Planning Commissioners' Corner: 8 steps to well thought-out staff reports

by Brad Stebleton, Bernalillo, NM

Planning commissioners are very hard working individuals who are charged with a difficult job.  In Western communities they are almost always volunteers who are taking this on in a spirit of public service.  While the decisions they make, month in and month out, are often tough calls, the planning staff can greatly ease this burden by writing and presenting clear and well thought-out reports.  There are a myriad of different kinds of issues that are addressed by planning commissions; however, good staff reports all share some common characteristics.

1. They are written in clear and easy to understand language.

This is not the time to dazzle the commissioners with the flashy planning terminology that you picked up in graduate school.  Keep it simple and concise.  

2. They use good, clear graphics.

Look beyond slick software and pay attention to what the graphic conveys and how readable and understandable it is.  In western counties, some of which are the size of small eastern states, it is very helpful to orient the commission to the area of the property in question.  It is not unusual in our region for a planning commissioner to live tens of miles away from a subject site.  Use digital pictures to convey a feel for the area for commissioners who may not be familiar.

3. They include clear recommendations.

This is not the time to be vague. Pretend you are on the commission and you are going to vote on the item.   How would you decide the issue? Support recommendations with findings of fact and provide recommended approval conditions if necessary.  Of course, the commissioners are free to reject the recommendation entirely or to modify it or the supporting findings and conditions based upon the testimony at the hearing.  However they will greatly appreciate you giving them a place to start and some material to help them in their deliberations.

4. They tie recommendations to objective standards whenever possible. 

Tie recommendations to a specific law or regulation that has been adopted by your state or local government. Provide clear citations for the relevant standards in the body of the report.  This will also greatly limit accusations of bias on the part of the staff.

5. The report is true to you and your profession. 

Planning issues can often be contentious.  The mayor’s brother-in-law may be the applicant.  There may be intense pressure to slant recommendations one way or another.  Just remember that you will be a planner long after this case is decided and this applicant has moved on.  It is important that you can respect yourself and what you have done after it is all over.  

6. They are complete. 

Commissioners don’t like surprises.  Present all the facts, no matter how unpleasant or seemingly trivial.  Nothing is worse for a commissioner than being blindsided at a meeting by an issue that could have been presented in a report a couple of weeks earlier.  Research the case very thoroughly and include everything that you believe is relevant.  Reread the report several times on different days.  Of course, all of this is much easier if you start putting everything together long before packets go out to the commissioners.

7. They use a consistent, logical format.

A planning commissioner’s job can involve sorting through volumes of technical data and reports that arrive with their meeting packets.  While this is necessary in order for them to make educated decisions, it can be difficult for volunteers, many of whom have day jobs, to find the time to digest all of this material.  You can greatly assist this process by summarizing this material in a consistent format each month. Develop templates for each type of application and use them each time.  

8. They are truthful.

Don’t try to “snow” the commission.  Most planning commissioners are bright and capable people.  I remember one commissioner in our county who had a bloodhound’s sense of smell when it came to untruth.  This is a common trait among experienced commissioners.  It is better to admit ignorance and say “I need to research this further, Mr. Chairman” than to turn on the snow blower.  Commissioners are going to get enough of the white-out treatment from certain applicants without receiving it from their professional staff.  They need to believe the staff is honest, forthright, and willing to admit to a mistake when they make one.

Brad Stebleton is a is a senior planner for Sandoval County, NM. He serves as the chair of The Western Planner Editorial Board and as secretary on the board of Western Planning Resources.

Published in the October/November 2012 The Western Planner

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