Preparation, deliberation and documentation are key to effective government meetings
Public planning and zoning meetings go better when each member actively engages in preparation, deliberation and documentation. These activities occur before the meeting starts and continue for the duration of the meeting.
The planning commission and zoning board of appeals meetings go much better when members have prepared ahead of time. It takes a little bit of homework on each member’s part to be prepared for a meeting.
Meeting preparation begins with the development of an agenda ahead of time, before the meeting. Then preparation includes writing staff reports about individual cases on the agenda ahead of time. It includes each member reading and reviewing those materials before coming to the meeting. Unfortunately, government board or committee members all too often enter the meeting without having reviewed or even opening the meeting packet.
Meetings go well when three basic practices are observed: Preparation, deliberation and documentation.
Reading meeting materials ahead of time is the preparation part. It also includes paying attention to some ethical considerations. When one is a member of a planning commission or a zoning board of appeals, part of preparation and deliberation is to avoid conflict of interest, ex parte contact, and incompatible office.
Conflict of interest is when the member has:
- A financial interest in the application’s outcome;
- A relative which is the applicant (bylaws or rules of procedure should specify how close of a relationship); or
- Land in proximity to the location of the applicant (bylaws or rules of procedure should specify what distance for proximity).
When there is a conflict of interest, the member should remove him or herself from the meeting, deliberating, voting, or any other participation in the review of that case. Best practice is to announce the conflict publically and leave the meeting room.
Ex parte contact is entering into a discussion about a zoning case outside of the meeting. That should not be done. Part of the job, when hearing zoning cases before the planning commission and appeals board is to remain impartial. It also means making sure all discussion and conversation about the case takes place at a public meeting. The idea is for everyone interested to be able to hear everything that is said and have an opportunity to respond. Private conversations outside of the meeting by members denies people of that fundamental legal right.
Incompatible office is when someone holds two public positions, and:
- One is subordinate to the other;
- One is supervisory of the other; or
- There is a contract between organizations for which both offices represent.
In Michigan statute, one cannot hold two offices at the same time that are not compatible with each other. One must resign from one of the two offices. Some prosecutors have taken the position that when one accepts the second office that automatically results in a resignation from the first of two incompatible offices.
Preparing for the meeting might also include visiting the location of the case. Follow the protocol in the bylaws of the planning commission or rules of procedure for the zoning board of appeals for how that site visit is done. Some require the site visit as part of an open meeting, complying with the Open Meeting Act; some require it be done alone (and avoiding ex parte contact); some require site visits only be done by staff who prepare a report for the public meeting.
The meeting is the only time and location when and where deliberation should take place. The bylaws or rules of procedure will spell out how that is done during the meeting. Common is for all comments to be directed to the chair, time limits for non-members to speak, limit on number of times speaking, use of a spokesperson, and so on.
The role of the staff (zoning administrator, planner) is to provide a staff report that includes a zoning history of the parcel, a comparison of what is proposed to the requirements of the zoning ordinance, a site visit report, a review of the site plan, findings of fact, and so on.
The role of the applicant is to present their case. They are an advocate for what they want.
The public then has an opportunity to respond to or address those comments or information. Often this part of the meeting is a public hearing. Public comment is particularly useful when standards in the zoning ordinance are not easily measured or involve discretion. For example, the standard that a new store has to have 20 parking spaces is pretty straight forward. One can count, or measure and the standard is met, or not. But a discretionary standard might be something like “shall be compatible with the neighborhood.” With this standard one has to use judgment. Comments from the public may help members with evaluating compliance with discretionary standards.
Then there is an opportunity for staff and the applicant to respond to concerns the public brought up – sort of like the re-direct in a courtroom. That might occur after all public comment is done, it may be done after the public hearing, or it may be in the form of members directing questions to those speaking at the public hearing.
Finally, there is documentation, which includes the minutes, other items that are part of the record, and full file for the case. In addition to who made the motion and who seconded it, the vote for each motion for an administrative decision should include:
- Findings of fact
- Reasons for the decision
- The decision
- And, optionally, and conditions which may be a part of a motion to approve.
Findings of fact include the planning commission’s or appeals board’s list of what they found to be the facts in the case. Not all facts will support the decision made. But those facts need to be listed. Often this can be done by referencing the staff report (with edits) that includes a preliminary list of findings of fact. Each reason for the decision should relate directly back to each applicable standard(s) found in the zoning ordinance. These parts of the motion all become part of the minutes. The minutes, along with the application, hearing a record, correspondence received, application, site visit notes, and more collectively become part of the complete record for the case.
For a well-executed meeting, preparation, deliberation, and documentation need to take place. It becomes a duty of each member and staff. Those in Michigan State University Extension that focus on land use provide training on this and other planning and zoning topics, which are available to be presented in your county. Contact your local land use educator for more information.
For more on meetings and meeting procedures see this MSU Extension parliamentary procedure resources page.