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Planning boards should be properly trained
By:Ronald Fraser
Date: 2015-03-04
Editor:
The quality of planning decisions made by members of town boards in 600 small New York towns depends on the quality of advice they receive from planning boards.

How can Southtown town boards make sure members of their planning boards possess the skills needed to supply good planning advice?

Elected town officials: Citizens elected to policy-making town boards inevitably bring to the governing process widely differing work experience, backgrounds, training and skills. This is OK, so long as these officials can depend on advisory boards for accurate technical advice based on the skills and expertise of advisory board members. When this is not the case, red flags should go up.

Advisory Board Officials: Larger units of government —at the federal, state, county and city levels — hire legislative and executive staff members with the needed expertise to advise the policy making officials. But in small towns across New York state, where trained professional staffs are generally non-existent, this model breaks down. Small town planning board members in New York state are drawn from the town’s citizens — a pool of candidates generally lacking in planning training and experience.

In the town of Colden, for example, citizens possessing the heavy equipment operation and maintenance skills needed to run the town’s highway department are generally available. However, citizens with planning experience and training for appointment to the town’s planning board are either nonexistent or in short supply.

The state-mandated, four-hours-a-year so-called “training requirement” for advisory board members —a public management cop-out — in practice, this anything-goes approach does more harm than good. Towns have the authority to require and administer real skill-building training programs. Many, if not most towns however, don’t take their responsibilities seriously enough to properly train their advisory boards and slide by with the four-hour shortcut.

In my book, all planning board members should, at minimum, be required to complete the New York Planning Federation’s Basic Guide for Planning Boards: The Short Course, a well-developed course of instruction that includes essential skills planning board members need, such as: How to deal with the public; how to manage a meeting; how to negotiate and conflict management; how to identify and assess the impact of development in their town.

It seems to me the elected members of the town board are responsible for ensuring that the persons they appoint to their planning board receive the training to effectively fulfill their duties to the town and its citizens. A town board that fails to do so both invites the receipt of faulty planning advice and abuses the trust town citizens have that their planning board is properly trained when, in fact, it is not.

How many town boards in the Buffalo Southtowns reject the four-hour shortcut and insist that their planning board members are well trained? Based on my observations, the town of Colden is not one of them.

And, when planning board members lack the skills needed to properly serve their community, the planning board risks becoming little more than a good-ol-boy club.

Ronald Fraser
Colden
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