City planner terminated

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 18, 2008

NATCHEZ — Mayor Phillip West has notified City Planner Dennis Story that his contract will not be extended.

Story received a month’s notice at the beginning of this month, making his last day in office Jan. 27.

West said the reason for his termination is that when he was hired to be the city planner for Natchez, he was hired on a full-time basis.

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Out-of-towner Story agreed to move to Natchez when he accepted the job a little over a year ago, West said, but failed to do so.

West said the city needs a planner that will be in Natchez full-time.

He said this will bring continuity to the office.

Also, West said, the job is very demanding, especially due to the uniqueness of Natchez.

“To oversee all of the planning of the City of Natchez is pretty large in that it’s such a historic city,” West said.

This means that the planner must wear two hats and balance the historical and business aspects of the city, he said.

Currently, the mayor and his office are working to identify someone who is interested in replacing Story, but not through advertising.

In the past years, West said, the city has advertised the position of city planner and has not been pleased with the results.

“We haven’t had good experiences with advertising,” West said.

The process that is being used right now is networking through his staff.

“I’ve asked (them) to make contacts throughout to find someone interested,” West said.

He said he has also had an inquiry from a Natchez citizen who knows someone who is interested in the position.

Until then, Walter Huston, in the planning department, will act as the interim planner.

Huston has been through this once already, when the planner prior to Story was fired due to controversies including timeliness of work and the hiring of new personnel.

Huston said his responsibilities as interim planner will not differ much from his normal duties.

“I’ll still interact with the developers, the residents that come into the office,” Huston said. “It’s just that I’ll be doing a little more paperwork.”

The last time a city planner left Natchez, Huston said he interviewed for the full-time position.

“I am very interested in being considered for the full-time planner position,” he said. “I enjoy working in Natchez. I enjoy the people.”

Huston intends to be a certified planner after taking the American Institute of Certified Planners exam in May.

He is also hoping to be considered for the position this time around.

“I’ve been here for nearly two years and I think the city is well aware how I’ve conducted myself,” Huston said. “I hope that they would give me some measure of consideration.”

With Story still in office, however, the search for a new planner is in its early stages.

West said hopefully stability will be brought to the planning department with a new city planner.

David Gardner, city engineer and superintendent of Natchez Waterworks, said he thinks stability in the planning department is important.

“If we can get some stability with that department and pay the department head what they’re worth then you can plan for long term,” Gardner said.

However, keeping a city planner around is a difficult task, West said.

“Most planners don’t stay in places very long,” West said.

Gardner said the turnover rate is unfortunate, but its essential to find a planner who will stay on long term.

“I hope on this next planner we can get someone that’s going to stay for awhile that we can develop long relationships with,” Gardner said. “Once you get them trained and they know all the regulations, it’s always a better environment to do business with.”

West said that is applicable especially in a small town like Natchez. The paycheck of the Natchez planner isn’t even half of what a city planner in a larger city like Jackson would make, he said.

This could lead to a scenario where a city planner may come in and receive a few years experience in Natchez and then move on to a city with higher pay.

“It’s just the nature of the business,” West said.

At this point, West said they are just trying to find someone who’s interested.

“We just need the right person with the right kind of attitude.”

Gardner said he hopes to see a replacement soon, as he works closely with the planning director and understands the importance of the planning department.

“I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, the city planning department is the key position in the city,” Gardner said. “It’s because it’s the first department that any new business or new development or any type of residential neighborhood or large business is going to contact.”

Gardner said he hopes a replacement is found soon.

“It’s too important to neglect,” he said.