The Commissioner — Fall 2009
A Natural Progression
By Debra March
Planning Commissioner, Henderson, Nevada
Most elected officials say, "I never thought I would become a politician." But somewhere in their lives they decide to get involved. Many times, their service starts as a planning commissioner. That was my transition.
My tenure as a Henderson planning commissioner began in 2003 when I accepted an invitation to serve this primarily suburban residential community in southern Nevada. As 13-year resident, I felt I could contribute to a more orderly pattern of rapid growth. As a real estate expert and the executive director of the Lied Institute for Real Estate Studies at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, I felt compelled to apply best practices and my personal and professional experience.
In July, I accepted the appointment to the city council from our newly elected mayor, who had left a seat open. My experience as a commissioner enabled this transition.
I had learned concepts such as "compensating benefits" and learned to balance my belief in public benefits with the need for private investment. I saw how my values influenced my expectations for compensating benefits and quality development.
The built environment can either create or destroy a sense of place. I believe the community’s ability to create personal relationships and in turn, a unified voice, probably made me a demanding commissioner. But my service prepared me to make difficult decisions that in my new capacity will be final instead of advisory.
As a council member, I see several key differences between these two positions:
- Commissioners implement guiding documents, such as the comprehensive plan, development codes, and special area plans. In contrast, as a council member, my focus is broad-based policies. I share my philosophy of sound planning and my vision for growth, but entrust implementation of that vision to our commission and community development staff.
- Council members are exposed to a variety of issues that impact our community, such as fiscal accountability, public safety, and overall citizen engagement. I help define policies to affect them and see interconnections, especially in the current economic climate.
- Commissioners listen to developers, staff, and constituents, interpreting information to make a recommendation. Now, I help negotiate among stakeholders and while listening and collaborating, suggest deal points, and set limits.
Despite these differences, my experience is still vital. My authority is heightened and my concerns have expanded, yet the majority of what I review that concerns my constituents are land use and development. My preparation helps me envision the potential impacts and negotiate to maximize both public benefits and private interests.
How should you prepare for a council seat? Serve on a planning commission. If you are thinking of taking the plunge, I assure you that you have the experience that prepares you for this position or other community service opportunities.