Planning agencies vary greatly in size and purpose. What follows is typical but far from universal. As noted, the old idea of a planning agency's being outside and "above" politics has been almost universally abandoned. The modern planning agency is a part of the executive branch of the municipal government. Its head, like the commissioners of other departments, reports to the chief elected official or, if there is a manager form of government, to the city or town manager. Very commonly, the planning director or commissioner is a political appointee nominated by the chief elected official and confirmed by the legislative body, just as the head of a federal department is nominated by the president subject to confirmation by the Senate. The commissioner is often required to have specific qualifications such as a Master's degree in planning or membership in the American Institute of Certified Planners (a certification based on education, experience, and passing an examination). As an appointed official, the commissioner or director can be dismissed at the will of the chief elected official. In that sense, as in many other ways, the ultimate power to plan is vested in elected officials, and, therefore, in the body politic of the community.

Beneath the commissioner is a staff who often have civil service status. In this case a position such as assistant planner, associate planner, planner, and so forth has defined requirements such as degrees and education. The newly hired individual typically goes through a provisional period of six months or a year and, if judged satisfactory, then receives a permanent appointment. Because of the difference between a political and a civil service appointment, the staff often have a great deal more permanency than the commissioner has.

In addition to reporting to the chief elected official, the head of the planning agency may also report to a lay planning board, typically made up of citizens who have been nominated by the chief executive officer and confirmed by the legislative body. Its members serve with no or, at most, token pay. The purpose of the board is to provide some citizen input to and oversight of the planning agency. Such boards vary greatly. Some are merely rubber stamps; others may be very active and forceful. Some boards see their role as essentially supervisory whereas others may use their own status within the municipality to advance the program of the planning agency. A board whose members are articulate and energetic can make a major contribution to building public support for planning.

The planning agency may also report directly to the community's legislative body. Often, the municipality's charter or bylaws will specify subjects on which the agency will report. For example, the charter might specify that the agency will deliver an annual report evaluating the various items proposed in the municipality's capital budget.

If the agency is of moderate or larger size, there are likely to be several sections that handle different aspects of the planning task. For example, there may be a group that handles comprehensive or long-range planning. There may be another group that handles land-use control issues and performs such functions as zoning and subdivision reviews (see Chapter 9). Still another group may review matters related to the capital budget such as investment in water and sewer facilities, roads, municipal facilities, and the like. In some agencies there will be a research section that makes population forecasts and revenue estimates and, generally, tries to provide a solid quantitative and factual basis for the actions of the rest of the agency. Other sections might deal with environmental or transportation issues. In the 1970s, when community development funds began to flow from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, many planning agencies set up sections to handle the disbursement of these funds. For example, a county agency may have had a community development section that reviewed the plans of and funded the community development activities of subcounty units of government or private groups. From time to time, other planning-related functions of government may be lodged in planning agencies. For example, economic development organizations have been lodged in many planning agencies.

Combined departments are common. Many planning agencies have been merged with community development departments. Which agency is the dog and which agency is the tail depends upon the priorities of the municipality. Another arrangement is the combined Planning and Public Works Department. The argument for the merger is that both deal with different elements of the same process, namely land development. The head of one such combined agency told the author that such an arrangement enlarges the perspective of all parties. The planners become more aware of the engineering and cost realities. The engineers become more aware of the larger picture and begin to think about what to do as well as how to do it.

In small municipalities there may be only one or two planners, who function as jacks-of-all-trades without the specialization of labor just described. In fact, in many municipalities there is no full-time planner. Rather, there is a planning board of lay members, and the technical work of planning is performed either by consultants or sometimes by personnel of a higher-level planning agency. For example, a county or multicounty agency may provide technical support to towns within its area.

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