In general, planning commissioners are appointed by each jurisdiction’s governing body, such as the board of supervisors or the city/town council, usually with some sort of recruitment or qualifications process overseen by county, city or town staff. Positions on the planning commission can be very desirable and competitive in some jurisdictions, while other jurisdictions may have a hard time recruiting qualified individuals to serve.
The rules and regulations regarding recruiting and selecting planning commissioners vary widely among California’s communities. You’ll need to consult with your local jurisdiction to get the details on how planning commissioners are selected and appointed.
Every jurisdiction has a written set of detailed rules and regulations that addresses the items mentioned below, which are typically found on the jurisdiction’s website. They should also be available from the county, city or town clerk.
California’s “Maddy Act” (Government Code 54972) requires every jurisdiction to annually prepare and post a list of commission appointments for all regular and ongoing boards, commissions and committees, which are appointed by the jurisdiction’s board of supervisors or city council. The list must specify all appointive terms which will expire during the next calendar year, with the name of the incumbent appointee, the date of appointment, the date the term expires and the necessary qualifications for the position. The list also must specify all boards, commissions and committees whose members serve at the pleasure of the board of supervisors or council. Consulting this list, which is available from the county, city or town clerk and is often posted online, can give a clear sense of when and how appointments will be made to the local planning commission.
Planning commissioners for a given city or county must generally live within the jurisdiction, although there are a few jurisdictions that allow commissioners to live outside their boundaries, particularly if they are business owners. In some jurisdictions with supervisorial or council district boundaries, commissioners must live within the district they represent, but this is not always the case.
Commissioners may be appointed in any number of ways. In some jurisdictions, commissioners are appointed by a vote of the entire board of supervisors or city/town council. In other jurisdictions, a single individual (generally the mayor or chair of the board of supervisors) appoints all commissioners. A third common model is that each individual supervisor or council member appoints one or more commissioners. Hybrids of these three models are also common.
Commissioners generally serve for set term, which is often three to four years. In some jurisdictions, commissioners can be removed at any time (even before their terms expire) by the supervisor or council member who appointed them. In other jurisdictions, commissioners’ seats are “safe” for the entire term once they are appointed. Some communities have commission terms that match the terms of elected officials, so that there is essentially a new planning commissioner whenever there is a new council member or supervisor. In other communities, there is no correlation between the timing of commission appointments and the elections for supervisors or council members.
In communities where commission appointments are highly sought after or political, the actual appointment process may be relatively informal, with elected officials identifying their preferred candidates on their own, and then either making appointments directly or making nominations to the full legislative body. More commonly, the city, town or county will have more formal application and review process. Such processes will generally include an application period during which interested candidates may obtain and fill out an application form, which is submitted to jurisdiction staff, who then reviews, sorts and sometimes ranks the applications on behalf of the legislative body. These applications are then reviewed by elected officials, either by an individual (such as the mayor or chair of the board of supervisors), by a committee or subcommittee or by the body as a whole. This process culminates in the nomination of either individual applicants or a slate of applicants, which is acted on by the appointing individual or legislative body in an open session.
Serving as a planning commissioner is a volunteer role in most jurisdictions, with small stipends paid in some cases. Stipends may range from $25 per meeting to $200 per meeting. Stipends are generally low enough that a commissioner cannot garner a living wage from commission work. Many communities pay no compensation at all for planning commission service.
To gather more information about how to become a Planning Commissioner in your community, speak to your community’s planning staff, to existing commissioners or to elected officials, and try attending a few planning commission meetings to see if this is a right fit for you.