Does Your Planning Commission Have Bad Apples? – Part 1

January 22nd, 2014

“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.

We would also value your input and feedback. Please join in the discussion about what to do about "bad apples" on the PlannersWeb LinkedIn group page.

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.

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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.

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