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… The welcoming environment begins with the treatment citizens receive at the door. Always have handouts to help them keep track of what is happening, preferably on a convenient table nearby the entrance. At the least, have sufficient copies of the agenda; but be sure it is written in plain English, not the legalese your attorney or staff planners insist upon for formal commission action. For example, in addition to referring to ordinances or motions by number or code, include a simple explanation, such as “proposal to approve building an apartment house at 123 East Main, a single family zone.”
If you know there will be a crowd of citizens assembled for a particular issue, ask the staff to include in the handouts other explanatory information such as a map or fact sheet.
If you know there will be a crowd of citizens assembled for a particular issue, ask the staff to include in the handouts other explanatory information such as a map or fact sheet. Reader-friendly material should become routine and give the citizen a positive feeling of inclusiveness.
Next, be sensitive to sight lines and other impediments. If the staff is using visual aids such as charts, graphs, overheads or slides, make sure that everyone in the audience can see them. Too often these are oriented only to the planning commissioners. If necessary, rearrange the chairs or the screen. If everything is fixed, invite the audience to move to the side where there is the best view. If none of this is possible, consider duplicating the visuals on handouts. The goal again is to be as inclusive as possible. An audience that can follow the procedures is less likely to disrupt them.
If you are the chair of the meeting, remember to continually paraphrase what is going on or being said. This not only keeps the commissioners on track, but is invaluable to members of the public. …
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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.