Stacking the Deck

Dear Management Doctor:

I would like you and your readers to discuss the issue of planning commission staff (particularly executive directors) "working" public hearings. By this I mean, asking applicants and citizens questions in the hearing process that are clearly in the best interest of the bias of the planning commission staff on their preferred outcome of the zoning change. Also, not asking questions of those same persons that might shed a different light on the zoning change, but is opposite to the preferred outcome of the staff. Am I talking about the obvious for all planning commission hearings or are there limits to how blatant staff can be? Should the executive director ask any questions at public hearing? I can usually predict the outcome of our zoning requests simply by "reading" the executive director's body language and questions posed.

A Little Discouraged

Dear Discouraged,

In some communities the planning director is actually a member of the planning commission. In those cases, comments and questions are obviously okay.

The more common case is where the planning director (executive director) is advising the planning commission. In these cases the planning director represents the position of the department. Normally the department has provided the commission with a staff report that includes recommendations. I like a process where the department gives a brief presentation of their position at the start of the hearing. After all testimony is heard, I also think it is important for the director or department to provide any final comments based on the testimony or the need for clarifications. Normally the director does not ask questions of those testifying and I think this could get a bit messy. I'll be interested to see if any readers have experience with this system.

Certainly the AICP code of ethics requires planners to be objective and look at all sides of an issue. However, it is also reasonable that planners give their best professional opinion. I used to believe that so long as I had the opportunity to give my professional opinion that I had done my job. I have changed my mind. I believe part of the planners job is to "get the votes." However, getting the votes does not mean distorting facts or acting in an unethical way. It almost sounds in your letter that your director may be acting unethically. On the other hand, it may be that you just don't agree with his or her opinion. However, for better or worse, the director is the director.

The Management Doctor

Reader Response

Regarding the experience of "A Little Discouraged," I can say from my experience in Illinois, in four different communities over 22 years both as a staff person and a commission member, that I've never seen the staff ask questions of the petitioner. That's the job of the plan commission, the chairman in particular. I view interjections by the staff, beyond what the Management Doctor describes, as corrupting the process.

We recently had a court case here in Illinois, Klaeren vs Lisle, in which the Illinois Supreme Court greatly impacted the way testimony is taken at public hearings. Some may say the court went a bit overboard, but the intent was to make sure all parties had an opportunity to present and explore all sides.

Bob G.

It is the responsibility of the staff to argue for the "preferred outcome" which, of course, must always be in the public interest. The challenge is making sure that there is a fair hearing of all issues before the outcome is determined. In our jurisdication, we separate the two steps. The first time the case comes before the Planning and Zoning Board it is a public hearing. Everyone, including the staff, gets to ask questions, but no final decision is made. (Although they are not members of the Board, both the Planning Manager and the Director of Community Development sit at the dais with the Board.) At the next Planning and Zoning meeting, the staff presents a recommendation which examines the issues and clearly outlines the reasons for the staff position. Only then does the Board vote. The time between the hearing and the final decision can be used to clarify any issues that were unresolved and to negotiate mutually agreeable solutions. This system takes a little longer but results in better decisions and is well worth the time. We keep an open mind, but we are not shy about fighting for what we think is in the best interest of the community.

Bruce Kistler, AICP
City of Lakeland, FL

It would have been helpful to understand the perspective of the person asking the question: is this person a member of the planning commission, a member of the staff, or an interested citizen observer? If this person is a planning commissioner, then there needs to be a frank discussion among the planning commissioners and with the executive director about this practice (assuming the executive director is not a member of the planning commission). Any planning commission that is 'staff captive' isn't doing its job. It's great to have respect between planning commission members and the staff; another to have a lazy planning commission that never challenges the positions of the staff. We appear to have such a planning commission in our area (thank goodness not the one I work for).

If the person posing the question is a staff member, then one has to wonder what the real issue is. Possibly this staff person has heard from the community (or from other planning commissioners) negative comments about the executive director "working" the planning commission. It may be a matter of perception that could be harming the professional reputation of the staff. Or it could be a disgruntled staff member whose recommendations are not being supported by the executive director and, therefore, the "working" of the planning commission is nothing more than projecting a bigger problem through this issue. If it is the former, the staff member has an obligation, in my opinion, to bring the perception to the executive director's attention. When the planning commission appears to be nothing more than a rubber stamp for the staff's position, or is constantly and successfully lobbied in a meeting to support the staff's position, the perception can be more one of adding points to the staff's success rate and less of any good planning occurring. If it is the latter, a disgruntled staff member, then there are bigger issues than "working" the planning commission in play here.

Finally, if it is a member of the public raising this issue, again it could be a matter of perception, or as you noted, disagreement with the staff's positions. If it is the former, the executive director needs to find out why the perception exists and correct that perception by his/her actions. To ignore this perception by the public runs the risk of the executive director suddenly finding himself/herself being hauled before the manager and/or elected body. If the concern over "working" the commission is one of disagreement with staff's position, it might behoove the executive director to understand why the disagreement exists and take the opportunity to share experiences with this person.

By the way, I'm pleased to report that our director is very circumspect about his relations with our planning commission. He prefers to advise rather than "work" the commission.

Michael A. Harper, FAICP
Washoe County, NV

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