Planning Commission/Staff Conflicts

Dear Management Doctor:

We had the first of two Planning Commission/staff retreats. An issue that came up is how to handle the staff recommendation on staff reports to the City Council when the Commission and staff don't agree. This is happening fairly frequently as Commission decisions are appealed to the Council and the Council usually upholds the original staff recommendation to the Commission.

Frustrated Planner

Dear Frustrated:

I'd simply summarize the Planning Commission rational the best you can and let the Council decide. I've seen cases where the Planning Commission sends a member to represent them at the Council. Another approach is to have one staff represent the Department and another the Commission. If this situation continues, the Commission may eventually get the word or over time be replaced.

In the final analysis, staff, the Commission and City Council all have a role to play and they don't always need to agree. When I was a Planning Director, I also had an agreement that it was OK for the Planning Director to appeal a planning commission action to the City Council. The first time I did it, it shocked a few people. After that, it was accepted.

The Management Doctor

Reader Responses

All of our City Council meetings and Planning Commission meetings are televised, and I am amazed at how many people in the Community watch the meeting on television who would never otherwise be exposed to the public hearing process. I think it's a valuable tool to aid the community in understanding the complicated process of government and development review.

Pat Cecil

I have two comments. The first deals with how this city handles certain types of staff recommendations and permits. Use permits, variances, subdivisions, shoreline permits, etc., are handled by a hearing examiner. In effect, the hearing examiner acts as an administrative law judge. Any appeals to the hearing examiner's actions go straight to Superior Court.

Legislative isues, things like zoning changes or comprehensive plan amendments, remain with the Planning Commission. This process removes politics from the land use process.

The second comment is that the frustrated planner need not be frustrated. The issue is really between the Council and Commission. I would propose yet a third retreat between these two groups. These two groups need to reach a better understanding and not place staff in the middle.

Hope this helps.

David Bugher

You know what? This is one of the rare times I disagree with your advice. In the response to Frustrated Planner with the question about how to handle differences between Commission action and staff recommendation... I think there is another perspective.

In most states (California for sure), the elected officials are responsible for planning decisions. They may delegate non-legislative responsibilities to the Planning Commission. The Commission is, in effect, the Board's planning decision specialist. I recognize some local governments require all PC actions to be recommendations, but even in these cases, they are seeking the advice of their Planning Commissioners.

Staff's role is to review plans, codes, precedent, policies, and planning practice against the proposed project. Staff then makes its recommendation from its interpretation of the parameters. Staff can strongly advocate its position or take a passive role. If the Planning Commission does not accept staff's recommendation, staff's role changes. First, staff should guide the Commission in making defensible findings substantiated in the record. Second, staff should ensure the Commission is drawing "reasonable person" conclusions from the evidence supporting its findings. And finally, staff should embrace the Commission's recommendation (assuming it's legal, moral, and not fattening) as the official position of the elected officials' appointed planners.

At the elected officials level, staff should indeed indicate if recommended differently from the Commission, but unless there is a legal or procedural flaw, staff should be presenting and supporting the Commission's recommendation. We work for the Commission as well as elected officials. The Chair of my Commission always attends the Board meeting when there is a difference of opinion between staff and Commission, but once the project leaves the Commission, it is no longer staff's decision, it belongs to the Commission.

One of the 118 things my planning professors didn't tell me is that open dissension between Commissioners and staff at the Council/Board level undermines staff's credibility. The media do not call Planning Commissioners "planners" for nothing. If the Commission often ignores staff's recommendations, then there is something fundamentally wrong with the underlying planning policies in the jurisdiction.

As a side note, I made a presentation to 50 rural county supervisors and CAOs last fall for RCRC. When I started the presentation, I did a "Zucker" and asked for hands on these questions:

1. How many Board chambers have a current copy of the General Plan text at the proscenium? (20)

2. How many Supervisors present were involved in the actual adoption of the General Plan at its last update? (about 1/2 the room)

3. How many Supervisors view the General Plan as an obstacle to getting projects approved? (about 75% of the room, including both my Supervisors present)

4. How many Supervisors can honestly say the General Plan represents the development and capital improvement policies of the current Board? (4)

5. Of the rest of you, how many have a General Plan update as a priority in the current year's budget? (9)

Eric Jay Toll

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