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The Effective Planning Commissioner

When They Speak, Do You Listen?

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“I know you hear me, but are you listening?” Nearly shouting with exasperation, a frustrated citizen confronted her community’s planning commission after a particularly heated public meeting on a controversial zone change.

The chair of the commission took exception to her question. “Of course we’re listening. What do you think we’ve been doing the last four hours?”

Planning commissioner calmly listening to angry citizen. Illustration by Marc Hughes for PlannersWeb.
Illustration by Marc Hughes for PlannersWeb

They may have thought they were listening, but the decision made by the planning commissioners soon after the meeting did nothing to convince a skeptical public. The commissioners voted unanimously to endorse their previous stand on the issue without any acknowledgment of the public comments they had ostensibly been “listening to” the previous four hours.

It is possible that no amount of public discussion would have changed the opinions — and the votes — of the planning commissioners, and it is entirely within their rights to reaffirm their original opinion. But once they opened up the discussion to the citizens, they should have showed by their questions and other responses that they considered the public’s input seriously before they took another vote. “Why did we bother to come? They didn’t even hear what we were saying,” is a reasonable public evaluation of the proceedings that occurred. The seeds of an apathetic or militant citizenry are nurtured in such unfertile ground. …

End of excerpt

photo of Elaine CoganElaine 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.

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