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A Path for Responsible Service

Whether appointed or elected, public officials have other jobs, especially in the more rural areas of our country. They have to. Their service on commissions, boards, and councils is mostly voluntary because most communities cannot afford to pay for professional governance on a long-term basis. The public money simply isn't so readily available any more.

Yet these same public officials are charged with heavy responsibilities and duties often outlined in multiple state codes. It is not as simple as opening up their manual to a certain page and finding out everything they need to know in a convenient step-by-step outline.

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Illustration by Marc Hughes for PlannersWeb

As public officials we planning commissioners must rely on our staff: administrators, planners, financial experts, legal counsel, public works specialists, and so on.

And like any organization, large or small, there is simply not enough time in the day for us to get to know everyone involved, to become familiar with their qualifications and their work product. We must rely on the department administrators to run herd on their staff, to make sure we receive what we need in order to make decisions beneficial for the citizens we represent.

This applies to all levels of public government: from the rural volunteer fire district to the mega-city or county governing board. Each level plays an important part in providing public services. The special legislative acts authorizing each level of local governance outline a local agency’s purpose and duties and set the foundation for all actions and decisions. Other codes, such as environmental, subdivisions, land use, zoning, and so on must also be applied to projects coming before us.

As planning commissioners we need to be informed about these procedures, and not just rely on staff references to them alone.

Illustration by Marc Hughes for PlannersWeb
Illustration by Marc Hughes for PlannersWeb

To be true to our duties and responsibilities we must have a working knowledge of the public meeting laws, basic environmental review processes, and meeting procedures. Otherwise we will not know when to question compliance with these important steps, and we will not know whether to believe a member of the public when they protest about our agency’s non-compliance. 

We must always be ready to query staff about any aspect of a proposal or a proposed action, before the meeting and during it. Our duty is to evaluate projects as to their public benefit as well as their impact on the community.

In the 1960's the City of Emeryville (pop. 10,214, 2.01 sq. miles) adjacent to Oakland, California, decided to "reinvent "itself. After decades of operations, heavy industrial businesses began moving out, leaving behind quite a bit of contaminated land and a depleted tax base. The city council placed most of the city under a redevelopment agency, began remediation efforts on the tainted land, and opened the city for business. And businesses came. Eventually gentrification came as well, with many residents these days either singles or couples.

But Emeryville had very weak public involvement in both the redevelopment and brownfield processes. Instead, the city successfully focused quite ruthlessly on becoming a high-tech and retail area. In the 1990's, after significant public demand, they finally adopted a low and moderate income housing ordinance.

School programs are still low on the list, as are family-related facilities. Some developers have provided a few public needs amenities with their projects, but most did not. The city council’s aggressive approach to achieving this business success has left a disgruntled citizenry. And recent reports indicate the city still needs to achieve greater citizen involvement and input in order to assure the needs of their low and moderate income families are met. All of this could have been prevented with better planning that involved citizen needs as well as the need to make money.

As planning commissioners, we are responsible for addressing unpopular issues that come up at our meetings, whether a simple question or a serious concern. To sit and say nothing because a majority seems to have made up its mind is a disservice to the public we represent.

As commissioners we are a diverse group with a multitude of interests. We bring our unique perspective to the dais, to the table -- and this is a good thing, for commissioners are not in place to be rubber stamps for the interests of others. We are there to see how well a proposed project or study will fit into our particular community of citizens. We are their voice.

  • Don’t be shy about moving to continue any project

These days, with time at such a perceived premium, agendas are loaded with projects and timed consideration periods. If there isn't enough time to adequately discuss or resolve certain aspects of a project, then continue it to the next meeting. Commissions are not social clubs discussing the next potluck choice. We are carrying out a serious responsibility on behalf of other citizens.

Some projects are indeed very complicated. Ask staff to set up a workshop for these so that many of the process-related questions can be explained and resolved in advance. Staff should be encouraged to give all projects a careful review, and never be encouraged to shuffle projects through the system quickly with the thought that it won’t matter because a lawsuit will be filed or that nobody really cares about it.

  • Agenda materials, especially for complicated or contentious projects, need to go out to commissioners more than just a few days before the hearing.

Remind staff that we have other jobs to do as well, and sitting up into the night trying to assimilate these analyses at the last minute does not make us better commissioners. It makes us tired.

  • In order to be effective in our duties and responsibilities as members of a commission, board, or council, we must be proactive in our participation

We need to have a good idea about the project before us, not just based on something similar that came before us at another time, but as it stands on its own merits. We must investigate the appropriateness of each proposal for ourselves, and clearly identify areas that need further scrutiny so our staff can secure that information for us. We also should not hesitate to speak out when there is a need to clarify or identify important issues.

  • It is essential that we hold ourselves to a high standard, for that is what public service is all about.

When we are informed and competent, then our decisions will reflect these attributes. We will listen to all and view each project as unique. It is the responsibility of staff to do our homework for us, but it is our responsibility to review it, question it, and determine the best way to proceed for the benefit of the majority of our citizens. This is a duty we can accomplish with pride: a true act of public service.

Jan LopezFor more than 30 years, in both the public and private sector, Jan Lopez has used the tools of ethics, reason, and evidence to turns “red tape” issues into manageable solutions. Using her strong set of skills in research and investigation, interviewing, report writing, systems organization, communications, and problem solving, Jan takes projects through all phases of planning and environmental review. She writes and speaks on the need for responsible self-governance for both citizens and agencies, encouraging public involvement in important local issues and the need for agencies to accommodate and utilize public input on projects and issues that affect local communities.