Interim city manager spearheads reorganization of planning dept.

The old adage about “best laid plans” is apparently true even in municipal planning departments – as Burlington’s elected leaders tacitly conceded this week when they agreed to reverse an earlier change in the department’s top post.

During a regularly-scheduled meeting on Tuesday, Burlington’s city council unanimously voted to end a two-year-old fusion of the city’s planning and transportation director in response to a recent spate of defections within the planning department’s lower ranks.

The council originally created this combined position in the spring of 2020 after having previously conferred the role of interim planning director on Burlington’s transportation director Mike Nunn. The council ultimately agreed to make Nunn’s dual directorship permanent at the behest of then-city manager Hardin Watkins, who hailed the change as both a cost saving measure and an achievement in organizational synergy.

Nunn’s double role has nevertheless come under scrutiny since Watkins retired from the city manager’s post at the beginning March.

During Tuesday’s council meeting, the city’s interim manager David Cheek acknowledged that he began to have doubts about Nunn’s divided spheres of responsibility when he noticed a growing number of vacancies within the planning department.

Interim city manager David Cheek

“I understand that the planning department was fully staffed a few months ago, and now it’s down to two people,” he told the council that evening. “Mike has been managing both of these departments…and I think the staff needs more consistent and more permanent direction than that.”

Among some of the more noteworthy changes at the planning departure are the recent departures of Janie Phelps, the department’s point person for development review, and Andy Lester, its designated long-range planner, whose own long range plans apparently didn’t include a career with the city of Burlington.

In light of these personnel losses, Cheek recommended that Nunn should resume his old role as the city’s transportation director while his duties over the planning department should be assigned to an as yet unnamed planning director. Cheek went on to propose that the council elevate one of the planning department’s current vacancies to create this new directorial post.

“It’s not much of a cost difference in the long run,” he went on to add of the suggested reorganization, “and this will set that part of the organization in a better direction – I think.”

Cheek’s recommendation seemed reasonable enough to Burlington’s mayor pro tem Harold Owen, who had himself served as city manager before he joined the city council in 2017.

“You’ve got to have strong professional staff in planning and development,” Owen assured his colleagues before their 5-to-0 vote in favor of Cheek’s recommendation.  “I don’t think we’re doing ourselves or the city any good by not doing this.”