On Voting No

11 Oct 2018 10:46 PM | Maine Association of Planners (Administrator)

So you’ve come to the end of a contentious application process. A lot has been said. Neighbors complained, engineers and planners have pointed out problems, solutions have been offered, and in the end, there is a Finding of Fact and Conditions of Approval that are ready for a final review and a vote. Tensions are high, and everybody is watching.  Who are you?

1. You have been involved in the conversation all along, attending every meeting, asking the tough questions, putting it back to the applicant to prove and promise and to give more.

2. You are quiet, listening to the complaints from neighbors about noise, dust, traffic, and all, but not offering ways to solve the problems. You suggest you may disagree with some things but do not offer solutions that would satisfy your concerns. More complaints come in about potential nuisances, but you do not try to double down on restrictions and address the concerns. You hate the project, but you keep quiet.

3. You are the one who misses meetings, worse, avoids the meeting on the night of the vote… or worse yet, the one who conveniently resigns the same day. Go you.

On Professional Opinions

We are not professional members of the board. We are not necessarily professional planners, engineers, or lawyers. But we have something to learn from them. When a soil scientist calls an area a wetland, it can be backed up, it is not just an attitude. It is a Professional Opinion.

I’m not quoting Webster, but there are two kinds of opinions.

1. Loudmouth Uncle’s Opinion, heard from the backyard party: “I disagree.”  “That new development is just plain stupid.”  And the like. He says it, along with “Hey, it’s my opinion, there is no accounting for opinions.” “I believe I’ll have an other beer.”

2. A Professional Opinion. “I disagree…”  is followed by some detail why the professional thinks so, and why you and others should agree. “This is a wetland because it is saturated soil with standing water so many days a year, has such and such plants, as defined in this manual, etc.”

A professional opinion is supported with facts, logic, and accepted methods of analysis. It’s not hard, it just takes backup. This is the Big Point of this article.

How do we develop opinions on the Planning Board?

We need to be less like the opinionated uncle and more like the professional.  Of course we cannot expect this all the time; one doesn’t need  a professional career to be on the board. We are often a jury of peers, regular folks who live just down the road. New members can arrive and find it is the first time they have ever been on such a board. We beg for and welcome new members; as much as we always struggle for a full board to maintain a quorum, we need the diversity of voices.

New members can find it tough. People can be shy and apologetic about asking questions, intimidated by a lawyer or a vocal board member, generally unsure how to contribute and express ideas. I offer the following advice not only as it is a good general way to carry yourself in all circumstances and as specific advice on the most effective approach, but also a gentle reprimand to those who do otherwise.

During the planning process, information flows by and we must all be up to speed on the issues. If something comes up and raises a question, you must ask the question.

1. Read everything.  Listen intently.

2. Don’t expect to remember it all, or hear it all.

3. Don’t be afraid to ask a “stupid question”.  Say you don’t understand, ask to please repeat what was just said. If you don’t get it, someone else doesn’t as well.

4. You have an obligation to ask questions when you don’t understand.

5. Don’t be upset when someone questions your question. That’s how it works. Be good at being wrong. We can only know what is right if we discard the things that are wrong.

6. Be good at being right. Insist and explain when you know.

7. When you disagree with a solution being offered to a problem, you have an obligation to call it out.

8. If you don’t call it out when it comes by, you slowly lose your moral high ground to call it out later.

9. When the vote comes by, and you still have not called out your objections, offered little or nothing in contribution to solutions, found no specific problems with any of the items we use to confirm the project is acceptable, you have an obligation to vote “YES”.

10. If you have been vocal, articulate, and clear about the issues as they relate to the ordinances, and they are unresolved at the time of the vote, you are obliged to vote “NO”.

Here is the thing. Voting “NO” without clear reasoning might suggest you have a hidden agenda, or you are not trusted to be unbiased. You may have an unstated conflict of interest, or you do not understand your role in the process. Maybe someone paid you off. Nobody can tell unless you have a good explanation. This is the Big Point of this article.

If the majority votes no, and the application is denied without adequate support, the decision would be in jeopardy. The town would be at risk of an expensive court challenge. You voted NO, but gave no reason. All along, the Board asked the applicant for concessions and to define their project, they complied, but in the end, you and the Board denied the application without reason. This not only makes the Board look like a Kangaroo Court, it also puts the town in a vulnerable position to lose an expensive and public lawsuit.

At its worst, a board can develop a culture of voting no without support. This is toxic. Chaotic, emotional meetings become the norm. With weak leadership and unproductive, sometimes embarrassing exchanges happen. Seeing this, decent, talented folks who could stop this are disinclined to fill vacancies. It is a death spiral.

When every member takes the personal responsibility to follow the same basic procedures to arrive at a defensible conclusion, meetings are short, legal fees disappear, and good neighbors stay that way.

So we are back to the Big Point. When you are at the barbecue, you can say what you want how you want to. But when the camera is rolling at a public meeting, with legal consequences to your decisions, you are obliged to tell an applicant what needs to be done to satisfy you. And you must back up your opinions.

--Paul Mattor, Planning Board Chair, Hollis, ME

Hollis is a small rural town, a bedroom community of 4,200, a half hour commute to Portland. We have a smattering of small businesses, also one of the largest bottling plants on the planet. We have lovely forests full of deer, ticks, pine trees, and coyotes. We have multigenerational family culture, traffic, new development pressure, and folks from away.  We argue, hug, complain, gossip, infight, and celebrate like everybody does. Many people just live here and drive to and from work. Many more care about our future, our neighbors, and our identity. I’ve lived here my whole life (well not yet!) and love my home town. -p


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