ISLAMORADA -- His planning department rocked by criticism, Village Manager/Planning Director Ed Koconis promised more efficient permit reviews, additional training for planning staff and a more people-friendly department at a Village Council meeting last Thursday.
"We just need to make it better and make it better fast," Koconis said.
The manager's comments came two weeks after an ad-hoc committee appointed by the Village Council submitted a scathing report, which, among other things, stated that the village planning process is inefficient, the staff is rude, the department is bloated and Koconis needs to give up the planning director portfolio so a full-time director can be hired.
His remarks also came just moments after the Village Council decided to disregard that final suggestion in a divided 3-2 decision.
Speaking to the council at the May 9 meeting, Koconis offered a brief mea culpa related to the planning department. "Mainly I did get a little behind because of the sewer," he said, referencing the $115 million project on which construction began in November. "Probably did. Sorry for that."
But mostly, he put the concerns brought forward by the committee on his six-person planning staff. He said that planners have been directed to approve permits whenever possible, to avoid looking for code violations on properties that apply for permits and to keep all personal views out of planning decisions. Contractors who encounter such problems should take up the matter directly with him.
"It's going to help me figure out what cases and deficiencies staff members are having," Koconis said.
Council members were divided on the report, with Dave Purdo and Mike Forster, who was the driving force behind the creation of the ad-hoc committee, pushing for the removal of Koconis as planning director.
"I don't have a problem with staff, I have a problem with the leadership of staff, because there's a lack of direction," Forster said. He added that he was not surprised by the committee's findings.
"I didn't expect anything different," Forster said. "I knew there was a problem."
But Vice Mayor Ted Blackburn and Councilwoman Deb Gillis, while taking pains not to dismiss the report in its entirety, criticized what they called its negative tone, especially toward staff. Both supported keeping Koconis on as planning director and Blackburn emphasized that village code does not exist merely to facilitate the building process. It's also there to protect Islamorada's quality of life and conserve the environment, he said.
Gillis noted that each member of the five-person committee is involved in the building industry. In addition, she said, the council only tasked the committee with identifying the department's weaknesses, not its strengths.
"I think the council needs to balance it," Gillis said of the report.
Still, all the council members agreed that the village's land-use regulations need an overhaul. That process has already begun, with proposed changes having gone before the village's Local Planning Agency on Monday, after press time.
Though he was unspecific, Mayor Ken Philipson, who could cast a decisive vote in the stand-off over Koconis, said he expects changes in the planning department within 90 days -- meaning the manager has time to handle staffing and other cost-related decisions as part of the budget process.
"If they're not done, there will be managerial changes," Philipson said.
Koconis said that he'll come forward next week with one item on the council's to-do list: specific schedules for the length of time it should take to process various types of routine applications.