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Does Your Planning Commission Have Bad Apples? – Part 1

“One Bad Apple can spoil the barrel.” Just as in any other group, planning commissions can have their share of Bad Apples, whose unaddressed behavior can range from a breach of basic courtesy to violations of ethics and, in extreme situations, even criminal actions.

Just as in any other group, planning commissions can have their share of "Bad Apples."

In our own experience, as well as that of others shared with us, we have seen how destructive one or more Bad Apples can be if their actions on the planning commission are left unchecked.

In this short series of articles we will: define and describe Bad Apple typologies and evaluate the ethics violations that can result from their behavior; provide strategies for addressing these behaviors when they happen; and share how to weed out Bad Apples during the planning commission appointment process. We'll also suggest some policy options for removing Bad Apples from the planning commission when other behavior-limiting techniques are not effective.

Bad Apple Typologies:

Dirty Harry -- a planning commission member who acts out a personal vendetta against another member, which may include veiled threats or intimidation during the planning commission meeting, or makes threatening phone calls to members outside of the meeting.

Grandstander -- an obstructionist or self-proclaimed expert who enjoys the spotlight so much that they disrupt meetings by dominating the discussion, refusing to yield the floor, or steering the discussion off-point.

Tunnel Vision -- this is a Grandstander who has a single-agenda focus. Though they do sit on planning commissions, you frequently find Tunnel Visions in the audience at planning commission meetings. They are the people who raise the same concerns over and over again regardless of what the issue is.

Wallflower -- this planning board member sits on the sidelines and doesn’t take sides on any issue, will often vote with the majority rather than start or get involved in controversy.

Anarchist -- a commissioner who believes there should be no laws telling people what they can and can't do.

Future politician -- someone who uses their position on the planning commission as a vehicle to pursue elected office, and operates in full campaign mode even during meetings.

Personal Agenda -- a planning commission member who uses their position to their own advantage. Examples: to change the zoning ordinance to allow their currently illegal land use to continue; to get their property rezoned without having to pay for and go through the official process.

Manipulator -- a member who pushes to dispense with a thorough review of a project. His “M.O.” is to pressure the planning commission to act quickly, without the benefit of factual information. Some Manipulators may have made promises to applicants, and possibly even accepted cash or items of value in exchange for their manipulation of the approval process.

A Question of Ethics

If your planning staff are members of the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP), then they are bound to a Code of Ethics. While the AICP requirements do not apply to citizen planners, many states do have standards of ethics for elected and appointed officials, as do a number of local and county governments. (For more information on the state or local code of ethics that your planning commission may be subject to, please refer to your local government’s legal counsel).

Since the AICP Code of Ethics was drawn up specifically to govern the ethical practice of planning -- and many of its standards are similar to those adopted by states to govern the performance of elected and appointed officials -- we will use it to evaluate the generalized ethical ramifications of the Bad Apple Typologies. This will help you to understand when a behavior crosses the line and is cause for concern within your planning commission.

Bad Apples comic strip by Marc Hughes.
Bad Apples comic strip by Marc Hughes for PlannersWeb.com

Dirty Harry: Disagreeing with someone over an issue is a regular and expected occurrence in planning commissions. Even spirited disagreement serves a valuable purpose: it ensures that all sides of an issue have been examined to resolve conflicts and identify workable and equitable compromise. However, being disagreeable about the disagreement is a breach of social etiquette and professional conduct.

The AICP Code of Ethics states that "we shall always be conscious of the rights of others" and "we shall deal fairly with all participants in the planning process" (A.1.a and A.1.h). In addition, Section A.3.c. states that "we shall describe and comment on the work and views of other professionals in a fair and professional manner." This includes our fellow planning commission members.

When Dirty Harry fails to respect the limits of the planning commission setting, and escalates a disagreement into a personal vendetta in which the intention for retaliation is covertly or overtly stated, this not only contravenes ethical standards, but may also constitute a criminal act.

Grandstanders and Tunnel Visions can be categorized as insensitive, insecure, or rude, but unless they falsify the information they present, they are not violating the Code of Ethics or breaking any laws.

Wallflowers don't generally cause ethical violations with their non-participation, but not contributing to planning commission deliberations undermines the functioning of the planning commission as a deliberative body where a variety of views and perspectives are important -- if someone is not willing to actively contribute in the development of recommendations, they should not be appointed. For more on wallflowers, see our fellow columnist Elaine Cogan's "Dealing with Commissioners Who Have Too Little to Say."

Anarchists and other contrarians can bring balance to a planning commission by representing the private property rights and “less government” points of view.

Regardless of political leanings, however, planning commission members are obligated to review the facts and make independent judgment according to your planning commission’s bylaws. The AICP Code of Ethics states that “We shall not direct or coerce other professionals to make analyses or reach findings not supported by available evidence” (B.18).

Future Politicians: There’s nothing wrong with a planning commission member aspiring to elected office, nor with someone who is considering running for office accepting an appointment to the planning commission as a way of becoming familiar with local issues. However, the planning commission is a non-political body, and it can weaken the credibility of the planning commission as an independent, non-partisan body in the community.”

Personal Agenda: Planning commissioners who stands to gain from decisions they participate in clearly violate the Code of Ethics. Section A.2.c states that “we will avoid conflict of interest or even the appearance of conflict of interest …” and Section B.6 and B.7 prohibit participating in decisions that result in personal gain. This includes not only official actions of the planning commission, but conversations with planning commission members outside of meetings in which the Personal Agenda person attempts to influence the system in his/her favor.

Manipulators are egregious violators of the Code of Ethics. The purpose of the planning commission is to impartially consider the current and future implications of land use decisions on the community and surrounding landowners. Manipulators’ interference in the process undermines the impartial nature of the system.

Depending on the circumstances, their behavior could violate numerous ethical standards including: the provision of clear and accurate information; giving people the opportunity to have a meaningful impact on the development of plans and programs; dealing fairly with all participants in the planning process; exercising independent judgment; avoiding conflict of interest; and not stating or implying the ability to influence decisions.


In Part 2 of Does Your Commission Have Bad Apples? Lisa and Jim provide practical advice on how to address these difficult situations and personalities through education, empowerment, specific actions, and stronger bylaws.


photo of the SegedysJim Segedy, FAICP, worked for many years in Ball State University’s Community Based Planning program, providing assistance to more than one hundred communities and many plan commissions (as planning commissions are called in Indiana). He is currently a member of the Edgewood (Pennsylvania) Planning Commission and previously served on the Delaware County (Indiana) Plan Commission.

Lisa Hollingsworth-Segedy, AICP, is the Associate Director for River Restoration for American Rivers’ Pittsburgh field office. Before moving to Pennsylvania, she spent over a decade as a circuit-riding planner for a regional planning organization serving the western fringe of Metropolitan Atlanta.

Editor's note: Want to get the taste of those bad apples out of your mouth -- read Otis White's account of a very good apple planning commissioner.