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Effective staff/commission relations are vital to the overall success of planning in your community, whether your planning agency has one, ten, or one hundred employees. Good will and an understanding of the pitfalls that impede sound relationships can help you solve any problems that may arise.
Resist the temptation to “micro-manage” … you are not expected to be a professional planner. Indeed, you would be less effective as a citizen planning commissioner if you were.
Resist the temptation to “micro-manage.” After you have been on the job any time at all, you will become more familiar with planning jargon, and the rules and regulations of your community, than most citizens. Still, you are not expected to be a professional planner. Indeed, you would be less effective as a citizen planning commissioner if you were.
Even if you are a successful professional or businessperson, it is not appropriate to try to tell the planning director whom to hire or fire or how you think the agency should be managed. You should have more than enough to do studying the issues and making policy decisions. Besides, a good business approach is not always applicable to government. Play your job well and let the staff know you expect them to do theirs.
Read your homework. Planning staffs are notorious for their propensity to grind out pages of documentation and explanation for even the simplest zoning change. As a planning commissioner, it is important to be aware of everything pertaining to each case that has a bearing on your decision. Oftentimes, however, staff reports include voluminous references to other local ordinances or state laws or are padded with what is called “boilerplate” — material that legally has to be in there, but has no real relevance to the matters under consideration.
If you cannot easily separate the wheat from the chaff, talk to other commissioners. You may find that you all have the same difficulty understanding the written staff reports. If that is the case, consider asking staff to provide more easy to read material. Never allow staff protests that “it has to be this way” or “it’s always been this way” intimidate you into thinking you are lazy or stupid for not understanding their reports. One effective improvement that might meet your need for clarity, while still adhering to legal form, is to request that each set of documents be preceded by an executive summary of no more than two pages. …
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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.