Staff Reports for Planning Commission Work Sessions

Dear Management Doctor,

It has been the practice of our Planning Department to release staff reports to the public only after they have been presented to the Planning Board. The applicants are made fully aware of their content prior to the work session where the staff report will be discussed, but no one is sent a copy of the actual report prior to that work session except the Planning Board.

A civic association is asking to have the staff reports for projects in their community sent to them ahead of time. Our Town Attorney is telling us we do not have to release the staff reports ahead of time because they are inter-office communications, but I wonder if posting them online ahead of time is beneficial. Or could it cause problems? Our work sessions are open to the public but it is not a public hearing and the public cannot speak at these meetings. What do other communities do? And what is your experience with this issue?

I searched the archives and didn’t see this particular topic discussed, however if it already has been I apologize.

Heather

Dear Heather,

Great question that we have not addressed in the past. I will be eager to see if our emailers can help us with this one.

The way to handle this has a lot to do with local culture and history. My general thoughts are as follows:

  1. No one should see the report until it is in the hands of the Planning Commission, this could mean just a one-day delay for others. The same of course is true for the elected officials.
  2. The key government word these day is transparency. As such I would be inclined to make the report public right after it has been distributed to the Planning Commission and before the meeting.
  3. What is the purpose of the Planning Commission meeting? We have seen this approach abused. They should not be trending to a position since they have not yet heard public testimony. This should mostly be an educational meeting for the Commissioners and also they can suggest questions they want answered that are not in your staff report.

Let me know how this ends up.

Best wishes,

the Management Doctor


Reader Responses

I think you fumbled this one. A few states may vary, but in my experience, once a document is distributed to a public board, it’s a public document. In California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona, where I have worked, Heather would be violating state law by failing to make the staff report public the moment it is sent to the planning board.

In any event, why is staff afraid of the report being seen? Are they that timid about recommendations? Are there special deals or recommendations in the report? Why should the applicant know what’s in it and the adjoining property owners be in the dark? What is the department hiding?

The purpose of the staff report is a neutral analysis of the applicant’s objectives, how the proposal meshes with policies and codes in the jurisdiction, and whether or not it can be modified by conditions to achieve applicant objectives and conform to jurisdictional expectations and requirements. If quantifiable and time-specific conditions of approval cannot make the project fit the jurisdiction’s regulatory and policy environment, a denial should be recommended. If the project can be modified to fit jurisdictional needs, but no longer meets applicant objectives, the applicant should withdraw and modify the application.

Making the staff report public and available opens that discussion to discourse. We planners do not have all the answers, and sometimes we don’t have the right ones.

Eric Jay Toll


Our process has been to post the planning report on-line at the same time it is distributed to the planning commission. In our case, our materials are all sent electronically to the commission (although some large copies of plans are delivered, but on the same day). At the same time, we send them over for posting to our current application web page and send to the applicant in the same manner. Our thought is the planning report is not going to change based on whenever the commission sees it, so once we have completed our internal reviews and finalized the report, it’s a done deal. Any other requests we get for the report are directed to the web site where it can be viewed/downloaded.

Steve Langworthy


My city does a “City Planner’s Report” that goes out to residents, businesses, developers, elected officials, etc who have signed up to be on it. It is also posted to our website. It is sent at the same time the packet is sent to our commissioners.

The report contains 1-2 sentence summaries of everything that’s before our planning commission that session. We have a template that we use every time so it’s easy for our admin to change out sections for each meeting (it’s done in Publisher). I also write or reprint a short article of general planning interest that goes with the report. As we’ve been updating our comp plan, many of these articles are about that. I’ve attached a couple of CPRs as examples. This way if a citizen or interest group is interested in a particular item, they can just click through and read the staff report in advance of the commission meeting.

Hope this helps Heather.

Hilary Perkins

City Planner’s Report 06-19-2015

City Planner’s Report 07-24-2015


We post on our website the staff reports and recommendations on rezoning cases the same day that the agenda book containing the staff reports and recommendations is mailed or emailed to our Planning Board members. This occurs approximately a week before the public hearing. By doing this, both applicants and the public have a chance to see the reports well in advance of the hearing so they can plan accordingly for what they might say at the hearing. We also verbally tell the applicants what our recommendation will be roughly a week ahead of that so that they can determine if they wish to make any changes in their proposal to address any staff concerns prior to the staff report being completed. We do not have a work session with the Planning Board on the upcoming rezoning cases before their public hearing. However, we do have a van tour of proposed rezoning sites earlier in the process so that the staff can take pictures of the site and surroundings, and check to see that the notification signs were posted correctly—and we offer that tour to Planning Board members to ride along in order to physically see the sites if they wish. A few Planning Board members take advantage of that opportunity to see the sites. That van tour (we call it our “Sign Check” meeting) is advertised as a public meeting, but there is no discussion of what the recommendation or decision might be.

Paul Norby


Here in Lee’s Summit, MO staff reports are sent to the applicant at the same time being sent to the Planning Commission, all through email, usually the Friday prior to the Tuesday meeting. Also at that same time they become fair game for any and all who may request it.

Robert McKay


Our municipality’s approach to this issue of staff reports for PC work sessions is now handled like this (we made changes upon the pervasive advent of the digital age – things were actually easier though slower in the pre-digital age).

Our department distributes via email a link to our PC packet generally 24 hours in advance of the study session.  On the heels of that distribution, we then forward the same link to the applicant, any individual or civic group which had inquired about its availability, as well as a generally small group of people (primarily land use attorneys, planning and/or engineering consulting firms, and citizen activists) who requested to be notified every month of all regular or special meeting packets produced for the PC.

We are not concerned that the public and/or the applicant has the report in hand prior to the PC study session – as I tell my staff, consider your staff reports as “term papers” where it is not the professor which grades the report, but rather the applicant, the public, the PC, other City staff, and ultimately the City Council who get the PC staff reports for any items which move up the chain for their review and approval.  So it is not critical for us for our PC to put its eyes on the report ahead of, say, the applicant or a civic association.

The purpose of our PC study sessions, which typically occur 4 days prior to the date of the PC meeting, is to inform and educate the Commission about various items on the agenda.  Staff always emphasizes that there should be no positions about the agenda’s projects either sought or voiced, and that a Commissioner’s position on any issue is not only inappropriate to voice at the study session but is also an abrogation of the due process to be afforded to any quasi-judicial items.

We have at times contemplated eliminating the study sessions, but our Planning Commissioners invariably request them.  Staff uses the study sessions to familiarize the Commission with the overall agenda, and particularly any controversial items on that agenda.  What we touch on in our briefing to them are the points that are either likely to be points of contention with the applicant or the neighborhood, or to focus on those aspects of a project where staff is in disagreement with the applicant, or where some resolution on the topic has not as yet been achieved in our pre-meeting discussions/negotiations with an applicant.  We encourage them to direct their questions at the meeting itself to uncovering more information or answers to the items considered unresolved or contentious.  At the study sessions, we never discuss items associated with the review of the project which we haven’t already discussed with the applicant.

Our staff has followed these general rules of thumb for decades now, and have never had a formal challenge about our process nor any significant complaint, other than when any applicants, consultants, attorneys or members of the public show up at the publicly-noticed study session, they tend to dislike being told they cannot speak at the study session.  But we tell them that is what the formal meeting/hearing is for, and they accept that.

Apologies for this lengthy response.

Greg Hoch


I support your fundamental premise that the staff reports are public documents that should be made available to the public before the commission conducts its public hearing. I also believe there is real merit in releasing to the public the information simultaneously with the transmittal of the staff report to the planning commission. This is in keeping with the growing public expectation of equity, fairness, openness and transparency in all local government affairs. In my experience, there is no value to the commissioners to have the staff report prior to it becoming public information by posting it on the Internet. As you have so wisely pointed out, the commissioners should not be considering the merits of an application before they have had an opportunity to hear from the applicants and the public at the public hearing. This includes not discussing the application among themselves or with any other interested parties prior to the hearing. Planners work for the commission but they also work for the applicants and for proponents and opponents for developments. Equity, fairness, openness, and transparency is advanced by the simultaneous release of staff reports.

Bruce McClendon


I was  surprised to read this question. Every planning department I’ve worked in, or heard of, makes their planning commission agenda materials available to the public when the agenda is posted – typically a week or so prior to the actual meeting. Withholding agenda material from the public seems entirely antithetical to the principles of the planning profession and certainly our code of ethics.

Sarah S. More


In Auburn, we deliver the PC Packets to the commission members’ homes the Friday before the Thursday evening regular meeting. That same Friday afternoon, the entire packet is posted on-line electronically for the public’s information. We have an e-mail notifier system that citizens can subscribe too. Subscribers receive an e-mail when the packet available is viewing. We believe this serves the community well in terms of transparency and open information.


Michigan’s FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) must be stronger that other states.  Basically every community posts all of their public meeting agendas on-line the same day the meeting package is sent out. Our Planning Department includes in the Planning Commission’s packet all correspondence related to each item on the agenda: Including staff/consultant reports, plans, site plans, written public comment, etc. Plus at every public meeting the public shall have the opportunity to address the public body: We call it public comment. In our organization we believe in transparency. I will note we don’t include the inter-department reviews from the fire marshal, staff engineer, building department, DPW or police. These comments tend to confuse the Planning Commission and public, because they don’t make the connection that the comments we part of the review process and are addressed in the updated site plan package.

I agree with the Management Doctor that public bodies, especially City Council should receive the information prior to public availability. It is embarrassing to field a phone call from the City Manager, who has fielded phones calls from the Mayor and Council, who received phones calls about an agenda item, but the Council hadn’t received the information yet.

Mark F. Miller


 

I am shocked to see that some public agency is not making this public information.  As a 20+ year Professional AICP CEP Planner, 5 year County Planning Commissioner and husband of a City Councilmember (who was also a Professional Planner)  and father was on Council also (A professional civil engineer) we have seen the good bad and ugly over the last 35+ years regardless of things being transparent or who is in-charge of staff or elected political member.  In this digital day, all of this should be online for the public, so the public perception will improve.  This is still a perception that needs improving regardless of personal opinion of what is good enough…..

Randy Coleman


 

Great responses! You have engaged clients that truly care about helping others.

Bruce


 

Thanks to everyone who answered!

Heather Lanza


 

Thanks to everyone who answered!

Helen Spear