement on the idea, with Barker speaking to the need to see that personnel are in the right place for their particular knowledge and expertise to be put to the best use.
Glidewell moved to hold the workshop following the next BCC meeting in south Walton County, and his motion was seconded.
Public comment was taken, with a number of citizens addressing the BCC with complimentary remarks about the planning department and its current leadership.
The first of those, Dan Cosson, a planning commissioner, credited the department for its hard work and urged for Carpenter and Shell to be allowed to “run the planning department.” “The problem is in the administration,” he charged.
South Walton County resident Barbara Morano lauded Carpenter for his patience and his diligence in ensuring that project proposals have “all their ducks in a row” before they move forward in the process from Walton County Technical Review Committee.
South Walton County resident Fred Tricker, spoke in support of the department leadership but said he thought improvements could be made “in how we do business.”
Driftwood Estates resident Alan Osborne directed his comments to the workshop, asking for the question “What is the vision?” to be taken up. He also urged for county code enforcement to become proactive rather than remaining reactive.
With public comments concluded, Glidewell’s motion to hold the public workshop was approved unanimously. According to the approval it is to follow the 9 a.m. March 23 BCC regular meeting at the South Walton Annex.
Jones indicated that he appreciated the commissioners’ direction and pledged to move forward on that basis.