Nemaha County fires planning consultant firm

After more than 40 weeks of work, the Nemaha County Planning Commission is back to square one in creating a Comprehensive Plan for Nemaha County. The hired firm Marvin Planning Consultants (MPC) was let go by the Nemaha County Commission during their Monday, July 19, meeting.

This decision comes after multiple members of the Planning Commission spoke with Nemaha County Commissioners Gary Scoby, Dylan Keim and Jason Koch about concerns they had regarding MPC’s work on the project. The Nemaha County Commission terminated the $34,600 contract between Nemaha County and MPC effective Tuesday, July 27.

What happened?

The contract, which was signed July 13, 2020, by former Nemaha County Commissioner Tim Burdiek, contained a “complete scope of work.” According to the contract, by the end of 40 weeks, the Planning Commission should have already had two public hearings for the “Adoption of a New Comprehensive Plan.”

According to members of the Planning Commission, the group was not even close to having a comprehensive plan together to show the public.

“In all honesty, the process took a lot longer than what we thought it was going to,” said Planning Commission member Galen Ackerman of Sabetha.

The Planning Commission met for the first time in October 2020 to start the “Project Kick-off and Organization” portion of the contract. According to the contract, this portion of the project was to take six weeks. This portion of the project includes items such as Base Map Development, Development of Project Website, Development of Social Media Websites and more.

The next step in the project, “Nemaha County Profile,” was to be completed in 10 weeks. According to the contract, this portion includes to-do items such as Completed Population Analysis, Existing Land Uses, Analysis of Quality of Life Factors and more.

By the end of week 24, according to the “Envision Nemaha County” portion of the contract, the county-wide survey should be completed. However, by the end of 40 weeks, the survey was not ready to be sent out to the citizens.

“We never got a survey far enough along, as a planning commission, that we were comfortable sending it out,” Ackerman said. “We just felt like we weren’t making progress. That was probably one of the key issues, how slowly the survey progress was going.”

Planning Commission member Michael Schmelzle of Seneca agreed, saying the group was a “long ways” from sending out a survey to citizens.

“I don’t think as far as the group thought that we were making the progress we needed to be,” Schmelzle said. “The survey questions needed to be easier to fill out, and we had to rework the survey multiple times. We spent a lot of time trying to review these questions and make sure these questions were appropriate and it just took a long time.”

In addition to the group making slow progress on the survey portion, planning commission member Freda Dobbins of Goff said they struggled to get on the same page as Keith Marvin of MPC.

“We were looking to him for guidance,” Dobbins said. “He would walk into a meeting and would hand us anywhere from 20 to 40 pages or more of material, and expect that we could look at it in a two-hour meeting, and make decisions about it, make comments and we hadn’t even had a chance to read it.”

Dobbins said the Planning Commission asked Marvin to at least send the material to them by Thursday, so they would have a chance to review it before their Monday meeting.

“He sent part of it [the material], but that was the only time,” Dobbins said. “We just could not get him to get the material to us ahead of time. So, we were very frustrated. He would start asking us questions on what he handed out and say, ‘well, let’s go through these questions for the survey.’ By the next meeting, we had actually had time to study it [the questions], so we would start asking more questions [from the previous meeting] and he would have already handed out more material.”

Schmelzle agreed, saying the Planning Commission didn’t have time before each meeting to review the material Marvin had sent.

“I believe that a lot of the material that he was handing out, he would get it a few hours before the meeting and we didn’t have time to review it,” Schmelzle said. “He showed up to all of the meetings we were scheduled to have, but a lot of his material was not consistent or brought together in a timely manner.”

In addition to not providing material in a timely manner, Ackerman added the planning commission felt like there was a certain disorganization, lack of professionalism and efficiency on Marvin’s part as the hired professional.

“It was not unusual for Mr. Marvin’s emails out to our planning commission to omit one or more people. It was not unusual for his emails to us, where he was supposed to copy our county commissioners, to include the old county commissioners, not the new ones. That happened as late as three weeks ago,” Ackerman said. “The election was over a long time ago. The draft survey he sent us was actually the Ellis County survey he had done there. He replaced Ellis County with Nemaha County, except he forgot one or two of those replacements. And Ellis County is a lot different than Nemaha County. Everyone knows that. So for the assumption to be that he could simply take his work from Ellis County and bring it here, doesn’t make a lot of sense to us.”

“We thought we were starting to get a few questions for the survey that really pertained to Nemaha County,” Dobbins said. “But, we felt a lot of what he was giving us was what he had used in other locations. We didn’t feel it was Nemaha County.”

Then, Dobbins said at the most recent meeting in June, Marvin brought an entirely new set of questions he had found on the internet from another County, not even questions he had written, for the Planning Commission to review.

“I think I can speak for everyone on the commission, when we agreed to accept the responsibility to be on that commission, we assumed that because they [county commissioners] hired a professional, that we [the Planning Commission] would have good guidance and we would fulfill our roll, but we wouldn’t be responsible for most of the work,” Ackerman said.

Dobbins and Schmelzle agreed.

With the number of concerns growing among the Planning Commission members, they decided to take their concerns to the Nemaha County Commission.

“We were all just very frustrated and I think it was at that point that quite a few of us called the county commissioners and said we’re just so frustrated,” Dobbins said. “We said [to the county commissioners] we feel like we’ve given you almost a year of our time, and we don’t feel like we’ve accomplished anything.”

“Austin Petry [another Planning Commission member] and I went to the county commissioner meeting in the spring representing the Planning Commission,” Ackerman said. “The county commissioners also communicated at that time some of what they felt were their concerns. There was some issue about billing. We didn’t feel like he accomplished as much as he had billed for. In his contract, there were specific things that we felt weren’t accomplished. So the commissioners needed to know that.”

Schmelzle agreed, saying the Planning Commission expected to be further “down the road.”

“We expected him to be a lot further down the road, than what he had been paid for and we hadn’t made the goals of where we needed to be, compared to what he had been compensated for,” Schmelzle said.

According to Nemaha County Clerk Mary Kay Schultejans, thus far, Nemaha County has paid $13,240 of the $34,600 to MPC. Schultejans said she does not believe any money will be reimbursed to the County for the scope of work that was completed.

With multiple concerns about MPC, the Nemaha County Commission decided to terminate the MPC contract and find another planning consultant.

What’s next?

According to Ackerman, Schmelzle and Dobbins, the Planning Commission is starting over from scratch, because they want to make sure they have the best information available to get the best comprehensive plan available for Nemaha County.

“Unfortunately, we feel like the survey that Mr. Marvin has been working on isn’t really hardly even a start,” Ackerman said. “In fact, at our meeting on Monday night [Monday, July 26], we discussed whether or not we should look any more at that survey, even though he has been fired and see if we want to keep working on it. We agreed by consensus Monday night that we wanted to wait until we had a new planning consultant and let them start with a ‘clean’ piece of paper. That means that some of our work will be useful down the road, but we don’t want to shape or drive their work with what we don’t believe is good work anyways.”

The Planning Commission is now looking to get as many planning consultant firms together as possible, and provide a Request for Proposal (RFP) to the county for the scope of work. Planning Commission secretary Nancy Gafford is planning to summarize some key points that an RFP should contain and provide that to the Nemaha County Commission to assist in their search for a new planning consultant firm.

Despite frustrations with Marvin and the project, Ackerman, Schmelzle and Dobbins agreed, that throughout these months of working, the board has become unified – even though they have opposing points of view on certain topics. They all want to find out what Nemaha County citizens want.

“This whole thing is to find out what the citizens of Nemaha County see for the future of Nemaha County,” Ackerman said. “That’s our job.”

Dobbins and Schmelzle agreed, saying they are a more “cohesive committee” and have “pulled their group together.”

“I think we all have a little bit better idea of what a comprehensive plan is,” she said. “I feel like we have become a cohesive committee. We’re finally getting to know each other and getting to know how we can work together as a commission. That part is very good.”

“I believe we have got our group together and have pulled our group together,” Schmelzle said. “We have a broad spectrum group. Hopefully, we get a good plan put together so that we can get it submitted to the public, so they can get the plan going.”

While the timeline for finding a new planning consulting firm is unknown, Dobbins guessed it could take anywhere from 60 to 90 days.

About the Planning Commission

The Nemaha County Planning Commission had its first meeting in October 2020, after nine members – three members from each district – were appointed by then Nemaha County Commissioners Scoby, Tim Burdiek and Dennis Henry.

The Planning Commission was developed after concerns were brought to the Nemaha County Commission about zoning the County. Before Nemaha County can consider developing zoning regulations, a Comprehensive Plan must be in place.

The planning commission meets at 6 p.m. on the fourth Monday of every month at the Pioneer Building in Seneca.

Current members of the Planning Commission and their terms are Austin Petry, Lynette Strahthman and Galen Ackerman, terms expire on Sept. 30, 2021; Michael Schmelzle, Charity Henry and one open position, terms expire on Sept. 30, 2022; Freda Dobbins, Martin Schmelzle and Bob Ruddick, terms expire Sept. 30, 2023.

Once the survey is completed and sent out to citizens, Schmelzle said it is important for all citizens to fill out the survey in the appropriate amount of time. He also said it is very important that the public is aware, and educated on what they as citizens of Nemaha County want for the County.

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The Sabetha Herald has been serving Sabetha since 1876.

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