The Commissioner — Summer 2010

Commissioner's Voice

To Be a Planning Board Member or Not

By Carol J. Thomas, FAICP

Mayors frequently seek local professional planners to serve on local boards and commissions. Is it a good idea? It certainly seems so from the standpoint of the community. A knowledgeable, presumably qualified, and unbiased person serves the public at no cost to the public: in effect, a pro bono consultant.

On the other hand, there are disadvantages. Board members are often hesitant to express themselves until the professional has spoken and presumably given the proper point of view. The presumption is that the planner expresses his opinion based on knowledge, sound practice, and experience, and thus debate may be stifled.

The professional may not only intimidate the other members of the board, but citizens at public meetings or hearings are often reluctant to express opinions that might be contradictory to the professional's view. The members of the board and the community not only want the benefit of the professional's knowledge and judgment, but they expect that the professional will provide information, analysis, and answers to questions — in effect, do the work of the board or staff.

Once the professional planner speaks, the other board members usually stop discussing the topic and offering input. Likewise, if the board member is a prominent practicing professional or educator, the staff can also be intimidated. This is especially the case when the professional board member has an area of specialty relevant to the issue at hand.

How to be a board member

The professional planner can make a major contribution by providing information and experience without being a member of a decision-making board or commission. If you're a planner who decides to serve on a local board or commission, however, you should:

  1. Be prepared: Study the issues and prepared studies; local planning procedures and regulations; statutes (which are enabling in some states); procedures; and customs.
  2. Attend meetings regularly and punctually; listen, and respect the local procedures.
  3. Do your homework!
  4. Know the players.
  5. Reach out to constituents.
  6. Don't aggressively impose your views.
  7. Wait for others to express themselves first so your opinion does not intimidate them.

On balance, based on my experience as a board member, I have concluded that it is preferable not to have professional planner as a member of a policy-making board. What do you think? Reply to education@planning.org and APA will post your replies on The Commissioner website.