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Thread: Advice needed: being a lone planner, and autonomy

  1. #1
    Cyburbia Administrator Dan's avatar
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    Advice needed: being a lone planner, and autonomy

    As many of you are aware, I'm the planner for a small Florida town. Being a lone planner, that theoretically makes me the planning director -- pretty much, the one in municipal government who's in charge of land use issues.

    Or so I thought.

    Here's the situation I'm facing. The town manager, before he became the town manager, was the assistant town manager and acting town planner. He's got a B.S. in Planning, and was a planner for another local government for a couple of years before he came to the town. (FWIW, I've got eight years of planning experience under my belt, and I'm AICP.) When he was the acting town planner, the town manager didn't really handle land use issues -- it was left in the hands of the planner.

    That's not the case now. I know planner types can be passionate about the built environment, and it's difficult to "let go" -- I find myself getting upset about recent bad land use decisions in a place where I worked ten years ago. I'm finding that I'm running into that "can't let go" attitude -- from his end. A few examples off the top of my head:

    * When planners from other towns need to contact someone in our town about a land use issue of mutual concern, they usually call him -- not me. No "Dan's the planner ... you should talk to him."

    * When the Town's elected officials have a concern about a land use issue, they contact him -- not me. No "Dan's the planner ... you should talk to him" in this case, either.

    * He'll ask me to change my staff reports, and even cange recommendations -- not to reflect some Town policy that I don't know about, but to address his view on what he feels is the proper implementation of the Zoning Code or Comp Plan -- not mine. One example: I recommended denial on a variance request because there was no hardship, and it didn't meet four of six criteria for recommending approval of a variance. He told me to recommend approval instead, because he talked with the applicant earlier and said that there shouldn't be a problem.

    * I've got a 200 page draft of the Development Code -- written in house. He wouldn't let me present it to the Planning Commission until he had a chance to review it and make changes. It's been sitting on his desk since December. In an act of what could be called "assertiveness" or "insubordination" depending on how you look at it, I gave copies to the P&Z Board last week. (He doesn't know; he doesn't attend P&Z meetings, and fortunately the P&Z Board seems to respect my role as the town planner.) My POV -- draft the code, tune it up in workshops with the Board, and give it to the Town Commission for thier consideration.

    * During staff report presentations to the Town Commission, sometimes he'll interrupt to "clarify" one of my positions. Last meeting was particulatly bad -- he jumped in to answer all the questions from the audience and commissioners! Several times, he's given me the "cut it off" sign -- not for lack of time, either. I'm not permitted to freely approach the commissioners outside of the meetings.

    The town manager is a good manager -- honest, ethical, intelligent, and definitely not incompetent or a tyrant. The thing is that he ... can't ... let ... go. I've asked the question before -- "Am I the planning director, or am I an assistant planner?" I never got a straight answer. My salary is about what a mid-level planner in a larger municipality 'round these parts would make.

    I'm wondering -- how much autonomy do lone planners usually have? How much autonomy should they have?
    Growth for growth's sake is the ideology of the cancer cell. -- Edward Abbey

  2. #2
    Cyburbian Emeritus Chet's avatar
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    Been there...

    ...with my last job.

    The first two should come with time, Dan. Alot of people were used to getting the answers from him, so its at least partialy a "comfort factor".

    As to changing staff recommendations, NEVER! At the most, when I have had similar "confrontations", I draft the report with my recommedation, and include a summary of the dissenting opinion. This works great in cases such as variances, where you identify the lack of hardship, and your counterpart is required to "fess up" that he has no basis for his opinion.

    As to #4, well.... he is the Town Manager and that is his perogative. I would recommend that his changes be in redline format though, so the boards can see them.

  3. #3
    Cyburbian el Guapo's avatar
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    The hard answer

    There is nothing harder in life than requesting a sit down candid conversation with your boss. But it sounds like you need to do it. Don't let this fester. It will refelct in your attitude.

    Most bosses, and your 's sounds like a good guy, can accept this kind of communication if it is couched in a "let's review our working relationship" framework. If you come with some notes and give him time to think about your concerns he may validate them.

    He wants to be a good boss and town manager. You want to be an effective planner. Set a meeting time and tell him what you want to meet about in advance. Opening communications will help you and him reach both of your goals.

    Then ask for a raise!

    Good luck - and if he fires you I have a spare guest bedroom and a cable modem.

    Oh, and hope he doesn't read this post on Cyburbia.

  4. #4
    Cyburbian Joe Iliff's avatar
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    professional independence

    I can sympathize with your situation.

    In addition to talking to your boss, I'd think about being prepared to explain to others the role of any planner who's working as a planner to be somewhat independent. Be able to explain to the P&Z or town commissioners that in your role, you have to follow certain guidelines and function differently than a town manager. That may mean you have differing opinions or make different recommendations to them. That's not bad, it's just the way it works. Planners and administrators have different roles.

    If they can see that you each contribute something different from your own positions and responsibilities, they may help define a separation between you that gives you some independence.

    Be sure they understand you're just talking about having an independent opinion and not attempting to equate your positions. You still understand you report to him, but they understand you can have differing opinions while still working together well.

    Let us know how things are going.
    JOE ILIFF
    ________________________________________________________________________
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    "Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think."
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  5. #5
    maudit anglais
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    "He'll ask me to change my staff reports, and even cange recommendations -- not to reflect some Town policy that I don't know about, but to address his view on what he feels is the proper implementation of the Zoning Code or Comp Plan -- not mine. One example: I recommended denial on a variance request because there was no hardship, and it didn't meet four of six criteria for recommending approval of a variance. He told me to recommend approval instead, because he talked with the applicant earlier and said that there shouldn't be a problem."
    I seem to remember reading somewhere in the CIP code of conduct, a rule about changing recommendations/reports to suit someone else's opinion. In order to maintain the integrity of the profession, planner's are not supposed to do such things. A friend of mine has successfully used this in a similar situation as yours Dan.

    Does the AICP not have something similar?

  6. #6
    Corn Burning Fool giff57's avatar
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    I guess I'm lucky. The City Admin. would just as soon not know what I am doing. If I do stick my head in his office, I usually get a "oh no, who are you harrasing now". If somebody calls him with anything that is even remotely up in my area, I get it. If there is something that I need his approval for, nine times out of ten the answer is I don't give a f.... (see thread on political correctness).

    I am truly the "master of my domain"

  7. #7
    Cyburbian Emeritus Chet's avatar
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    Wow

    giff57 wrote:
    I am truly the "master of my domain"
    ...looks like we're full-circle back to kitty killing again...

  8. #8
    Forums Administrator & Gallery Moderator NHPlanner's avatar
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    Tranplanner wrote:

    Does the AICP not have something similar?
    Here's what I can glean from the AICP Code of Ethics:

    The Planner's Responsibility to Clients and Employers

    B. A planner owes diligent, creative, independent and competent performance of work in pursuit of the client's or employer's interest. Such performance should be consistent with the planner's faithful service to the public interest.

    1) A planner must exercise independent professional judgment on behalf of clients and employers.

    2) A planner must accept the decisions of a client or employer concerning the objectives and nature of the professional services to be performed unless the course of action to be pursued involves conduct which is illegal or inconsistent with the planner's primary obligation to the public interest.


    and also...

    The Planner's Responsibility to the Profession and to Colleagues

    C. A planner should contribute to the development of the profession by improving knowledge and techniques, making work relevant to solutions of community problems, and increasing public understanding of planning activities. A planner should treat fairly the professional views of qualified colleagues and members of other professions.

    1) A planner must protect and enhance the integrity of the profession and must be responsible in criticism of the profession.

    2) A planner must accurately represent the qualifications, views and findings of colleagues.


    So...if I read the code correctly...this falls distinctly into the GRAY AREA. I like bturk's idea about incorporating the "dissenting" opinion in reports, as well as El Guapo's suggestion to meet with your manager. It sounds like the two of you can resolve this.
    "Growth is inevitable and desirable, but destruction of community character is not. The question is not whether your part of the world is going to change. The question is how." -- Edward T. McMahon, The Conservation Fund

  9. #9
    Corn Burning Fool giff57's avatar
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    Re: Wow

    bturk wrote:


    ...looks like we're full-circle back to kitty killing again...

    I knew I could straight man that one, I was giggling while I wrote it.

  10. #10
    Cyburbia Administrator Dan's avatar
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    Kitten killing aside (see http://www.buffalobarfly.com/buzz/buzz.html for some office-safe viewing; please followup to another thread, if you must), I really do thank you for the advice.

    First off ... yeah, the town manager knows about Cyburbia. He seldom visits, though, and even if he stumbled on this, he's smart enough to know that I'm not slamming him, and that this isn't a personal issue or a gripe about a "boss from hell." It's a personnel issue, one which other planners might have dealt with before.

    A heart-to-heart ... one that's well thought out in advance of my asking ... seems like the best idea. A few times in the past, when he overstepped his bounds, I have said "who's the planning director?", but it's usually laughed off. I had a quick discussion with him about the "situation" a couple of months ago. It was spur-of-the-moment for me, I didn't get a chance to collect my thoughts or ask for advice in advance, and I made no headway. Something like "it's a small town -- if this were a larger city, you'd be more autonomous." As one staffer put it, "it's as if he's really still doing the planning work, and leaving it to you to work out the details."

    Thing is ... it doesn't matter if it is a small town or not. The manager can't possibly also be the planner, clerk, police chief, and so on, with those of us who have the actual titles being merely assistants. We've got 1,400 people in the corporate limits, and I'm thinking "this town ain't big enough for two planners." (It's barely big enough for one, but it's booming, and it's a very threatened place -- thus my presence.) Joe Iliff said it very well -- "Planners and administrators have different roles." Don't "clarify" my staff reports to the Town Commission. Don't interrupt my presentations, or take over the lead at a meeting with a citizen or developer. Don't visually "shoosh" me in meetings. Don't keep me out of the loop -- if anything, I should be the one bringing you into the loop. Don't make deals with people that I can't defend -- hell, don't make deals, period. Leave that to me -- it's my job. Yes, I'll admit that you're a more experienced manager than me, and you've got the gift of being more articulate off the cuff, but I've been a planner[ five more years than you; don't ever tell anyone "yes" without seeing a proposal! Give me the same consideration the former town manager gave you.

    As for opposing viewpoints, I send out every development proposal to most relevant agencies and staff, asking for written comments before a certain date; if they write back, their comments go into my staff report verbatim. I don't get anything back from the Town Manager; however, when he sees the staff report, often ask me then to make changes -- not typos or spelling, but policy. Next time ... well, I should make it very clear that if written comments aren't back, they will not be incorporated into the staff report, period, end of story.

    I do have to collect my thoughts, maybe write them down in memo form, and then have a meeting of the minds. I'd also like to write to the town commissioners and planning directors of nearby municipalites, remind them that I've been the planning director for more than a year, and simply state that if they have any questions or concerns about any land use related issues, that they should direct them to me.

    I don't like conflict, and since the last commission meeting I've been behaving in a somewhat passive-aggressive manner, being stand-offish to the manager. Not good, I know, but unfortunately, it's often how my brain deals until I can collect my thoughts, and voice them in an articulate manner.
    Growth for growth's sake is the ideology of the cancer cell. -- Edward Abbey

  11. #11

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    Dan Tasman wrote:
    Not good, I know, but unfortunately, it's often how my brain deals until I can collect my thoughts, and voice them in an articulate manner.
    Sounds like you have already collected your thoughts and organized them in a first draft for us. I agree with el Guapo: Address this with your boss soon. It WILL affect your work, your attitude, and your personal life. Life is too short to endure unnecessary emotional trauma.

  12. #12
    Member Mary's avatar
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    In my last job the City administrator was not a planner but acted as planner when there wasn't one. He did so diligently and fairly well. When I started he started to micro manage a bit and even tried to tell me to do two things I felt were illegal or indifensible (a bit like where you may be on the variance issue). In the worse case I told him that I wasn't going to sign something that I couldn't legally sign and that if he wanted to sign it I would be happy to go get the form for him. He rapidly told me he wasn't trying to tell me how to do my job and the next day he found a legal way to get everything straightened out. On the other occassion I just explained to him how I interpreted the law and let him think about it. He did some reading himself and came back to tell me that my interpretation was probably as or more correct than his. After that things between us were great it just took him awhile to trust that if we disagreed that it didn't mean that I was wrong or that I was going to hurt his city.

    At least on legal things you may have to take a strong stand. Mine worked well I hope yours does also. Still it sounds like it may be impacting your work and if he's up for a heart to heart that may be your best solution.

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