Let’s get serious: Think about Planning Board

Ann put up a call for people to run for Planning Board on my post about my neighborhood situation and I thought I’d bring it out front. We talk a lot about Town Meeting, Selectmen and the schools, not to mention the economy, and there’s definitely one board whose work tends to have the most immediate effect on how Grafton is shaped.

That would be the Planning Board. If you want to build a new neighborhood or start a significant new business, they’re the deciding factor. I was actually surprised — although I don’t know why, I’ve covered lots of Planning Boards and it’s not unusual — to find their meeting draws a much bigger crowd than Selectmen. There were hired guns waiting their turns, of course, but there were also plenty of project abutters in the audience anxious to make their opinions known.

There are two three-year  seats up for election this term, now held by Rich McCarthy and Robert Hassinger. Keith Regan, whose term expires in 2010, is resigning effective March 1 and his position will be on the ballot as well.

Selectmen will likely seek to fill Keith’s seat with an appointment so there is not a gap on the board in the interim. This isn’t a board that can stagger about doing business a member or two light — this is serious business that definitely impacts the town.

If I wasn’t convinced that blogging and town office was an ethics violation just waiting to happen, I’d go for it. What’s your excuse?

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10 thoughts on “Let’s get serious: Think about Planning Board

  1. Thanks for posting this Jenn. I’ve been thinking of the things I’ll miss about being on the Board and they are numerous:

    – The people. It’s a kick to work with people from different backgrounds, experiences, approaches and styles who all share a common trait in that they care about the town. I served alongside builders, salespeople, lawyers and engineers, and learned something from each of them. I also enjoyed working with and getting to know the town’s (very) professional planning staff.

    – The intrigue. It’s cool to see behind the curtain a bit to watch how projects come together–or fall apart and to know what’s coming before most everyone else does.

    – The fun. There, I said it. I’m a geek and I know it, but the intellectual exercise of digesting information and forming a position and trying to affect a positive outcome is fun; the interaction with the public, at least some of it, is fun; and I can’t remember a single meeting during the past 8 years, even when things were very tense, that I didn’t laugh at least once.

    – The fame. If I had a dime for every time someone at the gym or the grocery store told me they recognized me from TV, I’d have … about 60 cents. Still, that ain’t nothing!

    – The satisfaction. This is especially true when things work out well. The Board has shaped some projects in recent years to make them better–or at least less bad–than they were initially. We’ve received some benefits for the town–playing fields, affordable housing, open space, intersection improvements–and planted the seeds for revitalizing parts of the community with the Fisherville rezoning, for instance. But even when those things aren’t happening, there is a sense of satisfaction that comes from knowing you’re doing your part.

    One last thought: At times during my tenure, the board regularly met until past midnight. Those days are in the past. Yes, things are relatively slow now in the building and development realm, but the board is also more efficient and focused and wiser about relying on our excellent staff to do the work that can be done outside of meetings. The point here being that the time commitment–two meetings per month, on average, with a few extras here and there, plus a little meeting-prep time–is significant but not insurmountable.

    I’m always available to discuss the ups and downs of serving on the board with anyone who wants to kick the tires a bit more. I’d also be happy to help prospective candidates collect their nomination paper signatures as well.

  2. I sat on the Board many years ago (right before Keith) and I, too, share his thoughts about serving on this board. I encourage those interested to contact any member of the Board or the town planning staff of which I am proud to be a member (thanks for the kind words, Keith).

    But let’s talk turkey: time. What is the actual time commitment? On average there are two meetings a month (2nd & 4th Mondays) that average 2 hours per meeting. There’s advance preparation including reading materials provided by the staff on the Friday before. And depending on your “need to know” you may find yourself driving around looking at items that may be coming before the Board (my kids LOVED those little detours).

    Total average: 8-10 hours a month. Remember, this is an average – it flucuates based on your commitment / need for additional research, the construction season, and other factors outside the Board’s control).

    Qualifications: a desire to serve mixed; fair mindedness combined with creative & critical thinking skills. All else can be “on the job training”. Seriously.

    Hope someone out there right now is marching down to the Muncipal Center to take out papers! Stop by the Planning Department on your way…

  3. I maybe your man. I sat on the board of directors of my former housing complex in CA. I enjoyed being in the know but more importantly I liked being part of a group that made decisions based on facts without letting emotions or biases influence my outlook. The process worked and at the end of the day the majority of the decisions appeared to be the right decisions for the community.

    My only concern is if I have a pending concern that has been submitted to the board for review does that impact my ability to on the board. I could recuse myself I am sure but I also don’t want to negatively impact the outcome of my on going concern.

    Thoughts?

  4. You’re totally saving me the effort of emailing you. 🙂

    I know members can recuse themselves from actions that personally involve them. I used to see it all the time in the various cities I covered so if your concern is the one that’s concerning me right now, that shouldn’t be, um, a concern.

    I could vague that up a bit.

  5. Hi Richard –

    Board members do, at times, need to recuse themselves from discussion / decisions that they have a conflict with. Conflicts are defined by the “Conflict of Interest” law that you will receive when you get sworn in. You can also look it up if you need more information prior to making your decision.

    Hope this helps.

  6. Would the principle of recusing oneself also allow for others, such as blog writers soliciting advertising from local biz, to participate in town commissions without any hesitation?

  7. No. It was against my former paper’s ethics policy to serve as an elected or appointed town official, whether we covered the town or not. The reasoning there is that we might be inclined to slant our coverage if, say, a developer who had business before my town was also proposing something in the town I covered. You try to avoid the quid pro quo.

    If I was a member of a town board, who would I be when blogging? How would that impact the relationship of my board with other board and town employees? If a company had business before the Planning Board and I was a member, would it be a violation of state ethics law if that company bought advertising on my blog?

    I’d rather not impose a gag order on myself and would rather not deal with the Massachusetts Ethics Commission on a regular basis.

    Besides, I’d rather extend the honeymoon phase with the blog for as long as possible. 😉

  8. Thanks so much for this plug regarding the seats up for election on the Planning Board – it appears your helpful recruiting efforts are already bearing fruit. As the current chair, I can only echo Keith’s and Ann’s comments. This election season is a great opportunity for those who want to shape Grafton’s approach to development and growth – as the downturn will (someday) come to an end, and Grafton will again be faced with a flurry of applications for major new developments. In the meantime, there is tremendously important planning to do, and there is also the critical issue of superintending (as best we are able, which admittedly does not go far enough) the existing developments that are not yet complete so that they do get built to plan in something like a timely manner.

    I’m also available to discuss any questions about the Board – courchez – at – mac.com.

    On the blogger/public official point, it raises interesting questions under the Conflict of Interest Law and the Open Meetings Law, and also the twin role that the Planning Board serves – as a policy-making body that comments on new zoning proposals at Town Meeting and spearheads the Town’s planning efforts, and also as an adjudicatory body hearing applications for development under the Zoning Act. I have contemplated starting a planning-related blog about “policy” that would avoid the adjudications until they are complete, which I think be okay. Public officials around the country are doing this in increasing numbers, and while the efforts are uneven, it can, when done well, be a way of increasing transparency and generating public discussion. But I have held back, mostly because there only so many hours in a day, and blogging well takes time.

    However, for a comprehensive journalist blogger like you who takes the whole town as your beat, I would tend to agree that it could be problematic for a number of reasons. So, we’re definitely sorry not to have you, but the public value to what you’re doing here is tremendous and should not be discounted!

  9. Blogs and forums and the like present additional problems for people in public office. Are they “meetings”?

    Besides the conflict of interest law, and ethical considerations of various sorts, we also have to keep in mind the open meeting law. Whenever a majority of a public body discuss matters that come under their body it must be in a posted, public meeting.

    Traditionally that was understood to be a majority of the membership of a body physically getting together and talking about the business of the body.

    Email, the Internet, and even the telephone have complicated that. Some years back the state Attorney General started telling people that “meeting” in the sense of the open meeting law included those modes of communication too, and in particular that even “serial” communications were an issue. Two members communicate, then at another time one of them communicates with a third member. A majority never physically meets or communicates as a group. The AG decided that also constitutes a “meeting” under the meaning of the law.

    The principle is that public business must be done in public. But the law has not kept up with modern times. Today it is very difficult to know what one may and may not say about the business of public bodies they are members of, in any setting and by any means other than during official public meetings. Potentially even including blogs if you accept the AG’s decisions and apply the logic to the current communications technologies.

  10. It’s tricky, which is why I’d rather stay on the sidelines. It’s impossible for me to not write.

    My informal policy for the blog, and I’m pretty sure no one has managed to get by me, is this: I’d prefer if public officials commenting on the blog are easily identifiable, even if we’re talking about, say, giraffes. There have been issues in other towns where it’s been discovered that a public official has been stirring up trouble on a blog or message board under another name or even arguing with themselves under multiple names, and I’d rather not have to referee a public meltdown.

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