One of the most important relationships in the “planning universe” is that between the governing body and the planning commission.
We wanted to hear back from our survey respondents on what they’ve done — or think they should do — to improve the relationship between the two bodies. Here’s what we asked in two related questions:
Please list up to three things that have been done in your community to help strengthen the relationship between your planning commission and governing body.
If there was one thing that could be done to most improve the relationship between your planning commission and governing body, what would that be?
We received replies from 225 individuals. As with our other open-ended questions, we found that most replies could be grouped into several categories:
1. Joint Meetings. This was by far the most frequently mentioned suggestion. 146 of our 225 respondents (65 percent) mentioned it as either something they were already doing (106) or that they thought they should be doing (40). What’s more, 22 of those who said they were already holding joint meetings said they should have more of them.
2. Reports & Briefings. Thirty-two individuals indicated that they had used reports or briefings as a way of improving the connection between the planning board and governing body.
3. Liaison. Comments from 29 individuals reported that using liaisons between the two bodies had helped strengthen their relationship.
4. Attending Each Other’s Meetings. Twenty-seven people recommended that planning commissioners attend governing body meetings and vice-versa.
There were several other groupings of comments, which we’ll also mention below.
Details on What We Heard:
1. Joint Meetings
As we noted, 65 percent of our respondents noted they were already holding joint meetings between the planning commission and governing body. This was by far the most frequent response to our question about ways of strengthening the planning commission – governing body relationship.
Many of the replies were similar to these: “hold joint work sessions,” “annual joint meeting,” “city council retreats with commission,” “joint meetings to get issues on the table,” and “visit sites together.”
Conduct an annual joint tour of the city to see how the codes are working.
A Kansas planning commissioner noted that commissioners and governing body members had taken “tours together” and held an “annual recognition dinner,” while a California planner said they “conduct an annual joint tour of the city to see how the codes are working.”
A planner from Washington wrote that their commission and governing body held joint retreats in order to “clarify roles and responsibilities.”
As noted earlier, 22 of those who said they were already holding joint meetings commented on the value of having them more often. Several individuals who said their planning commission had annual joint meetings felt it would be better to have several each year.
2. Reports & Briefings
All told, 32 individuals mentioned that preparing reports, providing briefings, or sharing minutes and agendas served as a way of strengthening the relationship between the governing body and planning commission.
Most comments were similar to the following: “Planning Commission Chairman provides annual report to Village Board,” “Review minutes of each others meetings,” “Provide reports to both boards on activities,” and “Staff presentations to the governing body.”
A number of communities appear to have either a city council member, the mayor, or someone else serve as a liaison with the planning commission, as 29 of our respondents mentioned this as a way they’ve strengthened the relationship between their community’s governing body and planning board.
Most comments were like these: “Liaison city councilor attends planning commission meetings and reports to City Council on deliberations and discussions,” and “One County Commissioner is assigned as liaison to the County Planning Commission.” Several comments mentioned that their liaison is a voting member of the planning commission.
4. Attending Each Others Meetings
The 27 comments we placed in this category overlap slightly with the role of a liaison. But we felt these comments were sufficiently distinct, as they related to a less formal role or approach than when there is a designated liaison.
Members of the governing body attend many planning commission meetings.
For example, a California planning commissioner noted that in their community “each Council meeting has a commissioner assigned to attend and take notes,” while a planning commissioner from Delaware replied that “members of the governing body attend many planning commission meetings.” Similarly, a Virginia planning commissioner said that the “Planning Commission chair (me) often attends Council work sessions.”
An Idaho planner made an important distinction in writing that governing body members attend “planning workshops, not public hearings.”
We received a wide assortment of additional suggestions. In looking through them, we did notice several groupings of related comments.
Informal, Personal Contacts
Thirteen comments mentioned the importance of informal contacts, connections, or networking between planning commissioners and governing body members.
Meet informally one on one.
Among the comments: “I personally talk with at least one of the Council once every two weeks,” “constructive informal communications between PC Chair and Elected board Chair,” “personal relationships with mayor and council members,” and “meet informally one on one.”
However, perhaps the ultimate in informal communications we heard about: “My husband is a member of the governing body! : ) ” [emphasis and emoticon in original].
Former Planning Commission Members Serving on Governing Body
We heard from seven individuals who noted that having former planning commissioners serving on the governing body, or as mayor, can strengthen the relationship between the two bodies.
Many members of the planning commission have become members of the governing body.
For example, a Michigan planning commissioner noted that the former Vice Chair of their Planning Commission “was elected to City Council and is now Mayor,” while a Missouri planning commissioner wrote that “many members of the planning commission have become members of the governing body … they know how the process works and what the objectives are.”
Four individuals mentioned the importance of mutual respect or trust as important to the commission-governing body relationship.
As a Kansas planner wrote, “Establish a high degree of trust.”
Role of Appointment Process
Interestingly, three comments noted the importance of appointing planning commissioners as a way of strengthening the commission-governing body relationship.
For example, a Virginia planner wrote “careful selection of new Planning Commission members.” It makes sense that governing bodies that take more care when deciding who to appoint to the commission may well end up with a stronger connection to the commission.
We already noted that several comments mentioned the value of sharing meeting minutes. Another way — noted in three comments — for governing body members to keep track of what the planning commission is focusing on (and vice-versa) is by watching the other body’s meetings.
Three comments also pointed out that the comprehensive planning process can provide a good way of strengthening the link between governing bodies and planning commissions.
As an individual from Pennsylvania who has served as a planning commissioner and elected official noted, “There is constant interaction between staff, elected and appointed officials during meetings of our comp plan committees.”
Several individuals pointed to the role that staff plays in fostering communications between planning commissions and governing bodies.
An Ohio planner noted that they held “monthly meetings with staff and Commission Chair and Council Rep,” while a planner from Iowa said, “Staff acts as the go between when one board or the other has questions for the other board … educates the planning commission and governing body on current issues, and provides opportunities to go to training together.”
… And Don’t Forget
One final way of strengthening the planning commission – governing body relationship we had to make note of: “Make sure the governing body looks good,” a Rhode Island planner noted.
Editor’s Note: Want to read more about ways of improving the relationship between the planning commission and governing body, see:
- “Working Effectively With Elected Officials,” by Elaine Cogan
- “Linking Elected Officials With Planning,” by Michael Chandler
- “Town Councils and Planning Boards: A Challenging Relationship,” by Pamela Plumb
and if you’re a planning commissioner thinking — perhaps — of running for a seat on the governing body, or other office, take a look at Otis White’s “Should You Run?“
Coming Next: Improving Planning Commission Effectiveness