Art of Engagement: How to get a more representative audience in the room

by Lee Nellis, FAICP, Wapiti, Wyoming

Sunlight streams in. Bright! 
Funny black dog wants to romp.
But the deadlines scream.

It is time now to thank someone for responding to one of my questions, and to share her thoughts with all of you. Amber Vogt, the planning director in Lawrence, SD, sent me this email last summer. What I like most about it is the explicit link Amber makes between the daily operation of a planning office and getting people in the room for meetings. I have lightly edited her thoughts to fit the space available. Amber’s comments are in italics below.  

As always I enjoy reading your article in the WP, and I like that you ask questions. So here is my response to your question about how do you get a more representative audience in the room?

  1. I work 7:30-3:30 straight through everyday...that way I am in the office prior to 8 am, so the public can stop by on their way to work, I also do not take a lunch so I am available over lunch …
  2. I go out of my way to make sure the public knows that all info is available, we can email it to you, you can go online or you can  stop in …
  3. We work with our local newspaper to make sure important info is out in the public.
  4. I also go out of my way to get out of the office to the properties in question ... I try to meet with people at a place that is convenient for them....this is probably the most single thing that I have noticed has helped get people involved. 
  5. I never leave without returning all phone calls....even if it means I am going to get yelled at for a 1/2 hr, or if it means I just have to tell someone that I did not get a chance to look at that today, but I will get back to you.
  6. Most important if you tell someone you will do something, follow through.

With these six rules I have found that the public may not like what I do …, but I rarely hear that I am not consistent and helpful! In the end a government office should be treated as a private small business when it comes to customer service...

A gentle reminder planners, from me and Amber: How you are seen in the community does make a difference. If you are there for the folks, day-to-day, they will (at least some of them) be there for you.

What to read? 

Amber’s dedication brought to mind these lines from a source that may surprise some of you. As the hero in Louis L’Amour’s great novel of Wyoming, Bendigo Shafter, ruminates on being Town Marshal, he says:

“No changes could be forced upon people. They had to want it, to be ready for it. And public life demanded people who would do a little more than they were paid to do.” 

Words to live by from a novel, Bendigo Shafter, that you all should read, or re-read. 
Please send me YOUR planning stories at If I don’t get some soon, the next column will have to delve into dead philosophers.

Lee Nellis, FAICP, is a pioneer of planning in the rural West,starting his career in Wyoming’s Big Horn Basin in 1974. He has served in many positions from a staff planner to a consultant to the director of land use policy for the Sonoran Institute. Contact him at
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