Erie At Large: Let’s Put Emerge 2040 in its Proper Place

Category:  News & Politics
Wednesday, May 27th, 2015 at 5:00 AM

The untimely release of Erie County Director of Planning Jake Welsh at the hands of County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper is raising many questions about what goes on behind closed doors in the less than transparent office of the Erie County Executive. Dahlkemper called the firing a “personnel issue” in local media, but information about Welsh’s departure has been so tightly held that Dahlkemper refused to discuss the matter at a public Erie County Council meeting, asking instead to meet with Council in an executive session, away from the public and the media.

Only County Councilman Kyle Foust objected to the executive session and refused to take part in the private meeting because he claimed it ran contrary to “open government.” This is an ironic position considering that Foust was the sole no-vote to County Councilman Jay Breneman’s sunshine resolution to record and post County Council’s public meetings online. Nevertheless, Foust’s exercise in bureaucratic contradiction will have to wait while we parse out the saga of the County Executive, and what appears to be, her ongoing attempts to remove the vestiges of previous administrations.

Dahlkemper says that she’s looking for new leadership in the planning office. In concert with Welsh’s departure, she asked County Council – before the executive session – to reduce the salary for the director of planning position to $65,000. Welsh made $70,980 in his former post, according to county records, but he was also a county employee since 1988. Welsh supervised the county planning office since 2006.

Dahlkemper also says that she wants the vision of the director of planning to reflect the Emerge 2040 regional plan. She’s correct, but she’s not gone far enough. Dahlkemper should be fighting for the County’s director of planning and the project manager of Emerge 2040 to be one and the same. The projects and programs undertaken by county government should not just be in the spirit of the Emerge 2040 plan; they should be the projects and programs of the Emerge 2040 plan.

Emerge 2040 currently operates from within the Erie Regional Chamber and Growth Partnership. That move was made to insulate the project manager’s position from the ever-changing political tides of regional government. But those were the days when Emerge 2040 was branded Destination Erie, a controversial study rather than an executable plan. Now that such a plan is in place, the community should be holding its elected officials accountable based on the objectives and timeline of Emerge 2040, mitigating the need for meddling middlemen with their own agenda.

Just as Destination Erie planners were concerned about the political will of incoming and outgoing elected officials, so too should Emerge 2040 planners be concerned about the undue influence of the ERCGP, which has its own history of poorly managed plans to recruit and maintain regional assets.

County leaders should codify protections for the Emerge 2040 project manager, holding that person – be it the current project manager, Anna Frantz, or her successors – accountable on a level beyond the reach of the County Executive. The evaluation rubric is built into Emerge 2040. If the objectives of the plan are being met and its projects remain on schedule, the project manager should be unimpeachable.

If the community and its leadership can’t agree on that simple premise, the Director of Planning shouldn’t be the only vacancy at the Erie County Courthouse.

Jim Wertz can be reached at jWertz@ErieReader.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @jim_wertz.

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