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... Let us consider some ways lay planning commissioners can be a unique asset to the planning process.
It is safe to assume that if you do not understand it, neither will the public.
First, do not aspire to be a planner; or, if you do, go back to school for the necessary training. Planning is a professional field, and I hope you have the best staff possible to carry out all the necessary functions. But do not confuse roles by trying to obtain on-the-job training while you are a planning commissioner. For example, you should be somewhat familiar with planning jargon -- comp. plan, variance, setback, and the like-- but if you do not understand what is being said or written, request staff to provide a plain language translation. It is safe to assume that if you do not understand it, neither will the public.
Look at the planning office from an outsider's perspective. This is easier if you are a new planning commissioner. If you have held the position awhile, you may have become too accustomed to the way things are done, but still, it would be useful to try. Walk in the front door as if you were a citizen approaching the planning department for the first time. Do you feel welcome? Overwhelmed? The first thing I noticed when I walked into a local planning office recently was that the counter was nearly five feet high. When I inquired, the six-foot-two planning director answered with a shrug, "Frankly, I never noticed. I inherited all the furniture when I came here last year." ...
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Elaine Cogan, founding principal of the Portland, Oregon planning and communications firm of Cogan Owens Cogan, has consulted for more than 36 years with communities undertaking strategic planning and visioning processes. Cogan has been honored for her work on a variety of citizen involvement projects.