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Ten Things to Avoid

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Having spent years working with planning commissions — and serving on them as well — my radar is tuned to the dynamics of meetings, and how commissioners “behave” when dealing with the public and with staff. I’ve seen commissions succumb to glitzy presentations; engage in undue delay; or lose sight of the big picture while getting sidetracked on what may not be all that important.

As an example of this last point, years ago I attended a planning commission meeting that spent an entire evening discussing lawn ornaments such as pink plastic flamingos for a multi-million-dollar resort. As I looked at the planning director’s expression, I had to wonder if behind that Mona Lisa smile there was this little voice saying “So this is the result of hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars of planning, coordination, and negotiation?”

Allow me to spend a few minutes sharing my thoughts on ten things planning commissions should avoid. I’m sure many of you will have your own additions. But what’s most important is to be aware of how we may fall short, and do our best to improve how we run our meetings and deal with others.

1. Familiar Informality. Although it may seem desirable to conduct hearings in a casual style, addressing participants with familiar terms — endearing or derogatory — undermines the perception and practice of impartial decision-making.

2. Crude, Lewd, and/or Rude. Inappropriate behaviors cover the spectrum of human activity. As someone who has collected humorous public hearing stories, I have heard and seen a range of planning commissioner behavior from snoozing to brawling. It can be hoped that the increase in videotaping may reduce some of these lapses in the social graces.

3. Labeling. This is an insidious problem that may manifest itself as labeling individuals or over-identifying with them. Do we discount comments from those we label as “environmentalists” or “developers,” instead of listening to what they actually have to say? Do we give more weight to those who seem most like us in how they look or the neighborhood they come from?

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