Auburn strategic planning questioned

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AUBURN — A planning initiative spearheaded by city administration has come under fire by members of the public and city councilors, who have concerns over its transparency and design.

Over the summer, city officials have been slowly rolling out a strategic planning process that, according to City Manager Peter Crichton, would allow the city to prioritize and address issues identified in the city’s 2010 comprehensive plan that have not yet been addressed or completed. 

But many appeared concerned during a City Council workshop Monday with the process so far. 

In a presentation, Crichton said the strategic planning initiative would mirror a process he used twice while managing Cumberland County, and it would feature a strategic planning committee and eight subcommittees tasked with various topics. 

However, Crichton was asked Monday to go back to the drawing board after councilors, as well as members of the public, raised questions over how the committee members would be chosen, the sheer number of proposed subcommittees, and whether a six-month planning process should be a priority at all. 

One of the most frequent questions, which was left unanswered, was whether the subcommittees would be appointed by Mayor Jason Levesque or the council.

Auburn residents Joe Gray, Adam Lee and Heidi McCarthy, speaking during public comment, took issue with the administration’s process so far, arguing that the council could be relinquishing its policy-making power to committees appointed by the mayor or city manager. 

“The manager doesn’t have the authority to appoint committees,” Gray told the council. “Use the power you were given.” 

McCarthy said the council has not taken any action on the issue, and has “not explored whether this is the best or most inclusive process for the city.”

She said it’s been previously stated several times that administration is “ramping up” for the strategic planning process, but that the council has not been involved. 

A number of councilors said they were apprehensive, including Councilor Bob Hayes, who said the number of subcommittees will be redundant and eat up staff time. He also said, “We have a real responsibility to be very transparent.” 

In defense of the process, Crichton said the plan is aimed as a guide for the city. He said subcommittees could spend time looking at items like the riverwalk, city gateways, and other topics that have a clear, “natural connection” to the comprehensive plan. He said meeting minutes would be kept. 

“I think it will be very helpful to the city, and we’ll work hard to make it as transparent as we can,” he told the council. 

After hearing the council’s concerns, he said, “I’ve seen this process work,” adding, “I’m not a policymaker. We can look at revising, I work for you.”

He said he’s looking to convene the first planning committee meeting in September. 

Mayor Levesque, who touted a strategic planning process while campaigning, described it as an “inventory” of what’s been accomplished from prior planning efforts, what hasn’t, and “why it didn’t work.”

Councilor Holly Lasagna said she’s concerned the process will take away from issues that are in front of the council now, including recent recommendations that came from a study of the agricultural and resource protection zone in Auburn. Those recommendations have yet to be addressed. 

“Being aspirational is wonderful,” she said. “But, we need to look at the current work.”

Levesque said he was also apprehensive because he doesn’t want the council to appear like it is “kicking the can down the road” for “other people to do the work,” but he said the strategic planning was needed.

“It’s got to be dynamic,” he said.

Councilor Andrew Titus echoed concerns from the public, saying, “The council should have control over what’s going on. Are we going to lose that control?” 

“Are we giving away our authority?” Councilor David Young asked. 

Others, including Councilor Belinda Gerry, said the council has a history of taking the work of subcommittees and reshaping it, which can discourage people from wanting to get involved. 

“People don’t want to be on committees because you don’t take them seriously,” Gray said during public comment.

During his public comment, Lee said the city is already looking for volunteers to serve on existing committees. He said if the strategic planning subcommittees were in place, people would be less inclined to volunteer for the existing city committees, which are designed to steer policy-making. 

“Why would people want to join? They would feel like they were wasting their time,” he said.

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