By Clay Schuldt
The Commissioners Room in the Houston County Courthouse was filled to capacity Sept. 30 during a public hearing held to consider term limits for those holding a seat on the Planning Commission.
Currently, members of the Planning Commission are appointed to the position by the County Board and serve three year terms, after which time the board considers re-appointment. In theory, a Planning Commission member could serve for life.
Both residents and county board members have recently questioned whether term limits should be implemented because the Planning Commission has seen little change over the years; some members have served for multiple decades.
County Board members stated up front that no decision for or against term limits would be made that night. They simply wished to hear the public’s opinion on the issue.
In total, 33 residents were given two minutes each to voice their thoughts. Though the vast majority of the speakers were in favor of term limits, some people spoke in support of the current Planning Commission, while others expressed concerns on both sides.
Most of the individuals opposed to term limits cited “experience” as an important attribute and worried that by setting term limits experienced members would be replaced with the inexperienced.
Wayne Feldmeier commented that term limits could result in unqualified members being placed on the commission. Planning Commission member Terry Rosendahl also cited past experience as a benefit.
In addition, Rosendahl argued that term limits were already in effect since planning commissioners were re-appointed by the board every three years.
Houston resident John Beckman admitted the Planning Commission had low turnover, but pointed out that this was because multiple County Boards had re-appointed the members on a regular basis, which suggested their work was satisfactory.
Others questioned why this had suddenly become an issue. Eric Johnson suggested this was an attempt of special interest groups to influence land use regulations. Arlyn Pohlman shared a similar opinion, saying, “There are many who want to get on the Planning Commission. I feel these people are only interested in getting a certain agenda passed regardless of the pleasure of the county voters.”
Those in favor of term limits tended to downplay experience as necessary qualification. Melvin Davy of Brownsville was the first to speak in favor of term limits and said that experience was no excuse to prevent change. Davy said he believed that the county had changed since the Planning Commission was first put in place and the commission needed to change as well.
Caledonia resident Julia Massman would later state, “Anybody running for an office like this should have a working knowledge of it before entering it.” However in the spirit of compromise, Massman suggested appointment of new commission members should be done in alternating years to prevent the entire board from being replaced at one time.
Mike Fields of Winnebago Township emphasized that, “Experience is not the same thing as competence or wisdom. It just means you’ve been doing the same thing for a long time.”
Some pro-term limit speakers believed it was important for community involvement to have new members every few years. “Democracy requires citizen participation,” Bets Reedy of Money Creek Township said. “When, however, there are no limits to how many terms one individual can serve, then the opportunities for other citizens are reduced and limited.”
Ken Tschumper of La Crescent, believed diversity was necessary on the Planning Commission. Tschumper stressed the importance of the commission better reflecting the county. He said, “This is a very diverse county. It is diverse in terms of employment, education level, residency, culture and values, and the Planning Commission should reflect that.”
Houston resident Kelly Stanage was in agreement, saying that a wide variety of people and opinions is good for the community. Yucatan Township resident Amanda Griggs also acknowledged the lack of diversity on the Planning Commission and believed it could be a great asset to introduce new people. In addition, Griggs emphasized the need for women and young people to be placed on the commission.
Pete Peterson of Sheldon said he supported term limits, as it would give others the chance to serve, but made it clear he did not have anything against current Planning Commission members.
For many, the most memorable comment made in favor of term limits came from Donna Buckbee who repeated a humorous thought made by a neighbor: “Even the Pope knew to step down.”
Not all opinions were completely for or against. Deborah Dewy of Yucatan Township suggested the Planning Commission become an elected position and term limits be imposed on all levels of county government, including the Board of Commissioners.
Conrad Currey of Spring Grove said he would defer to the board on the final decision, but it might be good to look at the method at which commission members are appointed.
Gary Kruckow said he had no problem with term limits but felt the timing was wrong. “We have a special interest group with frac sand, and right now I think we need all the experience we can to get these ordinances into play.” Kruckow added that if the board did implement term limits he hoped the townships would be involved.
Richard Markas spoke on behalf of the Houston County Township Officers Association. Markas said that of the eight townships he was representing, none had a negative comment on the current Planning Commission, but they did recommend a policy of setting three terms of three years and establish possible training for members.
Planning Commissioner Glenn Kruse wanted to clarify that the Planning Commission does not enforce zoning ordinances, saying the commission only makes recommendations. Kruse said that if term limits are implemented, the board should choose the next members based on township experience and that each district have representation.
County commissioner Justin Zmyewski closed the meeting by saying the board appreciated everyone attending as the input helps them make an informed decision. Zmyewski wanted to make it clear that this decision does not directly reflect on any single individual and is not about one specific issue, but is a policy and procedure mater.
As of Oct. 7, the Houston County Board had not reached a decision on the issue and will continue to discuss the matter in future board meetings.