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Special Feature

Planner and Commissioner — Advice for Staff Planners

Two years ago we asked 25 individuals who have served both as professional and citizen planners for their thoughts on a series of five short questions — and published their replies in the Planning Commissioners Journal. We received great feedback on what we titled “Sitting on Both Sides of the Table” — as a result, we decided to ask another seven  individuals who have also sat on both sides of the table for their thoughts. We hope you find what they have to say equally interesting.

For very short bios of the seven planners, see the sidebar to your left.

Planning commissioners meeting around a table

If you have one or two pieces of advice you’d give to staff planners based on your experience as a planning commissioner, what would they be?

John Morgan:

Don’t assume that commissioners or the general public are as well versed as you are in planning jargon, and always approach each meeting as a teachable moment.

While I’m not saying we as planners need to “dumb-it-down,” we do need to slow it down and make sure that our audience fully understands the issues we’re presenting. We also need to be patient and willing to provide logical, well-reasoned, and direct explanations for our recommendations and not just pull an ‘expert card’.

Merrie Stillpass:

Do not assume that all the commissioners come to the meetings prepared. I have noticed that some members never say anything, others like to dominate and bring up all kinds of irrelevant information.

Janet Agnoletti:

Be open to the “tried and true” as well as innovation and “what’s currently hot” in the profession. Some of the best in planning comes from history and tradition.

Anna Choudhuri:

Not all planning commissioners are planners! Sometimes the questions from the planning commission may seem trivial or common-sense to you, as a planner; but, most planning commission members are not doing your job on a daily basis. Take your time and explain/provide clear responses. Some planning commissioners are planners! Comments from such members are usually based on their professional experiences in other jurisdictions. Welcome these insights!

Steve Ostaseski:

Keep the language simple, use images, and make sure all the definitions are in the regulations.

Pierre Martinez:

Don’t assume the commissioners know everything about planning and environmental laws, the local ordinances, design review guidelines, etc.

The staff report is all we see, just like the public, so remember who your audience is. Write reports that are thorough and follow a logical pattern of thought.

Tony Robbins:

Keep your conversations limited to the public realm. Ex parte communication while helpful, can have unintended consequences such as perceived bias. Know that we’re not being rude, we’re treating everyone the same and limiting comment to the public hearing so that all of the commission hears the same information at the same time.