Choice for Baton Rouge planning director declines offer

The candidate selected to become Baton Rouge’s new planning director isn’t taking the job.

Charles Graves, planning director for Cincinnati, emerged as a clear frontrunner for Baton Rouge’s top planning position during interviews last weekend, and the City-Parish Planning Commission agreed unanimously Monday to offer the job to Graves just 15 minutes into its meeting to discuss the finalists.

But Planning Commission Chairwoman Tara Wicker said Graves called her Wednesday morning to pull his name from consideration.

She said he blamed media attention for the decision.

“I’m just so frustrated and taken aback right now,” Wicker said. “We worked our behinds off to find the best candidate.”

Wicker said officials were in productive negotiations with Graves when he decided to withdraw. The job offer was contingent upon clear background and reference checks.

Graves told The Advocate that he had no comment Wednesday on his decision to withdraw.

In an email to the Cincinnati Enquirer, Graves said he wanted to stay in that city.

“There is much more work to do. I would like to finish the job I was hired to do and end my career in Cincinnati,” he wrote.

Wicker said Graves had been more reserved in seeking the post in the early stages of the search process but was encouraged to continue.

He didn’t arrive in Baton Rouge early enough for an open house at the Planning Commission office on Friday, and he declined a chance to tour the office before he left the city because he said he had a prior obligation.

During his interview Saturday, Graves heaped praise on Baton Rouge and its commitment to planning.

He said a move south also would afford him an opportunity to “shed (his) coat.”

It’s not clear what the next step will be in naming a new planning director here.

Wicker said she’s looking at the commission’s options and expects to hold a meeting in the near future.

Five other finalists — planners from Central, Monroe, Atlanta, Norfolk, Va., and Columbus, Ga. — also were interviewed Friday and Saturday, but the commission didn’t rank them during its brief meeting Monday.

Elizabeth “Boo” Thomas, president and CEO of the Center for Planning Excellence in Baton Rouge, said she was disappointed Graves backed out.

“I think he was a candidate that everybody was impressed with and that we could have all rallied around,” she said.

Thomas added that others who interviewed also impressed her.

“I think there were some viable candidates that I would be pleased to have as planning director, and I hope they are still interested,” she said.

Early in the planning director search, some involved in the process had speculated the salary was not competitive enough for the job.

Based on the city-parish pay scale, the job pays up to $100,202 a year, plus a car allowance and benefits.

According to local reports, Graves’ starting salary in Cincinnati in 2007 was $125,000.

Under his leadership, the city completed its first comprehensive plan in more than 30 years. The plan received a national award from the American Planning Association this year.

But the Cincinnati Enquirer also reports that some city leaders there have proposed eliminating some planning department jobs, including the director’s position.

During his Baton Rouge interview, Graves said he came into the role rebuilding a department that previously had been eliminated.