Field narrowed to seven for EBR planning director

Seven candidates remain for East Baton Rouge Parish’s top planning job and will be reviewed by the City-Parish Planning Commission as it prepares to name a new city-parish planning director in the coming months.

A selection committee tasked with narrowing the initial pool of 90 applications for the job finished the bulk of its work Wednesday and agreed to the list of seven finalists — all men with certification from the American Planning Association and more than 10 years experience in the planning field.

The slate includes certified planners from smaller cities in Louisiana, including Monroe and Central, as well as from Cincinnati, San Antonio and Fairfax, Va.

The Planning Commission will decide who should be brought to Baton Rouge for a round of public interviews, and its members will have the ultimate say in who gets the job.

The seven finalists are:

Charles C. Graves III, director of the Department of City Planning and Buildings for Cincinnati, who holds degrees from Hampton University and New Hampshire College and a certificate of advanced study from Harvard University.

Fairfax County, Va., policy and plan development chief Sterling Wheeler, who has degrees from Texas A&M.

San Antonio Assistant Director of Community Development Patrick Howard, who has degrees from Clemson University and Old Dominion University.

Woodrow Muhammad, the planning director for Central, who has degrees from LSU and Southern University.

Monroe Planning and Urban Development Director Christopher Fisher, who has degrees from Concordia University, University of Southwestern Louisiana (now University of Louisiana at Lafayette) and Prairie View A&M University.

Jonesboro, Ark., Planning Director Otis Spriggs, who has degrees from Southern University and University of Cincinnati.

The former planning director for Norfolk, Va., Frank Duke, who holds degrees from the University of Alabama-Birmingham, Auburn University and Florida State University and served as an intern for Baton Rouge’s retired planning director, Troy Bunch.

Bunch served as planning director here for nearly 20 years before retiring in November. Ryan Holcomb is serving as interim director until the commission names a new permanent one.

The selection committee spent an hour and a half Wednesday whittling down its candidate list through an open discussion of applicants’ qualifications.

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.

One point debated repeatedly and likely to re-emerge: How much emphasis should be placed on the size of the applicants’ current city? The list of finalists reflects a mix of planners from smaller cities and bigger ones.

“I don’t want on-the-job training for someone moving up from a smaller city,” said committee member John Price, who is on the Planning Commission and serves as assistant chief administrative officer to Mayor-President Kip Holden.

But committee chairwoman Tara Wicker, who also serves on the Planning Commission and the Metro Council, said, “I don’t want to say just because you’re from a small town, you’re excluded.”

Larry Bankston, of the Baton Rouge Growth Coalition, isn’t on the selection committee but observed Wednesday’s meeting and said he’s eager to see the candidates vetted more deeply now that finalists have been identified.

“This is a multistep process, and I think they’ve done a good job of going through and trying to weed out folks who don’t need to be interviewed,” Bankston said. “Overall, the résumés are good and there are some good potential candidates there.”