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Another vital role is that played by the planning board’s chair. A chair’s role can be more than just “banging the gavel,” if you will, and announcing cases. Done well, it involves running an effective meeting, managing board and public input, ensuring fair but not interminable proceedings, managing the evening’s agenda, and knowing how and when to bring cases or evenings to a tactful close.
As planning director, I do work closely with the chairs of our town planning commission and development review board to brief them on agendas, cases, “hot button” issues, known or anticipated complications … and also on longer term scheduling and timing of priorities, projects, and hearings. I know that the chairs always appreciate these advance briefings and strategies, and this is reflected in how well they run their meetings. Please know that these briefings are not intended in any way, nor are they used in any way, to bypass proper procedure or decisionmaking. Rather, the intent is to help the process run effectively and efficiently.
I agree with what Lee just said, and would add that a good chair can bring out the best in other members and in staff. Sometimes there are a few strong willed members and sometimes there are silent members. A good chair will bring out the needed discussions and debates in an atmosphere that remains professional and doesn’t move into a bashing of any one idea over another. A good chair will also know when to pull the plug on inappropriate comments or behavior by members of the board, by staff, or by the public.
I also concur that there can be valuable benefits from sitting down with the chair prior to the meeting and going over things, in effect discussing a “game plan” for the meeting. This does not mean pigeon-holing the end result, but rather figuring out how to bring out the relevant issues for discussion.
I definitely agree with Lee and Glynis that fostering a “relationship” between the staff planner and the chair is required. I think the best chairs need our close input so that they can run effective meetings. I also think they need to understand the behind the scenes stuff that can occur with applicants, such as refusing to submit information requested by staff, shoddy work, and the last minute submittal of plans and other filings.
I am never afraid to make my boards aware of these kind of problems when they arise. Indeed, there have been times when significant new information that had been requested by staff well in advance was not received until the hearing itself. Having informed my board of this, they would ask immediately “has staff had a chance to review this.” If I said “no,” they would invariably move to recess the hearing. When boards fail to do this, and agree to review major new information “at the table,” it offers clear encouragement to applicants to continue this poor practice.
To avoid this problem from even coming up at the hearing, we’ve added language in our city’s land use regulations that allows staff to not place a request on the meeting agenda if the information is provided late. …
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