by Candi Millar
After 22 years of staffing planning boards in Montana, I now serve as a Planning Commissioner for the City of Olympia Planning Commission in my new hometown, Olympia, Washington. While both Montana and Washington planning boards/commissions are enabled by state law and local ordinances, there are clear distinctions between the two states. These differences echo the values, tolerance of government intervention, and political leanings over the past century as planning law was crafted. Rather than elaborate on these differences, I want to share my observations on how the Olympia Planning Commission operates and point out what I believe are best practices that might be applied to other planning boards/commissions.
In November 2017, I heard through word of mouth there would be some Planning Commission terms expiring in the coming year. I checked out the City website and discovered several vacancies were advertised. The website included brief descriptions of the City’s advisory boards in general and the Planning Commission in particular. The application could be completed online. The description gave enough information for me to understand the general roles and duties of a commissioner, meeting schedule and contact information for staff and City Council liaisons. The application requested standard information: contact information, area of interest, neighborhood of residence and preferred advisory board. What stood out was the request to upload my resume. Resumes are a great idea and should be universally requested. The professional background and experience of a potential commissioner is very important to get an effective blend of knowledge on the commission. It helps to achieve a diversity of interest which usually generates more creative and thoughtful decision making.
I expected a staff planner to call to inform me whether I had made the selection or not and if I did, to simply show up at my first meeting. Instead, I received a call from the Strategic Communications Director who serves as the Executive Office liaison. She called to arrange an interview with the City Council General Government Committee responsible for forwarding board appointment recommendation to the full Council. The focus of the interview was to determine: 1) awareness of current planning issues and 2) what I thought were the most pressing issues for the Planning Commission. Thankfully I had followed several months of Planning Commission proceedings and read the Comprehensive Plan. In reply to what I considered pressing issues, I responded as a knowledgeable community planner would: affordable housing, downtown redevelopment and climate change. My responses evidently satisfied the Committee and Council which appointed me to the Planning Commission within the month.
Descriptive information on roles of the respective boards and its members readily available to applicants
Council committee interviews
Annual Work Program
Prior to my first Commission meeting, I was provided with a notebook of relevant board material: meeting logistics, membership roster, roles and responsibilities, basic laws and procedures, parliamentary procedures and the annual work program. I read in the general advisory board information that, by ordinance, the City Council requires each board/commission to prepare a work program annually and submit it to the Council for review and approval. Guidelines are provided on what the work program should consider including the Comprehensive Plan, Council goals, department work priorities, and commission member knowledge, interest, and expertise. Most notable is the recommendation to consider resource availability, including budget and staff support.
The work program requirement and commensurate consideration of resource availability struck me as an incredibly good idea. Having staffed a considerable number of advisory boards I have determined that any extra work requested of staff is costly and often throws off the sequence and timing of carefully scheduled projects. At times, a board, or in some cases just the Chair, requests more research, another public hearing, or a carefully crafted appeal to Council without knowing or caring about the sensitivity of timing or staff’s workload. These impromptu additions generally cannot be addressed through a work program. However, adding entirely new projects, usually spin-offs from projects currently under review can have serious repercussions on the department’s resources. I strongly advocate for all planning boards/commissions to create annual programs and save any ad hoc projects for future programs.
A carefully constructed annual work program that:
Addresses Comprehensive Plan goals
Addresses Council strategic plan goals
Considers department work priorities
Is sensitive to available department resources
It is generally known to staff planners when constructing staff reports and recommendations to boards and elected bodies they must be comprehensive, defensible, and accurate. A well-crafted staff report is the best (and may be the only) communication staff has with City Council as well as being the best defense in a lawsuit. Advisory boards must likewise craft recommendations based on thorough debate of statutory review criteria and conveyed with supporting facts resulting in a defensible position. It is staff’s job to help corral the disparate opinions of the board and suggest how to formulate a recommendation. Many times a unanimous agreement occurs and the task is not difficult. However, at times when a slight majority prevails, dissenters are left without a voice or opportunity to present their views in a recommendation. The City of Olympia acknowledges the value of both majority and minority positions and encourages “minority opinions” in board reports to City Council. I personally took advantage of this opportunity and felt much empowered by relating my perspective on the action taken.
Advisory board reports should include discussion of statutory review criteria along with supporting facts.
Advisory board reports should allow for supportable minority opinions
Care and Feeding of a Planning Commission
Strong relationships between staff, Planning Commission and City Council are vital to the effectiveness of the Commission. The City of Olympia provides the mechanisms for these relationships. Establishing liaisons with staff and City Council ensure the two-way communication necessary for well-informed decision-making. Additionally, Commission guidelines, protocols, and expectations clearly define Commissioner responsibilities.
Staff Liaison: Planning board members or commissioners should be aware of the many hours of staff time, preparation, public involvement, research, and logistics that have preceded the action required before them. The planning board/commission recommendation is penultimate to the decision of the elected body. This is not to say staff is infallible but they have strived to achieve community goals within the boundaries of prevailing legal constraints. Board members should seek out the knowledge and advice of a staff member in order to understand the underlying need for an action or process. The City of Olympia assigns a staff liaison to the Planning Commission for this purpose. The staff liaison is a useful resource to the board/commission who generates the agenda, distributes the informational packets, and prepares the Chair for the upcoming meeting.
City Council Liaison: In addition to staff, the City of Olympia assigns a City Council member as a liaison to various boards. Our Council liaison was present at many of the key meetings where action was taken. He was able to witness the extent of the deliberation and hear the different opinions of the commission members. Most importantly, he did not participate in any of the discussion. If he had, he may have disqualified himself on taking action at the Council level. When he did speak at meetings, he was encouraging and appreciative of the commission’s efforts. These sentiments went a long way to strengthen the relationship between the Commission and City Council.
Board Guidelines: Most of the boards or commissions I have been involved with are given notebooks of material that describes the statutory and legal responsibilities of its members. These may include bylaws, sections of city code and state law, and parliamentary procedures. The Olympia Planning Commission notebook included these items in addition to a roster of members and their contact information, the annual work program, and a list of planning resources available online. The notebook provides sufficient information to clearly understand the roles and responsibilities of a commissioner and references for conducting a productive and open public meeting.
Training: The Washington Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) requires that all government conduct is accessible and open to the public. It applies to all cities and counties and the subordinate commissions, boards, and committees. Training on the OPMA is mandatory for members of governing bodies and advisory commissions and boards. Mandatory training is also required on the Appearance of Fairness (AoF) Doctrine which applies to quasi-judicial actions of local decision-making bodies. Both the OPMA and the AoF training must be completed within 90 days of the commissioner’s appointment. Thankfully, there are periodic short courses on these requirements administered by the Washington Department of Commerce and sponsored by the Planning Association of Washington, and the American Planning Association Washington Chapter. These organizations have combined the requirements for OPMA and AoF training with other local planning fundamentals in Washington such as the Growth Management Act, the State Environmental Policy Act, and the Shorelines Management Act. This short course is taught by legal and planning professionals and is an excellent introduction to local planning in Washington State.
Assign a single staff person responsible for compiling and distributing information to the Planning Board/Commission and responding to inquiries and requests
Establish a good relationship with the governing body by appointing a liaison
Provide comprehensive information on the roles and responsibilities of the Commission members and references to local planning topics
Require training on open public meeting laws, appearance of fairness, and other statutory guidelines
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Candi Millar, AICP, retired in July, 2016 as the Director of Planning and Community Services Department in the City of Billings and Yellowstone County, Montana. Candi held that position since 2006. Starting in Billings in 2000, she advanced from Planner II to Planning Division Manager. Since moving to Olympia, Washington with her husband, Roger and black lab, Ouzel, Candi has been active in local planning efforts. She was appointed to the Olympia Planning Commission in April, 2018. Candi is past-president of the Montana Association of Planners and of Western Planning Resources, Inc. where she remains on the board as an “at large” director.