Following the Thursday resignation of former city planner Patricia Southerland, city officials are in no rush to find a replacement.
Chief Operations Officer David Armstrong said Wednesday no decisions have been made regarding the now-vacant position.
“We haven”t even discussed it. It”s way too premature to talk about that,” he said.
Sources report Southerland resigned following a dispute with another employee at the Building Department. When Armstrong and Mayor Robert Smith confronted her Thursday following the altercation, Southerland chose to resign rather than explain her side of the incident.
Smith has not commented publicly on the incident, and Southerland could not be reached for comment.
Southerland had been suspended by the council for two days in December following a similar incident.
For the time being, Armstrong said the city planner duties will be distributed among existing city employees. Christina Berry, project coordinator for the city”s Office of Federal Programs, has a degree in urban and regional planning. Armstrong said Berry may be asked to take on some extra duties. City Engineer Kevin Stafford has also been asked to lend a hand.
Some city officials doubt the necessity of a $50,000-per-year city planner considering the city”s in-house talent.
“I question the wisdom of having a city planner,” said Ward 3 Councilman Charlie Box. “She didn”t report to me but I had not seen any product of her work since she”d been down there. If we can use people we already have, that would be my desire.”
Box isn”t the only official who had a hard time pointing to any tangible work done by Southerland in her short time with the city. Part of her job description included monitoring the department heads at the inspection and federal programs offices, but her primary responsibility was guiding the city”s comprehensive plan.
Human Resources Director Pat Mitchell said Southerland had met with representatives from the incoming KiOR synthetic crude oil plant and KPS, a planning firm in Birmingham, and had done some work toward a proposed city annexation project.
KPS will continue to spearhead the comprehensive plan and will hold a public hearing in the coming weeks to solicit community input.
Southerland also coordinated with programs like Columbus Main Street and sought grants. One city official involved in many aspects of city development said Southerland appeared to be active behind the scenes.
Some officials believe employing a city planner will better guide the city”s progress.
“I think the city needs a planner. Someone that has a vision on where Columbus needs to be and carry out the will and wishes of the mayor and council,” said Ward 5 Councilman Kabir Karriem.
Ward 6 Councilman Bill Gavin points out the nature of a city planner”s work doesn”t produce immediate results.
“The public won”t benefit from that for maybe five years from now,” he said.
Berry applied for the position prior to Southerland”s hiring and hasn”t decided if she”ll apply again. Southerland won the job thanks to a significant amount of planning experience in Tennessee and as a project manager with the Federal Department of Commerce along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Jason Browne was previously a reporter for The Dispatch.