The Commissioner — Spring 2012

Commissioner's Voice

Preparing for Local Elected Office

By Shelly Cook
Council member and former planning commissioner
City of Arvada, Colorado, Planning Commission

Why is serving on a planning commission good preparation for local elected office? (Or why planning commissioners should consider taking that next step!)

Here's a generalized but defendable assertion: Experience as a planning commissioner is excellent preparation for local elected office.

  1. Commissioners have a deep appreciation and knowledge of their town and its issues. They know the importance of land use, the vision and sweep of goals that underlie the master plan, the challenges of the plan's realization. Through participation in the broad range of planning activities and education, they've forged personal convictions that become the basis for later leadership in an elected position.
  2. They also at least partly know their town at an atomized level, the concerns of particular neighborhoods, the "who's who" in each. These form the foundations of a later political constituency.
  3. Commissioners are experienced in the conduct of public hearings and structured decision making. Discerning a solution that addresses conflicting opinions or public controversy is one art; knowing how to translate that solution into a proper motion is quite another.
  4. Finally, commissioners have learned how to negotiate at the dais, understanding not only the imperative of majority rule but also the value of folding in the legitimate interests of other parties — including not just other board members but the staff, the applicant, and certainly the public.

In short, if you're a planning board member, you may be a worthy candidate for your town's elected body. If you do run and are elected, however, be prepared to change! Despite your very relevant background and knowledge, it's simply true that things are different.

In elected office you may feel a greater sense of responsibility, have to contend with competing priorities, bump up against punishing financial constraints, and experience political pressure that is more difficult to dismiss than one would think. Dilemmas abound. Do something unpopular, and you may be left wondering: where does being principled stop and arrogance begin? Or, in the old adage about politics and the possible, be pressed to choose between pursuing an attainable goal versus one more difficult, but vital. (There really are opportunity costs.) Finally, amidst all this, it's often damaging to dither. Make a decision, as they say, and move on.

Qualms and throes aside, there are few roles more meaningful, or that have more impact, than that of a local elected official. Most in office say they ran because they were asked. Consider a decision to advance into this arena.