The Chicken and the Egg - Who Speaks First?

Dear Management Doctor:

I have been working as a planner for the City of Las Cruces, NM for almost three months. The first P&Z meeting I attended, I was surprised to see that the applicant presents first, followed by the planner (staff). As staff, I have always presented first. When I expressed my concerns after the meeting, I was told that staff used to go first until someone on the commission felt that by staff presenting first, the impression was given that staff was “working” for the applicant.

I feel that staff should lay out the facts of the case and by going first, staff has more control over the flow of the meeting. I would like to hear from other planners on “who goes first.”


Sandra Gaiser
Las Cruces, NM

Dear Sandra:

I not only think the planner should speak first, but also should be given wrap-up time or rebuttal time after the applicant and public speakers. I do understand that in more conservative and rural communities, it is not unusual that commissioners feel the way yours do. Another issue we often encounter is, whether or not staff should make a recommendation. I absolutely believe staff should make a recommendation. The recommendation should try to solve issues for both the applicant and the neighbors, obviously in the context of the community’s comprehensive plan and ordinances.

This is a good question for our readers to chime in on. Let's see what they have to say.

The Management Doctor

Reader Responses

In Tucson, staff always presents first, then the applicant. I agree with you, it is the laying out the facts in a logical way and presenting our professional recommendation that is our responsibility. On the issue of appearing to be "on the side of" the developer, we do decline to attend the required meeting the developer must have with neighboring property owners to "pitch" their case. That does often lead to the belief that we support a case before the analysis has been done.

Sarah S. More, AICP
Tucson, AZ

We have always had (and prefer) staff make their presentation as necessary including a recommendation followed by the applicant and the public. Staff and the applicant respond as necessary with staff having the last word. In my opinion, this procedure works well for all concerned.

I'm a long-time Planning Commissioner and current Chairman.

Bob Steiskal, Jr., CAPZO
Gulf Shores, AL

In Midland, Texas, we use both approaches depending on which public body we are addressing. Before the Planning and Zoning Commission, applicants makes the initial presentation. Developers have often invested significant resources preparing a professional presentation. It is their application, they paid the application fee, so let them present it. Don't give the audience the impression it is the staff's application. The staff presentation follows. By going second, you can fill in any gaps left by the applicant, and tailor your comments to support your position. And by all means conclude with a recommendation. Then the public hearing can be conducted. Once the public hearing is closed, the Commission is free to direct questions as they see fit in order to make an informed decision.

City Council meetings include a wide range of issues, and not just land use matters. Therefore, the format is more expedient. Here, the staff makes the initial presentation, which is intentionally kept very brief. The Council members receive the Planning Commission staff report and minutes in digital form approximately five days before the meeting. Hopefully, the detailed information has been reviewed prior to the meeting. The applicant goes next, followed by the public hearing. Again, we respond to any specific questions not addressed in our brief presentation.

We have experimented with different formats and have settled upon these procedures for our situation.

Jim Compton
Midland, TX

There are pros and cons either way and I think either way can work well. On controversial projects, especially those where there is a lot of public opposition and staff is recommending approval, I like the applicant to go first. By going first, the applicant can take more ownership of his/her project and not just rely on staff to win an approval. Of course staff also needs to present a factual, unbiased report, but sometimes it doesn't appear that way from the public who are in opposition to a project (like low-income housing). When there isn't opposition, or perhaps on more complex projects, it may be better for staff to go first to lay out the facts and review criteria of the project. I've found that most developers, except those represented by attorneys, rely way too much on staff to get an approval for their project. It shouldn't be that way. Developers should be required to put more emphasis into winning approval for their projects and sometimes that's hard to do when they don't present first. That's my opinion anyway.

I wholeheartedly agree with the Management Doctor that a recommendation should be made and that issues are resolved between the neighbors and the applicant. I strive to have these issues resolved prior to the hearing, if possible, rather than during them since public hearings are such poor communication forums anyway.

Bill Nebeker
City of Susanville, CA

Since our process starts with a public hearing, the approach was to let the applicants control their presentation by speaking first. Logical, to a degree, but given the general lack of understanding of what issues needed to be dealt with during the hearing (despite the efforts of my staff to help the applicant structure the presentation), we have changed the procedure. As the Director, I now open the public hearing by giving an overview of the petition, identify the issues of concern, and introduce the petitioner. This sets the tone and gives the Commission an idea of what staff believes are the critical issues. When the public hearing is closed, the Commission refers the petition to the City Planner. A staff recommendation is presented at the following meeting.

J. Wayne Oldroyd, AICP
Maryland Heights, MO

First, I wish to say hello to Sandra. We worked together years ago at New Mexico State University and then at Dona Ana County.

My response to her question is that staff should speak first. I think protocol calls for the Chairman of the Commission to open the hearing for each case and then for staff to give a succinct presentation. The purpose of the staff presentation is to summarize the staff report that was prepared for the planning commissioners, and also for the benefit of the public who may be participating. The applicant can then present their case, which should differ from the staff presentation in some respects or there would seem no reason for them to present. The hearing is then opened up to public comments before being closed for the motion. During the entire process the commissioners can direct questions to staff, the answers for which can be considered a rebuttal to comments of other parties. I don't see why the Commission would consider the staff presentation to be "working" for the applicant unless the staff reports are routinely promoting the development project — such as the use of unnecessarily positive adjectives, discussing only the pros and not the cons, etc. Those of us in southwest metros with dynamic growth can easily be viewed as rubberstamping development because our systems are set up to be very pro-development, so there is little actual need for staff's written and oral presentations to help foster the development process any further. This is just my opinion based on my experience. I suppose that the order of presentations could vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction so long as a jurisdiction's commission tries to conduct business in a consistent manner. I would suggest that you review the commission bylaws, regulatory documents, and state statutes in order to determine if your commission is presently conducting business in a manner that is legally acceptable. If not, it needs to be changed. If so, then it may still be prudent to set up a meeting between upper level staff, the recording secretary, legal counsel, the chair and vice-chair of the Commission, etc., in order to discuss your concerns. It is my opinion that the chair should conduct the flow of the meeting, but he/she should be respective of staff's concerns. The process you've described, where the applicant presents first, sounds rather biased toward the applicant to me — ironically, just the opposite of what your commission is trying to avoid.

Darren V. Gérard, AICP
Maricopa County, AZ

Our community has a procedure that has worked very well for everyone involved to date. Any zoning action or other action that goes before our Planning Board is typically presented one month in a public hearing forum by the applicants, so they can describe what they are requesting with time after for public, staff and Board questions and discussion. No action is taken. This allows the applicant and staff to find out about opposition and questions and issues not obvious from the application itself, and to work on it a few weeks.

Then at the next month's meeting, staff will first present a recommendation to the Board and get to go through their staff report as needed, after which the applicant is given time to respond, then the Board has a discussion and votes. The public hearing is not re-opened although if there are public in attendance who feel strongly about speaking, the Board can choose to allow them to comment on the staff recommendation, but the Board can limit the discussion time or subject area if it appears folks are just trying to repeat the previous month's discourse.

C. Deardorff, AICP
Lakeland Community, FL

I agree that staff should present first to introduce the nature of the application, identify policy or code issues affecting the application that are relevant to the decision makers, and make a recommendation. About 15 years ago, we had a new mayor that did not want staff to make a recommendation, as he felt that it made the city look like a co-applicant. This was at a time of rapid growth in our community and a lot of people were not comfortable with the pace of change taking place. Our planning commission disagreed with the passive approach and asked us to make a recommendation based upon our plan policies, code requirements, and most importantly, our professional judgment. As a lay citizen body, they wanted staff support for their decisions. On all applications, we have the applicant present their case after staff provides the introduction and recommendation. The applicant is also allowed to offer rebuttal after public testimony, if necessary.

Allan Giffen
Everett, WA

Regarding “who goes first” during planning and zoning commission meetings — we’ve done it both ways. We have no hard and fast rule. However, my preference is to let the applicant go first, for the same reason that was stated earlier — if staff goes first, it may look like staff is working for the applicant.

The fact is, most people hate speaking in public. (As Zig Ziglar used to say, “Surveys indicate people’s number one fear is speaking in public. Their number three fear is death. Which means most people would rather die than speak in public.”) Staff members speak in public on a routine basis, so they usually make a better presentation than the applicant. So if a staff member speaks first and makes a good presentation, and the proposed project is consistent with the comprehensive plan and ordinances, then it may appear that staff is doing a “sales job” on behalf of the applicant. If the project is not consistent with the comprehensive plan and ordinances, and staff speaks first, then it appears that staff is trying to “shoot down” the poor applicant’s project before the applicant has even had a chance to speak.

By having the applicant speak first, it appears to be a more fair and balanced review process. It also gives staff the opportunity to take notes during the applicant’s presentation and respond to any last- minute issues that the applicant may bring up while going first.

Mike Roy
City of Douglas, WY

Our staff presents first, but they are cautioned to make presentation short on application (we assume the Planning Commission reads the staff report) and concentrate on any changed circumstances since staff report was generated, respond to any questions raised at caucus with Planning Commission the day before, and review staff recommendation. Staff is cautioned to refrain from advising Planning Commission that the application is "the best (or worst) we've ever seen," or "it was a pleasure (or like going to the dentist) to work with the applicant," but to focus on the findings and facts that support findings. An informal rule is to stay within a five- minute timeframe. The Planning Commission permits no rebuttal or summation for anyone participating in the public hearing, but will call on persons (staff, applicant, or members of the audience) to clarify issues and statements after the hearing is closed.

Mike Harper
Washoe County, NV