City purges planning group

Commission reduced from 15 to nine members

BUCKHANNON — A former member of the city’s planning commission believes she may have been removed from the body after calling for more transparency regarding the commission’s activities.

Christine Bennett said Tuesday she thinks her call for a public hearing about the rezoning of 1 Armory Road — allowing bioRemedies MD to use the entirety of the old Armory for processing hemp — might be one reason for her termination from the commission. BioRemedies plans to process what is says are hemp-derived phamaceutical-grade cannabidiol, or CBD, products.

Bennett also said her calls for the commission to share more details with the public regarding forthcoming changes to the city’s comprehensive plan may have spurred her dismissal.

“I feel my removal was biased and in retaliation of requiring certain members of the commission to adhere to W.Va. Code about notifying the public of upcoming changes being made to the comprehensive plan and keeping the required aspects of that plan, also in calling for a public hearing over the recent zoning request concerning the property at the armory,” Bennett said in a statement Tuesday.

At its July 5 meeting, city council reduced the number of individuals on the planning commission from 15 to nine via unanimous approval of Resolution No. 2018-14. Soon after, it took up another item on the agenda involving approving the city’s board appointments and committees for the 2018-2019 fiscal year. Mayor David McCauley said there would be four holdovers on this year’s planning commission — Curtis Wilkerson, Matt Kerner, Dean Everett and Catherine Cuppari. The new members council approved to serve are councilman CJ Rylands, city zoning and enforcement officer Vincent Smith, Susan Aloi, Jack Reger and Rich Clemens.

Former planning commission chair Ann Livesay will transition to the Zoning Board of Appeals, McCauley said.

Letters from McCauley informing Bennett and another former planning commission member, Mike McCauley, that their services were no longer needed were included in city council’s July 5 packet, which was distributed to the press.

The mayor’s letter says he and other individuals “have noticed a persistent and growing friction among some commission members and to some extent animosity and hostilities expressed toward other non-commission, city officials and our city administration in general.”

McCauley’s letter goes on to state that the hostility is “without merit,” has created “an unhealthy divisiveness among key players in our city’s planning processes” and at times has resulted in the commission’s processes becoming “dysfunctional.”

“Substantial changes in the composition of our planning commission are necessitated to alleviate negativity and contentiousness, both internally and externally,” the letter states.

During the council meeting, city attorney Tom O’Neill said the primary reason for reconstituting the planning commission is the fact that Ordinance 110 ­— the document creating the planning commission — was not in conformity with a state law passed in 2014. The law says that a planning commission must have between five and 15 members, but that the ordinance establishing the commission must specify the exact number of members the commission will have. 

“One of the changes to state law that legislators [enacted] in 2014 was to require planning commission enabling ordinances to identify with specificity how many members of the planning commission were to exist for Class I to III municipalities.

“While Ordinance 110 named 13 (actual people), it did not state in the ordinance that the planning commission shall consist of 13 individuals, which is not in conformity with West Virginia code, specifically 8A-2-3 requires that the exact number must be specified in the ordinance creating the planning commission.”

“This resolution that is before you would begin the process of bringing the planning commission in conformity with state code and would then begin the process of naming a new planning commission,” O’Neill said.

On Monday, the mayor said the impetus for the restructuring of the planning commission was that the large number of members — 15 — made it difficult to gather a quorum, or the number of members needed to officially conduct a meeting. He also said he sent letters to Bennett and Mike McCauley because they were two members whose terms weren’t set to automatically expire at the end of the 2017-2018 fiscal year.

“The only ones to get the letter were the members who would have had another year or so to go on planning commission,” McCauley said. “It’s difficult to have a quorum with 15 people. It’s difficult to get eight people out to have a quorum.

“It was part of an efficiency approach that took our membership from 15 to nine, so now that we just need five folks for a quorum as opposed to eight for a quorum when there were 15 members. We think recognizing what the state code says about being knowledgeable about planning and development is important, and we have an excellent body of folks ready to serve.”

Dean Everett, one of the current planning commission members chosen to stay on board, said Tuesday he viewed the reduction in numbers as necessary.

“It was really hard to get eight people out to meet, which we needed for a quorum,” Everett said.

Planning commission members are not paid.

Bennett said she was dismissed by the city without having an opportunity comment.

“With that, I am saddened by the letter I received from the mayor and the decision from city council, which came with absolutely no dialogue between myself and any council member,” Bennett said in her statement. “I will always have a solid commitment to uphold the Code of Law which governs the Planning Commission, or any other board on which I serve. And, I look forward to continuing to serve with other members and agencies in Buckhannon. I would also encourage the community members to become involved, stay involved and understand what your government is doing. They represent you, not themselves.”

The Record Delta attempted to reach out to Mike McCauley but had received no response as of presstime.

The next planning commission is set for 7 p.m. Monday, July 16, at city hall.

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