At a special meeting on May 30th the Calvert County Planning Commission received the second draft of the Calvert County Comprehensive Plan. The 196-page draft had been published only five days earlier. Few if any of the Planning Commission members could have had time to read, let alone evaluate, the new draft. Nevertheless, staff repeatedly pushed the Planning Commission to designate the draft as the Planning Commission’s “Recommended Plan” and move it forward to public hearing. Many of us in the audience were puzzled by staff’s efforts. It isn’t normally their role to tell the Planning Commission how and when to take action. It is the Planning Commission’s role to take however long it thinks it needs to do the job it’s supposed to do, which is to prepare the Comprehensive Plan.
The lead article in the June 1st Calvert Recorder entitled "Plan Update Returns to Public" solved the puzzle. Commissioner Evan Slaughenhoupt is quoted in the article as saying “We’re just trying to hold staff to the schedule.” He went on to say that the comprehensive plan is to be concluded by June of this year. “If we lay out a plan, we need to stick to it,” he added. Now we know for sure. Staff went into that meeting with the Planning Commission with marching orders from the Board of County Commissioners.
To its credit, the Planning Commission balked, noting that neither citizens nor Planning Commission members have even had time to review the second draft. To applause from the audience, the Planning Commission voted unanimously to hold three public meetings to take comments from the public before taking further action on the plan.
It finally felt like a good day for good government but that may not be the case. The first public meeting has already been scheduled for this Monday, June 11th , less than two weeks after the Planning Commission’s meeting. Also, citizens who are signed up to receive alerts were just notified at 9 a.m. this morning (Friday).
A second issue is the format of the meetings. Staff is holidng “open houses” which means all you can do as a citizen is to walk from one “information station” to another and ask questions of staff. You can’t hear what other citizens have to say and citizens can’t hear staff’s answers, you can’t do anything but try to take in the information presented to you on a board while others are crowding around trying to do the same thing. You can submit comments and if they get to staff within two days, they will be passed along to the Planning Commission.
There are many other meeting formats that could be used which would be more effective.
“Open houses are a good format for people to get information and chat informally. They are generally a comfortable setting for people who are afraid to speak in a public setting. They are a terrible way for people to hear a diversity of opinions and to try to understand the needs and thoughts of others. Thus they are poor for increasing understanding, managing conflict, or collaboration.”
“An open house may not be appropriate when there is an intense need for group discussion or when project staff, leaders, or decision makers are unwilling to interact directly with the public. While you can collect written comments at an open house, do not mislead attendees to think that it's a vote to determine the final decision.”
There’s much more at stake here than the Comprehensive Plan, as vitally important as that document is to the future of this county. At stake is the very process by which decisions are made in this county and by whom.
 Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources “Citizen Participation Handbook”