City to head in 'different direction'

West Linn Planning Director John Sonnen was relieved of his duties, the city announced Monday.

"I made this decision because I believe we need to take the planning department in a different direction. To accoby: SUBMITTED PHOTO - JOHN SONNENmplish this, new management is necessary," City Manager Chris Jordan wrote in an email to the city council.

Economic Development Director Chris Kerr will fill the role on an interim basis while continuing to work in his current position. Kerr previously filled in as interim planning director when Bryan Brown resigned from the job in February 2009.

The planning director is in charge of overseeing land use within city limits and supervises a department with four full-time employees and an annual budget of about $1.1 million.

"It's just time for a new direction," Assistant City Manager Kirsten Wyatt said. "As West Linn grows and changes, and the city council identifies different priorities, we're just trying to find a better route to those council goals."

Sonnen was hired in 2009, beating out four other candidates for the position. Previously, he served as a planning supervisor for the city of Portland — a post he held for a year before it was cut from the city's budget. He also managed the long-range planning division in Thurston County, Wash., and worked for the city of Olympia in Washington.

"John did a lot of good things while he was planning director," City Manager Chris Jordan wrote in the email. "His creation of the planning docket is a great indication of the type of assistance John provided. However, I think we are entering a new era requiring a different type of leadership in that department."

In the meantime, Kerr will serve as interim planning director for at least the next 30-60 days, according to Wyatt. During that time, Jordan will work to create a new plan for how to structure the planning department.

The decision comes in the midst of a controversial "Cut the Red Tape" code streamlining project, which was initially rejected by the planning commission but will be revisited this week. Some people have speculated about whether the project influenced Jordan's decision to fire Sonnen.

However, Wyatt said the decision was not based on any specific incident.

"It's more just that, from time to time, you start to evaluate different facets of your agency," Wyatt said. "And it's just time to go in a different direction."

Planning Commission Chairman Michael Babbitt was shocked by the decision.

"It was very sudden news," Babbitt said. "The reasoning we were given for John being let go was that the city was moving in a different direction, so I think we're all kind of wondering what that direction is."

Planning Commissioner Bob Martin worked with Sonnen through all four of his years as planning director and said the decision was "a real loss" for the city.

"John has done an exceptional job as planning director and has incredible integrity," Martin said. "He's very respectful of the laws and regulations we have to follow, and he always seemed to put the rights of citizens first."

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