An Editorial Inside Look at Serving on Planning Commission: An Introduction

What is it like serving on a city board or commission in the city or one of the townships?  Why is it an important role?  What does it entail?
I was appointed to the City of Lowell Planning Commission last fall and decided to start an editorial series based on my experience.  Perhaps there’s a stigma of meetings being boring, efforts taking too long, input not important, or some other myth in the minds of those in the community.  And there may be a bit of truth in some of the above thoughts, but with some explanation there may be some understanding.  My hope is to explain what goes on during meetings and how citizen contribution is important.  

Time Commitment, Financial and Experience Reward
There is a commitment on the part of those who serve.  The amount of time depends on where you serve.  For Planning Commission, my experience so far has been meetings about an hour in duration.  And it has taken me an hour or two to review the agenda packet received the week before the meeting.  

There’s also payment received for participating in Planning Commission meetings.  It’s not really to be considered more than a token of thanks for serving the community.  In other words, don’t go looking to serve on paying boards and commissions (and not all of them pay) as a means to quit your day job if you have one.  But you can have less guilt for stopping by Sweet Seasons or New Union Brewery for a treat or experiencing a meal from one of the local restaurants from time to time.

Planning Commission can be considered the unadvertised first step for those wanting to become involved with city government where *big decisions* are made and a possible step for those interested in running for City Council.  And, no, that’s not any kind of announcement for those who have asked me about running in two years.  Planning Commission is one of the boards where more influential topics can be discussed.  That’s not to say Parks and Rec, Arbor Board, and others aren’t vital or have the opportunity to make important decisions.  Of course, it’s not a requirement to be part of Planning Commission before election to City Council, however it’s a great way to gain experience and a name for yourself if you seek one of the fancy nameplates in Council Chambers.  

Due to Planning Commission’s review and writing of ordinances and review of site plans for businesses and homeowners, the look of land within city limits is influenced by this group.  The commission typically makes recommendations which are passed on to City Council for official approval.  City Council often passes assignments to the Planning Commission to work on and present a recommendation, such as developing a section in a current ordinance defining and establishing standards for short-term rentals.  

You’re Not Alone!
Serving on the Planning Commission is actually a bit out of my comfort zone which I referenced in a personal DNA prediction.  I don’t seek out opportunities to speak in front of people.  And the thought of being part of a recorded meeting isn’t on my bucket list.  Yet for the last year I’ve considered seeking appointment to a Lowell City board or commission and took the plunge last fall by submitting my formal letter of interest to City Hall.  

From there the Mayor appointed me with consent from the remaining members of City Council.  And then I was attending my first meeting.  I’m still waiting to receive my official nameplate and I’ve contemplated decorating my current one with markers.  Although the person who sits next to me was appointed the month after me and he doesn’t have any kind of homemade indication clarifying who he is so I should be thankful for what sits in front of my seat.  Banter between members of a board can be one of the more fun aspects of serving.  

I’m organized and I like to plan.  But I don’t have a background or experience in city zoning, reviewing site plans, and updating ordinances.  The beauty of being a part of any local government board or commission is a variety of people are sought to serve.  Those with experience serving on Planning Commission, and overall the group is filled with fairly new members, help junior members walk through agenda items.  Questions are encouraged.  Training is available and a professional planner presents information and answers questions during meetings.  

By the seat of your pants training has been fine in my experience.  The important part is the willingness to read provided information, understand it or ask questions, and be prepared to discuss whether or not whatever is presented will make Lowell a better place.  

A Fit for Many
Serving on a city board or commission may sound daunting to some.  I’ve lived in Lowell for nearly 15 years and this is the first time I’ve raised my hand showing interest.  And I’ve found the ability to fit the commitment into an already busy schedule.  The evening meeting allows my husband to have some “alone time” with our kids.  It gives me a small break from the bedtime routine.  I’m also involved with PTO and extra curricular activities with kids.  If you feel like you’re a busy parent who can’t make it work, take another look.  Come to a meeting for a board where you think you’d like to serve to see what goes on.  Ask questions of current board members, those on City Council, or city staff at City Hall.  I haven’t been scared away after attending a few meetings.  

In Lowell, as with many places around the country, there’s a deficit when it comes to women and younger generations serving.  But the future of Lowell depends on people from younger generations to provide input, whether it’s serving on a board or commission, attending meetings, or simply voicing an opinion (for or against) on a topic being discussed.  

What would you like to know about serving on Planning Commission or another board or commission?

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