SmartComment Spent a Weekend with California County Planners. Here’s What We Learned.

Thomas Mullen
October 30, 2015

As SmartComment continues to talk and work with a wider group of clients — from transportation project teams to environmental agencies to local governments — we are repeatedly impressed by the public entities we see embracing new ways of doing things. For example, the agency leader who makes sure that data from a public comment period remains accessible and digitally preserved instead of scattering into file cabinets and manila folders. Or the public outreach official, tasked with setting up a public hearing, who uses laptops and a website to provide electronic comments alongside the usual stack of comment cards.

This past weekend, SmartComment had the opportunity to meet with a forward-thinking and all-around awesome group of civic leaders when we hit the road to Mono County, California, for the 85th Annual Conference of the California County Planning Commissioners Association. We sat in on classroom sessions (inside a cabin next to the stunningly beautiful June Lake). We toured some of the most daunting and impressive public-approved projects in the region. And along the way, we got to see how the circumstances facing some of the best civic planning talent in the region affects their ability to innovate as they plan and execute the next generation of infrastructure projects.

Here are five things we learned:

One Issue Can Swamp Everything

A typical city or county planning department is built to size — big enough to meet expected needs, but small enough so as not to overburden its share of the local tax revenue. But every once in a while, an issue comes along that is so overwhelming or controversial that it upsets this built-in proportionality. One county planner spoke of an EPA order protecting a local species of wildlife – and requiring a massive planning and response effort on behalf of her county’s tiny planning staff. Another planner detailed how a seemingly simple idea to revitalize and safety-proof his town’s main street area turned out to be much more complicated once public opinion had to be courted and state agencies inevitably became involved. In both cases, the planners spoke of their need to remain flexible and find ways to ease the massive amount of administrative work that came with these unexpected issues – from managing a bigger-than-usual public comment period to simple record-keeping. And while small towns are the most obvious potential victims of a regulatory tsunami, even larger cities aren’t immune from having their bandwidth tested by a federal mandate or controversial proposal. In both cases, however, the remedy is often the same: technology.

Technology As Equalizer

When planners in Mono County were asked to name the most significant civic issues their area has faced over the past century, the conversation was naturally dominated by issues surrounding the 400-mile L.A. aqueduct, which has been famously hydrating the city of Los Angeles for over 100 years via the headwaters of nearby Mono Lake. And while this outflow has long been seen as the region’s legacy, it’s the stream of another valuable resource – this time into the region rather than out — that local officials are quick to identify as the key to its future. The Digital 395 Project – a 583-mile fiber-optic network completed in 2014 – provides much-needed broadband service to 36 previously unserved communities in the area, as well as six Indian reservations and two military bases. It is nothing short of a launching pad for the region’s next chapter of economic growth, making the area a viable candidate for a number of companies and business initiatives, said Nate Greenberg, of Mono County information services. He said the network’s promise has already been fulfilled by Tesla Motors’ $5 billion factory, currently under construction outside of nearby Reno, Nevada, and that the road has been paved for other significant economic investments in the region. As Greenberg and other speakers made clear throughout the visit, the future belongs to localities that leverage new technology to maximize efficiency and set an innovative tone for prospective economic projects.

Local Governments Must Protect Themselves

With the public increasingly engaged on civic matters via Twitter and other online forums, local governments are under increasing scrutiny to ensure transparency throughout their planning process and engage citizens on their own terms – from intensive public engagement at the project concept stage to ensuring equal access and unassailable best practices during a public comment period. The ability to navigate these waters is key to a successful proposal, said Crowdbrite’s Darin Dinsmore, one of several conference speakers to focus on the precarious process of getting a project from initial exploration to the final stages. And with legal challenges to a project constantly lurking – especially for ones going through the environmental impact statement process — localities can’t afford to give potential claimants a foothold via a flawed or incomplete public outreach effort. Attorney James Reed told the CCPCA conference about his experiences with “greenmail” where parties use environmental law as a ramrod to pursue non-environmental interests, including one project he worked on where a union threatened to drop its lawsuit against a proposed project only if its members were hired to work on it. Reed said that project was able to survive without acquiescing to the demands only because it underwent a flawless environmental process, but that other projects aren’t so well covered.

Planners Wear Every Hat

You know the employee in your office who always knows how to put out the big fires? Well, that person is everybody in a local planning office because, well, sometimes there are actual fires to put out. Or a labor strike. Or a problem with that street redesign proposal. Or a windstorm. Or dry water wells. We at SmartComment had numerous conversations with conference attendees who repeatedly stressed the importance of adaptability and organization in their planning offices, which can’t afford to be weighed down by paperwork and unnecessary manual processes. Because when the office staff has to collectively drop what they’re doing and slide down the fire pole together, everyone needs to be assured that their information is intact and in a safe place – from ongoing individual projects to public comment files and beyond.

Cities Are Ready to Innovate

Among the many takeaways we had from a weekend spent with some of California’s brightest urban and rural planners is the idea that they need – and are eager — to keep pace with the speed and innovation of the businesses and citizens they serve. After all, they are executing the big ideas, responding to emergencies and literally shaping the future for both themselves and their neighbors. Such a heavy responsibility demands that they have the latest tools to navigate in an ever-changing technological environment. The successful planners won’t just have their eye on the bottom line, but on a future that is going to demand more for less and constantly force them to devise new ways of operating. As one attendee said, maintaining outdated processes simply because “it’s the way it’s always been done” is no longer a viable excuse.

We couldn’t agree more.