“The same day I turned in my resignation was the day I saw that council member Baldwin compared his refusal to wear a mask to that of Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on the bus. I was THOROUGHLY disgusted by that remark. I cannot be complicit or quiet when those types of ignorant remarks are made,” Simmons-Lee “I was also disgusted by council member Melton’s decision to show up to the Gardner BLM March fully armed as if he expected a fight. I know they have their opinions and rights but so do I and I did not want to be associated with the City Council any longer in any capacity.” Kiva Simmons-Lee
There have been major changes in Gardner’s planning department during the last few months.
Kelly Woodward, chief planner, and Michelle Leininger, principal planner, ended employment with Gardner June 1, 2020 and Larry Powell, director economic development July 2, 2020.
Daneeka Marshall-Oquendo, public information officer, said the city can’t comment on personnel changes.
Gardner is currently in the process of advertising for the vacant positions and plans to fill them as soon as possible, according to Marshall-Oquendo. The council approved a rewritten job description for Powell’s former position at the Aug. 17 council meeting.
With the annexation of more than 1,000 acres and several large developments underway, day to day responsibilities are being handled by Bob Case, city planner, with the city administrator assisting with development projects.
Gardner has entered into a service agreement with the Institute for Building Technology and Safety for ad hoc planning services recently, Marshall-Oquendo said. IBTS is a nonprofit organization whose purpose is to assist by delivering quality services while enhancing public safety, economic development and the general welfare of the community. “The two-year agreement has no service fees outside of an hourly rate for services that will be rendered under the authorization and review of the city,” Marshall-Oquendo said.
The cost is $125 per hour with no monthly minimum or maximum. No bids were taken by city staff. The Mid America Regional Council (MARC) has an agreement in place with the IBTS to provide services to government entities on an ad hoc basis. This service agreement is considered a cooperative purchase agreement made available through MARC.
In addition to staff change, one member of the planning commission resigned July 22, saying that due to recent changes to the planning department she did not believe the commission had the necessary tools and support needed to serve the city effectively, according to Kiva M. Simmons-Lee, commissioner.
In a statement, Simmons-Lee also said she believes communication between administration and commissioners is lacking, and it would have been better had commissioners been notified of major staff change.
“No communication to the planning commission has ever been made,” Simmons-Lee said. “I don’t know all the communication rules, but I would suspect that there is nothing that prevents a representative from the city from notifying the commission that the planning department is losing employees. As I am sure you know, the commission depends heavily on the work of the planning department. I felt that I was left in the dark about what to expect and what the future of the department was going to look like.”
Simmons’Lee also expressed concerns regarding the behavior of some council members.
“The same day I turned in my resignation was the day I saw that council member (Mark) Baldwin compared his refusal to wear a (COVID) mask to that of Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on the bus. I was THOROUGHLY disgusted by that remark,” Simmons-Lee said. “I cannot be complicit or quiet when those types of ignorant remarks are made. I was also disgusted by council member (Rich) Melton’s decision to show up to the Gardner BLM March fully armed as if he expected a fight. I know they have their opinions and rights, but so do I and I did not want to be associated with the city council any longer in any capacity.”
In June of this year, Melton garnered media attention by carrying a gun and ammunition to Gardner’s Black Lives Matters parade. There were no incidents during the march, and Melton said at the time he was there to protect the Gardner police. **After this article was published in print Councilman Melton requested it be clarified what he said when he came armed with an AR-15, a Glock and ammo clips to the march he told the newspaper at the time he came armed to protect the protestors from the police and denied he was out to intimidate the protestors.**
Further changes in planning may be on the horizon.
At the council’s Aug. 3 meeting, Melton, vice president, raised concern regarding social media comments posted by a planning commission member, and he handed out screen shots with comments made by Adrianne Meder, member.
Although council members weren’t specific during the Aug. 3 discussion, one comment on the handout included Meder saying the police department were a “good old boy” club.
**Update** after the print edition was published Councilman Melton wanted it clear that he said, “I specifically called for Meder to be removed due to the fact she was getting involved in personnel matters and Facebook was the second issue.”**
After back and forth discussion, Steve Shute, mayor, said the matter would be discussed in closed session once council determines a policy. An executive session was added to the Aug. 17 meeting agenda to discuss non-elected personnel, but no action was taken after, according to the city clerk.
Removal of Meder, and possibly changes to planning department staff, appear to stem from the April planning commission meeting regarding Prairie Trace Meadows on the southeast corner of W. 175th St and I-35.
According to the minutes, Prairie Trace called for a final development plan for 27 single-family lots, Phase I of Prairie Trace Meadows and a final plat for 12.76 acre Prairie Trace Meadows, first plat.
Discussion ensued regarding code deviations.
Woodward and Leininger, at that time still staff members, discussed city requirements and code. According to the minutes, Woodward said the commission’s job is to understand and enforce the code’s intent and flexibility can be offered if it meets the code. Leininger said she wanted to make sure the commission viewed the discussed deviations as separate requests: street tree issue and the lot landscaping.
The developer Travis Schram, Grata Development, asked for certain code deviations. He said he wasn’t discounting the value of landscaping, but this phase required for 116 trees and $33,750 in landscaping on 13.2 acres. He wanted the plan approved but certain conditions be struck.
Leininger said the staff works within the code developed by staff and approved by council, as it does with all developers.
At that time a motion was made and seconded to approve the plan as presented; however, there was some confusion as to whether/when Schram raised his hand to speak. The motion was rescinded, and Schram was allowed to speak. There was discussion regarding what was a “grey” area or baseline in city requirements. He said he had made a commitment to Gardner per the development agreement to pull 30 building permits per year, according to the meeting minutes. He said his concerns weren’t about trees and shrubs but “It was about grey areas because he would pay $15 M if he missed this.”
After discussion a motion was approved to table the item until the next meeting. The developments were deferred in May, but were approved at the June 23 meeting after the exit of Woodward and Leininger, but prior to Powell’s exit on July 2 and Simmons-Lee on July 22.
The GRATA development property was annexed Sept. 3, 2019 with the caveat that if a development agreement in a form acceptable at the sole discretion of the owners was not approved by Oct. 21, 2019, the city would permit de-annexation. The development agreement was approved Oct. 7, 2019.
**Update side note — Councilman Melton contacted The Gardner News after the print publication and asked it be retracted he wore a gun to the BLM march to protect the Gardner Police Department. He said the original statement he issued in June that he was armed to protect protestors from the GPD was correct. He also indicated his request to remove Meder from the planning commission was because she interfered in personnel matters, and social media contacts were only secondary. We apologize for any confusion caused.