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Are Southtown Planning Boards Trustworthy?

Few Southtown citizens have probably given much thought to their towns’ advisory boards (the planning board and environmental/conservation board) and most probably believe they are well-served by these boards. Maybe it’s time to take a closer look and ask: Why are planning and environmental boards needed? How well equipped are these advisory boards to render sound technical and public management advice to the elected members of town boards?

Small town electoral politics determines who will sit on town governing boards. Unlike larger municipalities, however, small rural towns seldom hire trained planners and environmental staff members to advise and support the towns’ governing boards. In the absence of professional staff support—and since it is unlikely the political process will select town board members with technical planning and environmental training or experience—planning and environmental boards are created to fill this expertise gap, to provide technically accurate and factual planning and environmental advice to the towns’ elected officials.

So far, so good. But the key factor that determines whether or not a planning or environmental board can supply technically accurate and factual advice is mainly the skills possessed by the advisors. How do the elected officials in the Southtowns decide who will be appointed to these advisory boards? Do they take care to select advisors that can—based on planning and environmental education, technical skills and work experience—provide good technical advice?

A 1996 State University of New York at Buffalo study, Governance in Erie County, found that “Nowhere is it required that planning be administered by professionals. As a condition of appointment, planning board members need not have any planning expertise, opening the way for appointments that are primarily political. In most jurisdictions in the county there are ‘non-professional’ planners serving ‘non-professional’ [town] boards.”

In addition, in 2008 the NYS Legislative Commission on Rural Resources reported that, “many members of local planning and zoning boards and elected legislative bodies serve without special training in the basic procedures which the successful use of state and local planning and zoning laws require. A high percentage also serve without accessible or affordable technical assistance. Yet these responsible local officials must deal with complex legal procedures and technical issues pertaining to land use planning and development...[and]...since 1992, little was done by most municipalities to establish formal training requirements and opportunities for members of their planning and zoning bodies.”

From my observations since 2008, not much has changed. To make decent public decisions, Southtown elected town boards still need good technical advice. Political appointments to advisory boards still far out-number appointments based on one’s technical competence. And, town-run training programs to effectively develop the knowledge and skills planning and environmental board members need are still an idea whose time has not yet come.

Ronald Fraser, colden

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