In his 21 years as executive director of the Hillsborough City-County Planning Commission, Bob Hunter blunted the worst impulses of elected officials who fronted shamelessly for the development industry. He was a capable advocate for sensible growth in a county where those advocates are outgunned financially and politically. His decision in December to retire was disappointing. So is the move, to be taken up Wednesday, to reinstall him in the six-figure job.
Let's be clear: The issue is not Hunter's abilities or the value of his institutional experience. No one can promote managed growth in a metropolitan area for two decades without making a name in political circles and a mark on the physical landscape. Hunter had the bureaucratic skills to make the commission a fair and independent arbiter of development rules. As bad as the effects of sprawl are having on local taxpayers, the costs of excess housing, extending public services to far-flung subdivisions and the environmental damage of the construction boom would have been worse had Hunter not performed as he did.
But retiring and coming back almost immediately at full pay smacks of an insider deal. Is Hunter really the only person capable of running the planning commission? Is the commission really acting in the sole interest of saving taxpayers the expense of hiring a headhunting firm? Hunter said he wants to return to push commuter rail and other eco-friendly policies. But how does an official who double-dips by collecting a pension and his old $145,350 salary have the credibility to push a progressive agenda?
The county commission's pro-development wing, led by Jim Norman and Ken Hagan, makes the planning commission's job hard enough already. Why give Norman the ammunition to turn the tables and use Hunter's job deal to call the planning board's integrity into question? This is not the legacy Hunter should want to leave. Hillsborough needs smart planning now more than ever, and hobbling the one agency that promotes it for the sake of its former director is the epitome of short-term politics. Planning commissioners should thank Hunter for his service and begin the search to replace him.