By Ed Martin, The Leader Editor
Council Member Edward Neal
Council Member Edward Neal
Photo by Jesus Garcia, Newman Garcia Studio

Not one person in the 200-plus crowd spoke in favor of eliminating the Lemoore Planning Department, yet  the Lemoore City Council, on yes votes from Mayor Billy Siegel, members Lois Wynne and John Gordon, voted 3-2 to eliminate the planning department immediately during Tuesday's regular council meeting, a gathering that was anything but regular.

Approximately 20 persons spoke out against the Mayor's proposal in a discussion that finally ended at 11:30 p.m. in the Lemoore Civic Auditorium where the meeting was relocated due to the large crowd.

Planning Commissioner Dave Brown, was so upset with the council's direction that he tendered his resignation. “These actions are not in the best interest of the city of Lemoore,” he said. “Effective immediately I am resigning from the planning commission. I cannot respect and condone these actions.”

Council Member John Gordon
Council Member John Gordon
Photo by Jesus Garcia, Newman Garcia Studio

Speaker after speaker criticized council members, including Siegel for squandering taxpayer funds when the council fired former city manager Jeff Briltz requiring the city to pay $179,000 in severance pay.

“This is not the Lemoore I know,” said Diane Brown, whose husband Dave, resigned from the Planning Commission.

Stretch Derouin told council members he was disappointed. “What you guys are doing. I’d be ashamed.”

Mayor Siegel presented his staff report to the public and council members. “There is simply not enough work in the department to justify it,” he said in referring to the planning department’s $303,000 budget.

In his staff report Siegel said that city leaders take immediate steps to save the city money, and in effect help pay for former City Manager Jeff Briltz’ severance package of $179,000, as well as a $125,000 compensation package for the Lemoore Police Department. To do so, Siegel recommended that council members eliminate the city’s long-time planning department and the Code Enforcement Officer, which he says will save the city $305,044.

Mayor Billy Siegel
Mayor Billy Siegel
Photo by Jesus Garcia, Newman Garcia Studio

Siegel, a member of the budget review committee, which also included Interim City Manager Jeff Laws and Finance Director Cheryl Silva spent the last few weeks reviewing the city’s various departments. In the report Siegel cites the one-time payout of approximately $179,000 to former City Manager Jeff Briltz, who council members recently forced to resign.

Of the current Planning Department’s budget, Siegel said, “there’s simply not enough work in the departments to justify it. We are wasting money on the planning department.”

He said his plan calls for the planning services to be outsourced, beginning with having the city’s engineering firm, Quad Knopf temporarily taking over planning duties until a full-time consultant can be hired.

Council member John Gordon cited other cities he says have successfully outsourced their planning departments, specifically citing the city of Sanger. “I’m willing to follow and learn smart ideas,” he said. Sanger seems like a good blueprint.”

On Siegel’s plan to eliminate the Lemoore Planning Department: “It made sense to me,” said Gordon.

Not all council members were on board with Siegel. Newly elected member Edward Neal criticized the plan saying that instead the council needs to focus on the city as a whole. “I think we need to look at all departments and not just single out one department,” he said.

“I feel the planning department needs to go back to work. We have to do things with class and dignity,” he said. “I feel we’re leading in the wrong direction.”

Council member Willard Rodarmal agreed with Neal. “I just don’t think this the right thing to do for the community.”

Many were visibly angry and criticized council members for acting too quickly and not allowing the new city manager to deal with this issue?

Even a plea from West Hills Lemoore College President Don Warkentin, to table the issue and wait for the hiring of a new city manager, did little to convince members from gutting the planning department. “Let the new city manager come in and look at all departments,” he said.

Susan Stone echoed the call for the council to drop the matter and wait for the hiring of a new city manager. “We have trained staff that knows our community. Let our next city manager take a look at this.”

Brenda Randle, a Lemoore resident and employee of Kings County, was pointed in her remarks. “This is the time we must pull together,” she said. She said that Kings County was recently in a similar situation and county leaders and employees made a conscious effort to work together to save jobs. “We did not lay anybody off,” she said.

“Put these people back to work,” said longtime resident David Costa.

“You need to hear more from the community,” added John Ince.

Gloria Hobbs, one of the planning employees who lost her job, told council members of the work Holly has done. She said Smyth had not had a pay raise in six years. “We were trying to save the city some money.”

Smyth took the podium to take issue with Siegel’s staff report, which she says doesn’t show a full picture of what the planning department really does on a day to day basis, from managing large grants to coordinating with organizations like the Kings County Economic Development Corporation and Kings County Association of Governments. She also cited issues she’s work on the past few years that don’t generate statistics.

“When we started developing a list of different projects, I thought our downtown needed help. Our railroad area looked horrible, and I heard from Mr. Gordon and his constituents on G Street. Years ago we tried to convince the railroad to put additional recreational areas by the tracks.”

One of her biggest projects was the Cross Valley Rail Line, the cross county line that connected large farms and businesses on the west side with major rail lines, which was build with about $12 million gathered from a cross spectrum of partners. “We wanted to help business, Leprino foods, one of our largest employers.”

When it was all said and one and the last testimony taken, Gordon moved to eliminate the planning department and Wynn seconded the motion. It passed 3-2. Council members also voted to eliminate the code enforcement officer as well, relocating that job into the police department.

Some of those who witnessed Tuesday's marathon meeting seemed to imply after the meeting that a recall was in the works. To the best of anyone’s knowledge there never has been a successful recall effort in Lemoore.