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Last edited 12:15 p.m., May 26, 2023 [Editor's note: Additional reporting has been added to this breaking story.]
Susan Istenes, director of the Department of Planning and Development for the city of Springfield, resigned from her post the afternoon of May 23, effective immediately. News of her departure was confirmed by officials two days later.
The department is temporarily headed by Brendan Griesemer, who had served as assistant director and is now listed on the department’s website as interim director.
Cora Scott, director of public information and civic engagement for the city, said Griesemer has worked in that department for a long time.
“We don’t expect any disruptions,” she said.
No reason was given for Istenes’ resignation, with Scott noting the city does not comment on employment issues. The planning professional had been on the job for 16 months.
Reached through Facebook, Istenes described the issue as a private matter between her and the city, and she declined to comment further.
With Istenes’ departure, the city has lost three department heads since February 2022, when Dwayne Shmel resigned as director of the Building Development Services department without giving a reason publicly.
Sally Payne, director of Workforce Development, resigned Oct. 19, citing bullying. Payne said she was retaliated against after questioning a city finance department employee’s use of workers’ compensation. She alleged Gage and others accused her of providing prescription medications to staff and issuing city contracts to friends, but she denied those claims.
The day before she suddenly resigned, Istenes and Councilmember Craig Hosmer had a strained exchange at Monday’s City Council meeting. Istenes admitted she was not prepared to report on Hosmer’s resolution proposing an administrative delay for consideration of a zoning change at the corner of Sunshine Street and National Avenue, where BK&M LLC plans to put a commercial development.
Istenes said she did not know she was offering this report until a half-hour before the meeting. However, the one-page written council bill explanation submitted in members’ packets was marked as being submitted by Istenes and filed on May 16, less than a week before the meeting.
“I apologize – I was a little bit caught off guard with this item tonight,” Istenes told council.
In the exchange, Istenes said she didn’t recall exactly, but she believed the neighborhood was asking council to craft a corridor plan for the intersection before moving ahead.
“Which is what we’re asking,” Hosmer said.
“I’m not sure what you’re asking for tonight,” Istenes replied.
“Have you read it?” Hosmer asked.
“I did read it about a half-hour ago,” Istenes said. “I apologize again; I didn’t realize my name was on this, so, coming a little unprepared.”
Istenes, who came to Springfield in January 2022, has a master's degree in urban and regional planning from Virginia Tech, with many years of city planning experience, most recently in the same role in the city of Clayton, where she was director of Planning and Development since 2010.
At Monday’s council meeting, Istenes explained her staff’s current focus was on updating city codes to bring them in line with the Forward SGF comprehensive plan. A consultant had just been brought on board, and her staff’s priorities and time had been reorganized to make that process central.
Istenes helped drive Forward SGF across the finish line in her first year on the job. The plan was passed by council Nov. 14.
In an interview this morning, Hosmer said he thought Istenes was a very good planning director.
“I liked her,” he said. “She was trying to do her job. Obviously, there was some pushback.”
Hosmer noted Istenes’ department initially supported the administrative delay, a tool used recently for the Grant Avenue Parkway project and in several neighborhoods. At the Jan. 23 council meeting where he first proposed the delay, Hosmer publicly referenced an early draft of a staff report that backed the idea of a delay. At the time, Istenes said a line in her explanation to the bill that indicated planning staff support was included in error.
“After a discussion with the manager, they reversed their support,” Hosmer said, referring to City Manager Jason Gage, whose job is to oversee all city employees and carry out council decisions. City officials have not confirmed this account.
“You should want professionals in their position to give you their honest professional opinion and not be filtered,” Hosmer said. “Sometimes we get such filtered information from the professionals that we hire, and we see that when they come to present at council.”
Hosmer said he believes Gage micromanages the city’s professionals.
“They can’t really give you their straight opinion,” he said. “Sometimes, when you’re on the outside looking in, it looks like decisions are made before they come to council. I hope that’s not true.”
He added that he believes staff is sometimes directed to do things that may not be the best practice, in their opinion, because of pressure from Gage.
When asked if he was a fan of the city manager, Hosmer replied that on some issues, he is. “He knows city government very, very well. He’s a very smart guy. Sometimes he gets into micromanaging.”
Asked to respond to Hosmer’s critiques, Gage said via email, “The City Council hires the city manager to lead all staff and serve in the best interest of all council members for the benefit of the community. That is always in the forefront of my mind and something I work very hard to do well.”
On the topic of Istenes’ departure, Gage wrote, “As you might expect, we do not respond to questions that are of a personnel nature. With that said, we certainly wish Susan well.”
At the April 3 City Council meeting, Istenes shouldered responsibility for a pair of zoning measures having to be remanded back to Planning & Zoning because of errors by her staff. Another error had been noted at the previous meeting, and it resulted in a housing development having to go back to the very beginning of the development process.
Though Istenes apologized for the April 3 remands, Councilmember Matthew Simpson chastised her for the mistakes, which were estimated to result in delays of four to six weeks for the projects.
“This is the second meeting in a row we’ve had these issues requiring remanding or retabling,” he said, noting changes can be costly both to developers and to the city.
“Everybody involved in this process kind of depends on the process occurring as it’s laid out to occur,” he said.
At the time, Istenes promised cross-training and procedural changes to avoid similar mistakes in the future.
Asked if all is well in city hall, Hosmer said he sees a pattern of professionals with expertise being pushed to the corner, and he said that is counterproductive.
“It will be hard to get people in those positions if they know that they’re going to be micromanaged,” he said.
Griesemer is stepping into the interim role in Planning and Development for the second time. He held the position after former Director Mary Lilly Smith retired in 2021. Asked by email if he plans to apply for the permanent director role, Griesemer said he does not comment on employment issues.
Asked this morning to comment on Istenes’ departure and the overall climate in city government, Mayor Ken McClure did not respond by deadline.
The first downtown Springfield branch for Arvest Bank opened; a longtime licensed massage therapist became a first-time business owner; and 7 Brew Coffee opened its fourth shop in Springfield.
Impressive, thorough report not only on the the council meeting dynamics,regarding the issue at hand, but reporting of valuable background concerns related to the troubled handling of some planning and zoning matters. Keep up the good work.