Education or Enforcement? What is Our Role as Planners?

Editor’s Note: This article is part of the coverage of the 2016 WP/MAP Conference in Great Falls, Montana.

by Amber Vogt

Mark Willmarth, Training and Development Coordinator for the City of Great Falls, MT, was a very interesting, energetic and honest speaker. He started out the session by stating “Put the technology down. ” This got everyone’s attention and then he started by challenging all of us to really listen.

When I walked into the session, I figured he would talk about being nice to the public and tell us how to decide if you should educate the public or enforce the ordinances based off the title. I was in for a treat as instead he gave us tips on how to truly listen to the public, the customer or even the people in your private life.

He understood that in the public sector we all deal with being close to the public; it is to easy for the public to get involved by social media , yet the public can get involved without really getting involved; we are all expected to do more with less and we are under more scrutiny all the time and lastly, we deal with the political will vs. professional skills. On the other hand, he also asked us what does this mean for planning professionals? It means we have to stick together; maintain professionalism while diffusing conflict and listen when it is hard to hear what is being said.

After he discussed with us how we listen and explained that we need to listen more, he gave us an exercise where we had to face one person to explain how a situation in your office frustrates you for one minute and the other person had to listen without speaking. After we did this, the other person had to summarize what the other said. It was a great tool to make you realize how hard it is to listen to someone as well as speak for one minute straight without being interrupted. As a part of his presentation, we left with five levels of listening:

  1.  I don’t listen because I don’t like you or your idea.
  2. I don’t listen because I am indifferent to what you say and then make my point.
  3. I do listen, but with the intent to counter what you say and then make my point.
  4. I listen for common ground between what you think and what I think.
  5. I listen to see your point of view completely and accurately.

He asked the entire group to spend time trying to listen better and be curious about who and what you are listening to. A great exercise and a reminder to all of us when dealing with difficult situations and people in both or public and private lives.

Amber Vogt is the Planning & Zoning Director for Lawrence County in South Dakota. She is a board member of Western Planning Resources and has previously served as its treasurer.



  • Session Summary: Are we there to educate our community on what they can do, or do we enforce the codes? The answer lies in how we approach the issues. Is the world black and white or shades of grey? How do we learn to listen for understanding before giving an answer? What does it look like to become curious? The answer comes from asking the right questions. This presentation focuses on developing better listening skills. As simple as that seems, all of us could benefit by listening more consciously when it matters most.
  • Mark Willmarth, Training & Development Coordinator – City of Great Falls–Mark has over 20 years of experience speaking to and working with groups in and around Montana. He describes himself as a professional with a passion to help others discover their own potential. Everything he does focuses around the concept, “The more we understand and appreciate ourselves, the more success we will find in life.” Mark creates a comfortable space to allow others to explore and experience the content. Mark has a bachelor’s degree in Human Resource Management and master’s degree in College Student Personnel from Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Mark works part-time at the City of Great Falls as the Training and Development Coordinator. He also is co-owner of Vision West, Inc. in Great Falls with his wife Mary. His greatestprofessional  reward is helping others become better at being who they are. His greatest life project started in 2002 when he and his wife became parents to their son Taylor!
Paul Moberly