The new year will bring big changes for the Madison planning department following Director Mark Olinger’s departure, effective Jan. 5.
According to an e-mail to Common Council members and city staff attributed to Olinger, Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz has asked him to stay on as head of the Department of Planning & Community & Economic Development after Jan. 5 on a provisional basis to “finish a number of projects that are in critical phases of implementation or financing.”
Olinger was unavailable Friday to comment on what those projects include or the reason for his departure.
But given that the city is rewriting its zoning code, devising a downtown master plan and starting or finishing many community development projects, the timing of Olinger’s announcement is surprising, said Carole Schaeffer, executive director of Smart Growth Greater Madison Inc.
“It’s not like he’s leaving because there’s nothing to do,” she said. “I do not envy whoever’s coming into the position. In a way, I suppose it’s kind of exciting, but there’s also so much going on right now that if they bring in an outside person, it could seem like a lot.”
Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz did not return calls before deadline to discuss Olinger’s departure or his plans for filling the soon-to-be-vacated post.
Olinger alerted Common Council members of his decision by e-mail Thursday night. Percy Brown, the city’s community development supervisor, said other city staff found out Friday.
“It comes as a shock to all of us,” Brown said. “By virtue of him being the director, he was really the top gun shepherding a lot of projects through, so it seems to me that’s why the mayor kept him on a provisional basis. Who knows, that could go on through the summer.”
Brown said the city’s Community Development Authority is still involved with revitalization projects for the Allied Drive neighborhood, the Truax apartment buildings and the Villager Mall. He said Olinger is project manager for all of them.
“They’re all at a pivotal phase, so we really don’t have the luxury to stop right now,” Brown said. “If Mark doesn’t keep working on them, we’ll have to take on more of a role and step up to the plate.”
Alderman Mike Verveer said he does not know how long Olinger will continue serving in a provisional role, but said he was not surprised by the departure.
“It seemed to me that they’d grown further apart,” he said of Cieslewicz and Olinger. “As an alderman, you get a vibe as to which department heads the mayor has close ties to. I think we’ve seen some of the planning and zoning staff more engaged in particular issues while Mark’s been focused on some of the CDA activities.”
Schaeffer said some planning department projects could take years to finalize.
“I think (planners) are going to try to have a draft of the downtown master plan ready early next year,” she said. “That’s good because there’s not even a draft of the downtown districts in the zoning code because of the wait. I know the city’s also working on plans for the first conservation district, land banking and the (regional transit authority). It’s a lot.”