Elected Officials on the Planning Commission

Dear Management Doctor:

I have what may be an "only in Louisiana" dilemma for you, but I ask and hope that you might be able to point me to possible examples elsewhere in the country. The city of ________ and the parish of ________ operate under a consolidated form of government with a Mayor-President who is elected parish-wide, and council districts serving the parish. The plan of government (charter) specifically calls for one Council Member to serve on the Planning and Zoning Commission. There have been recent accusations of ethics violations in that this person is also part of the government body that approves the planning department's budget and hence there is a conflict with that person serving on the Commission.

I'm not asking that you comment on the ethics violation accusation (unless you would like to), but can you possibly offer any examples similar to what I've outlined above in terms of the elected official also serving on the Commission?

Needs Information

Dear Needs Information,

I've occasionally run into this situation, but am having trouble remembering where. I hope our readers can give us a few examples as well as their experience in these communities. I do know that Nashville/Davidson County Metro has the Mayor and one Council member as members of the Planning Commission. I'm told they seldom attend, perhaps out of the same concerns for conflict when an item must be reviewed by them later. I have seen a number of communities where the City Council appoints one of their members to routinely attend the Planning Commission meetings simply for monitoring or communication purposes. I have also seen a number of communities that occasionally, and particularly on large projects, have a joint Planning Commission/City Council workshop, which I believe can be very useful. Otherwise, I find it hard to believe that any elected official would want to add more meetings to their schedule. My advice is to separate the Commission and the Council.

Good Luck!

The Management Doctor

Reader Responses

I agree with you that the two should be separated.

Bill Nebeker
Community Development Director, City of Susanville, CA

Assuming it hasn't been changed since I last practiced in New Jersey, the State Municipal Land Use Law required that the Mayor and Councilperson sit on the Planning Board as two of the nine authorized members. Under that same statue, the governing body was required to fund the operation of the Planning Board. The main difference in the NJ system was when the statute was adopted, the Planning Board became a "strong" board, i.e., their decisions were final, requiring no action of the elected body. Other than the normal politics of land development, it made sense that there was some cross representation between the elected and appointed officials.

J. Wayne Oldroyd, AICP
Director of Community Development, City of Maryland Heights Woldroyd@MarylandHeights.com

The one consolidated city-county government I am familiar with is Jacksonville, Florida, which has its Planning Department serve as the Planning Commission and the commissioners have a Council Level Land Use Committee that reviews matters before they get placed on the full council meeting agenda. For more information, their website is coj.net.

Hope this is helpful.

B. Kraig McLane, AICP
Senior Project Manager St. Johns River Water Management Dictrict KMcLane@sjrwmd.com

This is an interesting problem, but not one that is foreign to planners in Wisconsin (my former home state). The Wisconsin Statutes allow cities to adopt an ordinance setting the membership of the Plan Commission. The Statutes (if you are interested, click here to read them) allow the Mayor to appoint himself/herself to the Commission, as well as one other additional Council member, so long as at least three members of the Commission are not "City officials." The Plan Commission in the city where I served had the Mayor and another Council member on the commission. Since the Mayor appoints the chair of the Plan Commission, it was just accepted that the Mayor would also be the chair.

I can see real problems with this arrangement in larger cities with very large budgets and active bureaucracies (the Statute does not require that the Plan Commission have elected officials serving on it, and I don't believe that most of Wisconsin's larger cities have Council members on the Plan Commissions). However, it did not present a large problem in my small city of just under 10,000. As members of the Plan Commission, the Mayor and the other Council member were able to communicate to their Council peers the intent of the Plan Commission more clearly (yes, staff took its obligation to communicate clearly very seriously, but issues seemed to have more meaning to Council members when the information came from one of their own). Also, the Council did not overturn the Plan Commission's recommendations very often. Since the Plan Commission held the public hearing, the details and difficulties could be worked out at that level, resulting in smooth Council proceedings on Plan Commission items. The two Council members on the Commission would then line up votes among the remaining members (assuming they both voted the same way at the Plan Commission, which they almost always did). When the Council did overturn a Plan Commission recommendation, tensions were overcome by more direct communication between members of the two groups.

While I would agree that there are potential conflicts, they apparently have never been egregious enough to convince the Wisconsin Legislature to change the statute; and Wisconsin is known for its tradition of promoting good government at all levels. So maybe having City Council members on your Plan Commission isn't so bad?

Steven J. Van Steenhuyse, AICP
Planning Manager City of Decatur, IL

I worked in Wisconsin for several years before my current job in Iowa. As I recall, Wisconsin statutes specify that the Mayor and one additional Council member are to serve as Commissioners on the Plan Commission. This provision may have been for cities of a certain size but I believe it might have been for most cities in the state as well. I found the process to be very workable. Communication between the Commission and the Common Council was very complete and consistent. There was no difficulty with accusations of conflict. By comparison to other systems in other states where I have worked, the system in Wisconsin was preferable. Indeed these members did attend many meetings.

Brian P. O'Connell
Director, Planning and Housing Ames,
IA boconnell@city.ames.ia.us

An update on this topic. Historically, the Council member has attended. They feel an obligation to represent Council, especially on issues that do not go to Council (i.e., subdivisions). We regularly have Council members attend and testify as to their recommendations and whether they have had any neighborhood meetings and the result, if any. BTW, staff is usually in attendance at these neighborhood meetings but the Council member wants to appear to represent their interests. I do not think they feel there is an ethics violation, probably due to the fact that 1 in 40 dilutes the strength of their voting at Council. You are right about the Mayor. He does feel that there is a conflict due to his responsibility to either sign or veto bills that come to him. He just appointed a citizen to sit in his place on the Plan Commission.

Thanks again!!

Richard Bernhardt, FAICP, CNU
Executive Director Metropolitan Nashville-Davidson County richard.bernhardt@nashville.gov

Having relocated recently, I'm providing you with information from both my former and current states. Indiana statutes mandated elected officials serve on all three of that state's categories of plan commissions (yes, they're "plan" commissions in Indiana)... advisory, area, and metropolitan. I came from an advisory county plan commission in which a county commissioner (executive and legislative branch) served as a voting member. That member attended and voted at both the plan commission and board of commissioners level regularly and historically. For whatever it may be worth, county advisory plan commissions in Indiana also included an elected county councilperson, township trustee, as well as the elected county surveyor. Four of the commission's nine-member seats are, thus, held by elected officials. In Kentucky, statutes define "citizen member" and go on to require that at least two-thirds of the planning commission's total membership be citizen members. Citizen members cannot hold elective or appointive office. Many of Kentucky's planning commissions include elected officials.

Dennis Andrew Gordon, FAICP
Executive Director Northern Kentucky Area Planning Commission dennis.gordon@orion.nkapc.cog.ky.us

Indiana law requires one City Council member serve on City Advisory Plan Commissions. County Advisory Plan Commissions are required to have a County Commissioner and a County Councilman.

Glen Boise, AICP
Kokomo-Howard County Plan Commission Kokomo, Indiana gboise@cityofkokomo.org

I have worked in City Planning in five communities in five states in the west. I have never heard of a member of the elected ruling body serving on an appointed Planning Commission. I agree with you that the two should be separated.

Bill Nebeker
Community Development Director
City of Susanville (CA)

The provision that elected officials serve on the planning commission was a feature of Section 3 of the Standard City Planning Enabling Act, published by the U.S. Department of Commerce in 1928, the basis for most municipal planning legislation in the nation. That section provided that the commission "shall consist of nine members, namely the Mayor, one of the Administrative Officials of the municipality selected by the Mayor, and a member of council to be selected by it as members ex officio.."

Commentary to this section of the SCPEA noted: "It is highly desirable that the chief legislative body of the city feel that it has an integral part in the work of city planning and be kept in touch with what the city planning commission is doing. This can be best accomplished through representation of one of its own members upon the commission." The commentary also observed that as "to… whether the member should be a member of the planning commission, there is a decided difference of opinion. This problem also differs for different forms of city government." In city manager cities, the commentary stated it was desirable to have the City Manager serve in lieu of the Mayor.

I don't see an "ethical problem" here at all. Rather, this arrangement offers an opportunity for increased understanding and communications between the Planning Commission and the legislative body. My own experience as a planning director with having elected officials serve on the Planning Commission has been a good one, with the officials becoming the advocates for the Planning Commission's views when matters come before council.

Stuart Meck, FAICP
Senior Research Fellow American Planning Association

Good morning and Happy New Year!

Gee, I wonder whom "Needs Information" is talking about! This story continues and I do not think will be resolved until the State Legislation addresses the topic. By the way, I had dinner with this elected official last night and she is eager to make a contribution as a member of our Planning Commission. She has been a great supporter bridging between the Planning Commission and administration regarding budget matters.


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