So you’re new on the board! Now, what do you do?
You may have been appointed to fit a certain slot ... developer, citizen, architect, etc. or because you are a well respected member of the community, or even a friend of the mayor.
Whatever the reason, you are now the newest member of your community’s planning commission or board. You will quickly realize there is much to learn, particularly the planning jargon the staff and more knowledgeable commission members toss around at will.
As you begin to attend meetings, you will find that although many parts of the agenda are routine, there soon is likely to be a controversial or contentious matter on which there are strong opinions, both from the members and the public. Or perhaps the controversy has been raging for some time and you come in the middle of it and are expected to have an opinion. As a first time citizen decision maker, you may be uneasy having to discuss your points of view or make decisions in front of the public.
You want to be effective. What are the most important matters you should consider?
- Be comforted that everyone else was new at one time and is likely to be sympathetic, as long as you do not overdo the “poor me” attitude.
- Become acquainted with the planning director and other key staff; do not ask for privileged information, but do request a private briefing on matters or protocol you should know about. Many commissions have briefing sessions or workshops for new members. Always attend these and do not be shy about asking seemingly trivial questions.
- Become acquainted with the chair and meet him or her privately to get an insider’s perspective on the board and planning issues. Reserve judgment, however. You may not agree with your chair’s assessment.
- Do your homework before commission meetings. Read all the agenda and backup items carefully. Call the planning director beforehand for clarification about any matters that will not compromise the public discussion.
- Listen especially carefully to the discussions at your first few meetings. Who usually dominates? Who seems to have the same opinion no matter what the subject? Who appears to agree with the last person who spoke? Where can you make the most contribution to the discussion?
- Watch the members’ body language as nonverbal clues to what they are thinking.
- Take advantage of your “new person on the block” status by asking apparently simple questions that nevertheless advance the conversation.
- Do not hesitate to abstain from voting on a matter on which you are not knowledgable enough to make an informed decision.
- Read your local newspaper, blogs, and other sources to obtain as broad a view of community issues as possible.
- Be willing to mentor the next new member. You may be surprised at all you have learned and are now able to share.
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.