Serving on a planning board can be a rewarding and sometimes frustrating experience. There's no doubt that these citizens contribute valuable time and insights to their communities. But given the contentious, often contradictory issues that regularly come before planning boards, many commissioners can't help but ask themselves whether the intangible rewards are worth the ever-present headaches.
Until 1991, there was no way for citizen planners to learn from each other's experiences and improve the quality of both their work and their meetings. That's when Wayne Senville launched a quarterly publication called Planning Commissioners Journal. Wayne, the former Planning Director for Vermont's Department of Housing and Community Affairs, got the idea from a newsletter he had published for his colleagues in the state. "The response to the newsletter was so good I felt that it could succeed nationally," he says.
Planning Commissioners Journal includes columns and features offering practical advice about issues such as population growth and land development, running effective meetings, resource conservation, media relations, addressing conflicts of interest, and working effectively with fellow board members and staff. Wayne's publication quickly became a valuable resource for citizen planners across the country. But after seven years, circulation for the Journal leveled off at 6,000 subscribers. Wayne had some ideas for a direct-mail campaign that would introduce his publication to new readers, but was unsure how to implement the ideas or whether they would work at all. With a limited budget available for the campaign, Wayne had to make every dollar count.
A colleague's suggestion led Wayne to contact the Champlain Valley Chapter of SCORE. There, he met with volunteer mentors Ted Hudson and Bob Coon to evaluate the Journal and brainstorm ideas. Ted and Bob encouraged Wayne to make sure all articles continually have the broadest possible appeal. "Basic planning issues are pretty common to most communities, but if the context is too narrow, you risk tuning out a large part of your readership," Wayne explains. "We want to ensure that our stories are relevant to people from California to New England."
Hudson and Coon also critiqued Wayne's plan for a direct-mail campaign and offered advice on the approach and design of the mailer. Sensing that the piece needed a less serious tone, Ted, an amateur cartoonist, contributed an illustration that complemented Wayne's advertising pitch. "I didn't realize that Ted was such a multi-talented person until I saw that cartoon," Senville says. "It really hit home with a lot of people. Since then, Ted has contributed a couple of other cartoons to the Journal."
Thanks to SCORE's help, the direct-mail campaign netted Wayne 100 new subscribers. Other suggestions such as content guidelines and a new Web site have further enhanced the value of the Journal value to citizen planners. But the newsletter's impact goes far beyond its readers. A better understanding of planning issues and improved organizational efficiency means better planning solutions for the nation's communities.
Wayne knows where to turn the next time he needs help with his business. "Ted and Bob gave me some great ideas, and I really appreciate their time and input," he says. "SCORE is a great service."