“CONGRATULATIONS” YOU ARE NOW OUR NEW PLAN COMMISSION CHAIRMAN!
Craig Hullinger AICP and Chuck Eckenstahler AICP
It is quite an honor to be elected to be the Chairman of a Planning Commission. It’s also a big responsibility, as members expect the Chair to organize the decision making process, guide the discussion and help make sure the Plan Commission functions according to state laws and local ordinances.
We have all attended poorly organized meetings where aimless discussion lengthens the meeting. These meetings often end with an inappropriate motion being adopted which may not fulfill the legal requirements of the law or local ordinance. Often the Plan Commission “simply gets by.”
By taking a few moments before the meeting, the Chair can organize the meeting providing the opportunity for better discussion and preparation of carefully worded motion fulfilling local ordinance standards. In these situations the Plan Commission has a better defense if someone challenges the action in court.
TEN GUIDELINES FOR A BETTER CHAIRMANSHIP
This article is designed to provide ten guidelines to help the Chair of a Plan Commission organize the meeting and guide discussion leading to adoption of formal motions.
1. Establish a Regular Meeting Date
This sounds elementary, but in practice some communities do not have a regular meeting date and time scheduling meetings “only when necessary.” The benefit of a regular date encourages members to “block-off” dates on their calender thus assuring better attendance. The second and forth Tuesday of the month at 7:30 p.m., for example, establishes a routine.
A published and posted schedule provides information to residents and applicants increasing the likelihood of more public attendance and earlier application submission by applicants. We support the notion of regular monthly meetings; (of course which can be canceled due to a lack of agenda items) to establish regular meetings.
2. Give Public Notice of the Meeting
Illinois law requires that the public be notified of all Plan Commission meetings. Typically, communities post the schedule of meetings in the front window or door at the Village Hall and may post the agenda before the specific meeting to fulfill this legal requirement.
Specific actions, rezonings, special use permits, variances, etc. require newspaper publication of a special notice, including notification of adjacent property owners (usually within 250 feet of the subject property) and the School District. The Plan Commission must assure the notification requirements are completed to legally consider these matters.
Many communities have established procedures beyond legally required notification requirements to inform residents and encourage participation in the decision process. Some require posting of a sign on the property announcing the matter and date it will be considered, notification of all tenants (and property owners as required by state law and local ordinance), and sometimes notification of property owners (and/or tenants) within a larger area surrounding the property.
The Plan Commission should review legal requirements for public notice found in state law and local ordinances and determine whether they should provide additional public notification. We recommend, at minimum, that communities provide public notice by posting a sign at a conspicuous place on the property to announce the Plan Commission is considering an action involving the parcel of land.
3. Prepare an Agenda
The Chair should prepare (or have staff prepare) an agenda for every meeting. Contents of agendas vary from a simple list of matters to be considered to a brief description of the agenda item with other pertinent information.
We recommend an agenda that provides a brief summary of the matter being considered for each agenda item. The summary should include a description of the action being considered, the address of the property, and actions that the Plan Commission can consider, typically a motion to approve, table or deny the applicants request.
4. Provide Background Information for Agenda Items
Plan Commission members are typically busy people with many responsibilities. We believe it is good policy to prepare background information and provide it to the members before the Plan Commission meeting.
Much of the information given the members can be collected directly from the applicant on a standard application form. The application and plan illustrations and maps can be distributed to the members.
We also recommend that a staff report be prepared and distributed identifying applicable zoning ordinance provisions that the Plan Commissioner should review before making a decision. The report should analyze how the proposal conforms to the ordinance (and other plans etc.), how the request does not comply with the ordinance and what specific actions are required for the Plan Commission to approve the applicants’ request. The report should offer a suggested motion that includes all the items necessary to approve the applicants request. The members can review this before the meeting.
5. Distribute the Agenda and Background Information Before the Meeting
Plan Commission members, in our experience, appreciate time to review an application, view the parcel of land and discuss the matter with surrounding residents before the meeting. This provides them an opportunity to evaluate the request, prepare for public input and eventual discussions leading to a formal decision.
Idealy, the agenda packet should be sent to the members about 5-7 days before the meeting. This allows time for review and a chance for the member to call the Chair or staff with any questions or obtain additional information from the applicant wanted by a member before the Plan Commission meeting.
6. Establish Public Input Procedures
Everyone has heard about the “standing room only” Plan Commission meeting where residents in the audience jump-up and shout their concerns in an uncontrolled fashion. These meetings typically ramble-on and result in a misunderstanding of the process and any action taken by the Plan Commission.
We recommend the Plan Commission establish rules of procedure for the public hearing process and distribute them to all persons who attend a public hearing. We typically read the procedures before starting the public hearing to let everyone know how the public hearing will be conducted, when we will accept public comments and what the Plan Commission decision really means. At this time, the Chair should announce whether the Plan Commission intends to take action after the public hearing or postpone the decision to another meeting.
7. Distribute Minutes of Meetings
Illinois law requires the Plan Commission prepare written minutes of the meeting. Minutes become the permanent record of the discussion and action taken by the Plan Commission. Some communities record the meeting and produce verbatim written minutes of what each person said during the meeting. Other comminutes summerize the discussions and list persons in attendance. Legal counsel should be consulted with respect to the type and style of minutes they recommend be taken.
The minutes should be prepared and distributed to the members for review and approval each month to establish a formal record of each Plan Commission meeting. These minutes should include persons attending, what they discussed, and actions taken. Remember, Plan Commission minutes are public records that must be available for public inspection.
8. Ready Draft “Findings of Fact” Before the Meeting for Review by the Members
Illinois law requires that the Plan Commission provide an explanation for their decisions. The Plan Commission is provided standards to evaluate the applicants request and determine whether they should approve the request. These standards are typically found in the zoning ordinance section dealing with issuance of special use permits, variances, etc. and rezoning.
We recommend the Chair (or staff) as part of the preparation for the meeting, review these standards and analyze the applicants’ request. In our experience, Plan Commission members have found it helpful to have these in draft form for review before the meeting. The members can then review the findings, consider changes they feel necessary and use the draft document for submission of findings into the public record before taking formal action.
9. Plan Commissioner Participation - Encourage Questions and Personal Opinions
Sitting before a crowd of people at a public hearing can be quite intimidating. Some Plan Commissioners, facing a crowd of their fellow residents who oppose the matter under consideration, will not feel comfortable in discussing the matter and offering their views, especially after a hostile public hearing.
It is the responsibility of the Chair to manage meeting procedures and close public input to allow the Plan Commissioners to discuss the matter without interruption. It is the Chair’s job to encourage each member to ask questions and provide comment, if they choose.
We recommend the Chair be aggressive in control of the meeting, using a short recess to “quiet-down” those present and, when necessary, asking for a motion to continue the meeting at a future date, to allow time to review public input and allow the Plan Commissioners to formulate their personal opinions. Plan Commissioners should have time to consider their decision and not be pressured by the tone of public input and the typical call for an immediate decision by the developer.
10. Ready Motions Before the Meeting for Review by the Members
Offering a motion to approve or deny an applicants request is a big responsibility. In a few cases, a simple motion to approve or deny the applicants request will be sufficient. More likely, the motion will be more complex and may include specific recommendations or conditions.
In our experience, drafting a complicated motion following an angry public hearing is difficult. We suggest that a draft motion be prepared before the meeting (both approving and denying the applicants request) so the Plan Commissioners can review them before the meeting. Members can more easily reword the draft “on the fly” to incorporate changes required by public input and Plan Commission discussion.
In some communities, legal counsel prepares the draft motions. In others, draft motions become responsibility of the Plan Commission Chair, a Plan Commissioner, staff, or consulting planner. No matter who prepares the motion, we believe advance review gives the Plan Commissioner the opportunity to study the motion and identify changes etc. that they believe should be made before they make the motion.
The job of Chair of the Plan Commission comes with duties and responsibilities. The Chair assumes the responsibility to conduct a process assuring public input and informed decision making by the members. Using these ten guidelines will help achieve the goal of good decision making.
About the Authors
Chuck Eckenstahler, AICP, is the owner of Public Consulting Team, a Benton Harbor, Michigan planning consulting firm which has served the Villages of Beecher, Sauk Village Glenwood and Homewood as their consulting planner. He holds two Masters’ Degrees, one from Governors State University and the other from the University of Notre Dame. He is an active writer, having more than 150 articles published on various economic development, land use planning and real estate development topics. He can be contacted at 219-879-1012, or E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Craig Harlan Hullinger, AICP, is the President of Planning Development Services. He has served as the Will County Director of Land Use and Planning where he supervised planning, zoning, engineering, and building functions. He is currently working with the Villages of Minooka, Tinley Park, Mokena, Munster, IN, the Eastern Will County Regional Council, and as an expert witness. Craig has a BA Degree in Public Administration and a Master’s Degree in Environmental Planning. He can be contacted at 708/ 532-8991 or E-mail Craig@Hullinger.com.
For more information on Chuck or Craig visit our web page at http://www.Craig.Hullinger.com