Is 'Hacking' a Planning Commission a Good Idea?

Does giving short shrift to grassroots tradition cut against the dynamics of community-based decision-making?

1 minute read

May 20, 2024, 7:00 AM PDT

By Charles R. Wolfe @crwolfelaw


A city council meeting.

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Chuck Wolfe provides perspective on how Mercer Island, Washington—a small, leafy city between Seattle and Bellevue—recently reconstituted the city's Planning Commission in a way that arguably contradicts the dynamics of community-based decision-making, reducing local membership and substituting paid professionals who reside outside the city.

The change also raised concerns among some council members and residents about the implications of replacing residents with non-residents and paid practitioners to make community decisions. A petition, testimony, and letters in opposition stressed the unprecedented approach in the Puget Sound region.

In addition, Wolfe notes that planning commissions have a storied place in American history. Their hallmark was their grassroots composition—an early form of co-creation, a bridge between government and citizenry.

He outlined three concerns:

Will the involvement of non-resident practitioners lead to decisions that do not represent the community?

Will the council’s action weaken residents’ sense of ownership and civic responsibility for community planning?

Similarly, will the commission become disconnected from the local community and its contextual needs, compromising effectiveness and inclusivity?

He concludes that the city must remain mindful of retaining long-term resident wisdom and maximizing civic engagement:

While these forms of participation are often mandated by state law and local code, they need to be more than lip service and more like co-creation.

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