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One would be hard pressed to find another overworked, under-appreciated position in any community equal to being a planning commissioner. There usually is no financial remuneration, and the meetings often are tedious, technical, and sometimes contentious. Your best friends may disagree with a decision you make. Why, then, even bother? Surely, there are other uses you can find for your time.
One reason that seems to give commissioners a boost is that little goes on in the community that is not affected somewhat by planning. You have the opportunity to influence and lead the way to change that will be felt for years to come. Look upon these positive attributes as your challenge to execute the obligations of your office so that the experience is, indeed, one you savor.
Some principles to consider:
Do not take it personally. It would be gratifying if you and the other commissioners could deal only with the big picture, concepts, and ideas. Often, however, it is the nuts and bolts of how individuals can use their property that concern the commission, and this can become very personal.
When landowners get frustrated or angry, they may express themselves in ways that are not pleasant. You will survive and keep your sanity if you realize it is the system they rail against and the planning board and staff are convenient targets. Never forget, however, that even words expressed in anger can contain kernels of truth worth being considered.
Respect your staff. They are human. They err. Sometimes their mistakes are embarrassing or should be overturned. You are entitled, or even expected to, question your staff carefully, but do it privately. If you have to overturn their recommendation, vote on the facts as you see them, not hearsay or opinion. Never make them scapegoats in a public setting. This diminishes you in the eyes of the public and also undermines the confidence people will have in your staff in the future.
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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.