Frontrunner yet to emerge in search for BR planning director

Thirteen of the 90 applicants vying to become Baton Rouge’s new planning director meet most of the preferred qualifications established by a search committee, but a frontrunner for the post has yet to emerge.

The selection committee is expected to narrow the pool of candidates to at least five finalists who will come to Baton Rouge for public interviews. The City-Parish Planning Commission will have the final say on the hire, likely early next year, and the commission could opt to interview candidates not recommended by the selection committee.

Of the 90 people who applied for Baton Rouge’s top planning position, 13 met the rigorous standards of becoming certified through the American Planning Association and have more than 10 years of experience in the field.

They include certified planners from cities in New York, Illinois, Virginia, as well as planners from nearby Arkansas, Texas, Mississippi and Alabama.

There also are certified planners eyeing a move from within Louisiana. Planners from Central, Monroe, Shreveport and New Orleans have applied for the post.

Aside from the certified planners, at least 10 other applicants have more than 10 years of experience in planning and hold degrees in related fields.

The new planning director will replace Troy Bunch, who retired from the post in November after nearly 20 years on the job. The position, which is responsible for reviewing potential zoning changes, and plans for subdivisions and some commercial developments, as well as the ongoing implementation of the city-parish master plan, pays up to $100,202 a year, plus a car allowance and benefits.

Last month, the Planning Commission named planning project coordinator Ryan Holcomb as interim director.

Holcomb, who is not seeking the permanent position, has since been assisting with the search process.

Selection committee Chairwoman Tara Wicker, who serves on the Metro Council and chairs the Planning Commission, and other members of the selection committee have said they are happy with the applicant pool.

“Hopefully, at the end of the day, we’ll walk away with someone who is dynamic and a really good fit,” selection committee member John Price said during a meeting Wednesday.

Boo Thomas, president and CEO of Baton Rouge’s Center for Planning Excellence, said she looked through the stack of applicants.

“I have to say there isn’t a candidate that jumped out, but I didn’t study it too thoroughly,” she said.

She said those with American Planning Association certification rose to the top.

To become certified, a planner must meet a certain level of education and/or professional experience in the planning field.

The planner also has to take an exam and follow up with continuing education courses in planning to stay up to date on trends and legal aspects of the field.

“If they have that certification, in my mind, that sets them apart a little bit,” Thomas said.

Certification was listed as a preferred qualification but not a requirement for the selection committee. Members of the selection committee have said they won’t limit their choices to those with certification if they have proven experience in the field.

Wicker said John Fregonese, the Oregon planner who spearheaded Baton Rouge’s FutureBR master plan, had a geography degree and no certification when he first started in the field.

He’s now a nationally recognized expert on planning and has been contracted by the city-parish for thousands of dollars in work.

Wicker said she spoke to Fregonese recently about the search process.

“His advice to the committee was to not get so caught up on some of these things and to really focus more on the ability to implement and manage a plan,” she said.

Wicker said the public interviews will give the Planning Commission a fuller picture of candidates.

“Someone on paper might have the right gumbo, but in person, you don’t like the taste of the gumbo,” she said.

Still, the selection committee members also have said they could scrap the process and start over if there are no standout candidates.

Thomas said she agrees with that position.

“I think it’d be at tragedy to hire someone without the knowledge and personality and vision, and just settle,” she said.