Beware of zombie planning commissioners this Halloween

When one member of a planning commission attends training, they sometimes return to the next meeting with the others staring as if they'd been abducted, filled with ‘alien’ information, and turned back to the community as some sort of zombie.

Don’t let any one of your planning commissioners end up like this. | Photo by Ian Aberle (creative commons)
Don’t let any one of your planning commissioners end up like this. | Photo by Ian Aberle (creative commons)

When just one member of a planning commission attends training to advance his/her knowledge, he/she sometimes returns to the next meeting with the others staring as if he/she had been abducted, filled with ‘alien’ information, and turned back to the community as some sort of zombie or extraterrestrial being. This is bad. More planning commissioners should attend training next time.

Unfortunately, it happens all too often in our communities. That zombie transfiguration or alien abduction phenomenon where just one or two members of a planning commission or zoning board of appeals attend training and gain new insights as to how to improve the group’s operations, decision making or processes, but the rest of the group just stares and wonders what happened to the member they used to know. Instead, communities should make a concerted effort to budget for and set an expectation of training for their appointed and elected decision makers.

Michigan State University Extension teaches about The importance of discussing best practices for continuing education in planning and zoning. Municipal liability insurance providers agree, training for staff and local officials is one of the most important and effective ways for local governments to minimize legal risk. However, if the risk management argument hasn’t worked for your community, try the ‘alien abduction theory’ or the ‘attack of the all-knowing-zombie phenomenon’ as a reason to send more decision-makers to training. A single trained appointed official (i.e. an all-knowing-zombie) is a terrible thing to waste!

As an appointed or elected local official, continuing education is as equally important as it is for a professional seeking to maintain a credential or certification. For a planning commissioner, zoning board of appeals member, or zoning administrator, continuing education teaches roles, responsibilities and best practices. Attendees of training like that conducted by Michigan State University Extension government and public policy educators come away with new ideas for proactive planning for placemaking, insights on running more effective meetings, and strategies to reduce the likelihood of legal challenges when making zoning decisions.

Recently, MSU Extension released a new bulletin on the long-term impacts of the Citizen Planner ProgramMeasuring Impacts Using Ripple Effect Mapping and Survey Evaluation Techniques (E3312). The bulletin highlights some of the impacts of the Citizen Planner Program and the Master Citizen Planner credential. The evaluation demonstrates that the Citizen Planner Program results in improved knowledge and decision-making skills while strengthening the ability of participants to lead across differences and more effectively interact with other government bodies and the public. Additionally, it is documented that Master Citizen Planners – those that engage in regular continuing education on related subject matter – report significantly higher impacts compared to regular Citizen Planner graduates. Impacts include an increased satisfaction of serving on local boards and commissions, improved continuity/institutional memory at the local level regarding land use and decisions, increased length of time served on local boards and commissions, enhanced understanding and responsibility of local officials in relation to ethics and conflict of interest issues, and improved working relationships and citizen involvement within and among communities.

In conclusion, when setting the municipal or departmental budget this fall, don’t forget to include funding for training for local appointed and elected officials and set an expectation that that funding be used for this purpose during the fiscal year. It could be your single best defense against a zombie or alien board/commission member rejoining your group with fantastic information and knowledge that goes to waste without a critical mass learning the same concepts.


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