Planning Commissions

Dear Management Doctor:

It may be very basic but I'm trying to find some models of planning commissions around the country. By model, I mean organizational structure, function, management, rules/regulations but perhaps most important education/outreach. By that I mean, what are some of the planning commissions around the country doing to educate themselves on current planning issues, etc. and their own outreach to the community aside from the standard monthly meetings/hearings? Thanks very much in advance.

Karen Fernandez

Dear Karen:

You've raised a number of questions, which I'll address by topic. This is also a good one for our readers to add to and I hope they do. Structure/Function This varies substantially in different parts of the Country. However, the standard is a Commission, appointed by the elected officials who are charged with both long range planning and permits. The Commissioners usually spend most of their time on permitting, with little and inadequate time on long range or planning issues. A few communities have gone to two Commissions, one for permitting and one for long range and planning. Others have delegated most of the permitting to staff, a hearing officer, or a sub-committee. Some communities in Connecticut have an appointed Planning Commission and an elected Zoning Board. Many communities that undertake new General or Comprehensive Plans find the Planning Commission is not up to the task and appoint a special committee to handle the General Plan - in a sense, an indictment of the Planning Commission.

The relation between staff and the Commission is an important one. In some communities, the staff reports to and, in a sense, is subordinate to the Commission. I don't like this model. In most communities, staff reports to the community's top manager or elected officials, but also provides support to the Planning Commission. In all cases, I think it's imperative that staff helps manage and train the Commission. A good chair of the Commission is essential. However, I have also seen Commissions become totally dominated by a chair who serves for five, ten, or even fifteen years. I prefer to see the chair change every year or two. Also, I like the Commissioners being limited to two four-year terms. Rules/Regulations There is a lot of published material on this topic. APA lists five books addressing the Planning Commission. The monthly Planning Commission Journal out of New England is also good. Also, try Commissions Little Handbook by Len Wood (310-832-5652). Several issues I see over and over again are:

  • Ex Parte Contact
    Most states seem to allow ex parte contact but a few prohibit it entirely. In any case, any ex parte contact should be revealed at the start of the Commission meeting.
  • Decision Time
    I worked with one Commission that conducted the hearings but grouped all decisions to a work session at the end of the day. Others often close the hearing but delay the decision to another meeting. Both processes give the impression of behind the scenes dealing. Citizens who sit through the hearing have a right to see the vote.
  • Consent Agendas
    Some Commissions go on and on-past midnight. Time can be saved by placing non-controversial items on a consent agenda. If staff and the applicant are in agreement, there is no public opposition, and no Commissioner has a problem, it's a consent agenda item.
  • Staff Role
    Staff should be given a few minutes of rebuttal time after the applicants and citizens have spoken.

Education of the Commissioners
New Commissioners should have at least a three-hour orientation training session conducted by staff. The community's attorney should also be involved. There should be an annual one or two-hour training session for the entire Commission on new legislation, court cases, refreshers, etc. Each Commissioner should receive the APA magazine and the Planning Commissions Journal. Budgets should be sufficient to send each Commissioner to a state or National planning conference at least once every two years. Finally, fifteen minutes of each Commission meeting might be devoted to a training topic. One Commission I worked with took a bus tour of applications before each meeting. This may not be practical for all commissions, but it worked well in this case. I also like staff to video the sites to be used in Commission presentations.

I see very few Commissions doing much in outreach. I'd like readers to tell us what they are doing. Many Commissions have their meetings televised and this could be a good form of outreach. However, the way many Commissions meetings are run, they are boring and can provide poor public relations for planning. I've been pushing an idea, but so far, no takers. Why not view the televised Commission meeting as a TV show? Free advertisement for planning! This could take some work, but use of new digital film, PowerPoint, etc., now make this possible. Many communities also have free public service television time available. This could be used for round table discussions on key topics, call in shows, etc. I've also seen Commissions sponsor an annual community-wide seminar on a key topic such as affordable housing, open space, etc. Finally, some of the visioning efforts being sponsored by staff or consultants have proven useful. Good luck with your Commission!

The Management Doctor

More Planning Commissions Questions from Another Reader

Dear Management Doctor:

I want to talk to you about staff/Planning Commission. The Planning Commission is not easily accepting the fact that we have done away with the old Planning Commission subcommittees. They miss the power and "wheeling and dealing" that characterized that process. As a result, they want to use the Pre-application process as a substitute for the old subcommittee process to exert their influence on projects. I'm not sure this is the right approach, as the Pre-app is primarily for staff and developer/applicant to discuss conceptual development proposals, not actual project submittals. The Planning Commission also has expressed some concern that "their projects" are not included on the Work Program that we prepared and provided to them. I want to find a way to maintain good relations with the PC without allowing them to assign staff more work. Any suggestions?

Dear Good Relations:

Your Planning Commission response is to be expected. One idea is to inundate them with policy matters, which is what they should be doing anyway. Although I have never seen it, having a few commissioners join staff (not control or run it) at a pre-app may be worth a try. I certainly would not favor them handling the pre-app. One city I've worked with has a joint City Council and Planning Commission sub-committee that meets on projects after the application is in; however, this is often too late for policy input. We are suggesting that they meet instead at the conceptual stage. Regarding the work program. If the work program is confirmed by the City Council then the Planning Commission should have the opportunity to make their case to the Council. Also, if you want to be more responsive to the commission, build in 10 or 20% unspecified time for commission requests during the year.

The Management Doctor

Reader Responses

We started televising our PC meetings here in San Luis Obispo about six months ago. We started on a trial basis, reserving judgement on whether or not it is a community benefit. For the first few meetings, the Commissioner's were conscious of being on camera. Now everyone ignores the cameras. They are easy to ignore because they are inconspicuous-like a small light fixture on three of the walls. There has been no qualitative impact on the conduct or content of the meetings. The main effect has been that Commissioners are dressing a little better.

There are benefits to recording meetings. They are rebroadcast many times a month, giving access to the discussion to a much larger audience. Council members and staff can view the proceedings at times that are convenient to them if they cannot make the regular night meeting. The video record is also more convenient than audio tape if there is a need to refer back to a recent meeting.

Our Architectural Review Commission is interested in having its meetings broadcast, but the details that they discuss, many of which are referred to during the meetings on plan sheets that are not easily televised at this time, make televising their meetings problematic. At this time we have decided not to videotape or broadcast their meetings.

I think the decision to broadcast depends on several factors, many of which have been written about in Western Cities and various government and planning publications. A big part of our success with taping and recording meetings comes from the professional crew that designed and set up the equipment and does the camera work.

John Mandeville

I have no problem with televising PC and ZBA meetings. Our Savannah-Chatham MPC and ZBA meetings are televised and taxpayers and/or citizens have the opportunity to see the Planning Commission in action. I think it promotes planning to televise PC meetings. I will recommend that your city try it for a change.

Alex Ikefuna, Community Planning Administrator, City of Savannah

As you may recall, our Planning Agency (consisting of the appointed members of the Planning Commission and Board of Zoning Adjustments) meets 3 or 4 times a year to hold workshops on timely issues and training sessions. Our Planning Commission regularly meets on the first and third Thursdays of each month, and the BZA meets the second and fourth. Whenever there is a fifth Thursday in a month, we have a Planning Agency meeting to conduct training and discuss topics of general interest. Usually these afternoon meetings are followed by a dinner for both Commissioners and staff, which provides an opportunity to get together in a social setting and improves relations between staff and the Commission and among the Commissioners themselves.

In addition to these "fifth Thursday" sessions, we also budget every year for Planning Agency member training ($500 per member). This pays for their attendance at the California Planning Commissioner's Association conference and other training/education opportunities that present themselves.

On the subject of Planning Commission demands on staff, this is an issue for the appointing legislative body (City Council or County Board of Supervisors). The legislative body needs to set the work program for the staff (considering PC input, of course), and the staff needs to remind the PC of that from time to time.

Finally, a comment about televising Planning Commission hearings. I think turning Planning Commission meetings into a "TV show" is a bad idea. It is already difficult enough to have frank, open discussions of critical policy issues in a public hearing context. Having Commissioners and the audience (and, I fear, staff) playing to "TV" will only make this worse. I have seen one city here begin to televise their PC meetings and it has done nothing but lengthen the meetings and provide a handy forum for the grinding of various political axes. In addition, TV is not a medium that conveys detail or subtlety very well. I think televised meetings would lead eventually to dumbing-down of the material presented and discussed.

Pete Parkinson, AICP

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