Uninformed votes

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Stephen M. Stevick,
Bedford Above Board
Former Planning Commissioner, District 5

    In a recently published Bedford Bulletin article, “Commission members explain stance on why they won’t attend program,” two newly appointed members of the Bedford County Planning Commission explained why they do not intend to take the Virginia Certified Planning Commissioners’ Program (VCPC), even though a provision in the Planning Commission’s bylaws requires them to do so.  Their reasoning is as puzzling as their willingness to serve.  
    The VCPC is the comprehensive training program offered by Virginia Tech to equip its trainees with the fundamentals of the duties of Planning Commissioners in the state of Virginia.  It provides a thorough education in the legal and practical powers and responsibilities of the Planning Commissioner.  
    According to the report, Mr. Tommy Scott, representing District 5, felt it was enough to read the material provided by the planning staff and to visit the site in question in order for him to make a decision. That is like saying anyone can be a judge because he or she doesn’t have to know the law, just hear the facts of the specific case.
    Mr. Scott either does not understand or does not care that counties throughout Virginia rely upon their Planning Commissions to provide the necessary specialized and impartial insight of citizens who have been educated in the complexities of planning and who are versed in the impact on taxes, infrastructure, public safety, education, and natural resources of decisions made. The accumulation of these decisions over time creates the character of a community.
If Mr. Scott’s decisions lack the support of training and education, one wonders what the basis of his decisions will be.
    According to the newspaper report, Mr. Jerry Craig, representing District 7 explains his reason for not participating in the VCPC program on his interpretation of the Planning Commission’s bylaws. He states that the bylaws lack provisions for enforcement and, therefore, have no meaning.  Because the bylaws “have no meaning” there is no reason to gain specialized education on matters that, incidentally, affect everyone citizen living in Bedford County.
     Failure to understand the principals of planning upon which the commissioner should base his or her decisions results in reducing an informed judgement into a merely personal opinion.  Recognizing that the community and the Board of Supervisors specifically rely on the Planning Commission to offer insights and recommendations grounded in a long term planning perspective and bolstered by a thorough understanding of the intricacies of community planning, the members of the Planning Commission have a duty to inform themselves of the full range of considerations in making their recommendations.  The training required to do so is considerable and includes ongoing training courses.  Ignoring the need for and value of this training seems to send a message to the community that being a Planning Commissioner may not be about public service.
     It should be noted that anyone willing to offer his or her time in public service, such as serving as a Planning Commissioner, should be commended. However, if the demands on time are so great as to leave no time to attend the VCPC, one should reconsider whether he or she can meet the other very considerable responsibilities of a member of the Planning Commission. 
     The time required to attend the VCPC and its supplemental training courses is just one of the many obligations of time required of a member of the Planning Commission. Those time consuming obligations also involve visiting sites and attending neighborhood hearings (which may involve having to explain the technical considerations of the issues at hand) that are the subject of discussion before the Commission, attending additional meetings of Planning Commission sub-committees and staff discussions/orientations, Board of Supervisor meetings and public hearings. 
     The responsibilities, time and attention required to perform the duties of a planning commissioner are considerable.  Not being able to devote the time to fully and actively perform these duties constitutes a disservice to the community, and more  specifically the districts the Planning Commissioners represent. It is also a disservice to fellow commissioners who do perform those duties and who rely on the knowledgeable input of their colleagues.  We all lose when the power of one uninformed vote carries the same weight as the informed vote.