The Planner Defines His Job as Help to Us Decision-Makers
by Mary Breslauer Friday, July 9, 1976 Vineyard Gazette, Section A
Robert Komives is often in the public eye, but he's not always recognized. The position, executive director of the Martha's Vineyard Commission, places him more to stage left then center stage.
That is the way he likes it. He is a professional planner. There are many kinds around, but Mr. Komives works for a public agency. He is accountable for his work. That realization is neither frightening nor threatening to the 33-year-old midwesterner. He actually finds it exciting.
But of a man who is a part of a bureaucratic system – administrator for a legislated land use control body – community criticism can be sharp. In recent months some rough remarks have been addressed to the work of the commission staff and its director.
The hardest criticism for us is that we're creating cushy jobs for ourselves," he said this week in an interview with the Gazette. “If you're a true professional, that's not what you want; you want to be accountable. That's the only way you can enjoy your job. You've got to feel your agency is working for the public good, and when you're not getting the job done, you take off.
Bob Komives is an optimist and proud of it. Optimism led him and his wife Marney to two years in the Peace Corps in Guatemala during the Sixties. Work in that Central American country persuaded him to drop graduate studies in architecture and enter a new and untested field – the field of planning.
He left architecture, he says, for two reasons. “I decided I wasn't going to be a Frank Lloyd Wright, and I was frustrated over what I think has become a reality. Architects are very talented people, but they work on a small amount of the everyday environment. Planning gave me a greater chance to deal with broader issues. It is a field that deals with all kinds of physical and social growth.
The study of form and function has led Mr. Komives to another interest– clothing design. In the sometimes crowded public surroundings of the commission he is noticed for his collarless, Neru-Mao-like shirts. He works at the sewing machine, but has never mastered needle and thread. That is a future goal.
“I don't like clothing that doesn't function,” he said. “like pockets that don't open or buttons that don't button. It's an insult to our culture and our ability to use things.”
Hence, no ties: “A tie doesn't function much, and at the same time if you wear a shirt with a collar, it wants a tie. So I've tried to come up with a shirt that doesn't look like it needs a collar.”
The gray beard and tousled short hair make him look older than he is (at 30, one commission staff member asked him where he served during the second world war). A grandmother of his turned completely white-haired at an early age. It looks as if Mr. Komives will do the same.
An East Chop front porch interview was interrupted only once, momentarily by Kristin. Mr. Komives lowered himself to the child's ear and spoke softly in Spanish.
The girls were with Bob and Marney when they returned to Guatemala for a vacation this spring. There they tried to speak Spanish a little, but mostly they listen to their dad. Mr. Komives calls his Spanish another hobby. It began in Little Rock. Ark., where the Komives were living while the planner worked on a Model Cities program. Kristin was born there. Marney and Bob were just 10 months out of the Peace Corps.
I began to communicate with Kristin in Spanish from the day she came home from the hospital,” Mr. Komives said. “I've just continued to speak in Spanish to them all the time. Now Kristin gets angry sometimes when I speak to her in English.” An innocent game made the two comfortable in two languages. Mr. Komives says he was always ready to drop it if it interfered with their English.”
It sometimes appears he might be mismatched in his career. Planning is, after all, involved in politics. “The politics is a reality,” he says. “Planning has to be a political decision, and what the planner has to believe is that he can put out the right information and that the right decisions will then be made. The frustration is in never knowing if enough information was given out and, if you feel a wrong decision was made, continuing to have the faith that people will make the right decisions.”
A genuine belief in the system surfaces. “In planning, you've got to believe that in the long run reasonable people will make reasonable decisions and things will work out. You provide the people with all the decision making information you can, but they make the ultimate decision. You've got to be optimistic that the Island will make the right decision." '
Mr. Komives views as ironic the current professions of concern over staff control of the commission. “Commission members have wanted to be in charge, and it's been the staff's goal to make it very much that way. I think the commission believes, and I certainly believe, that they're running it and making the decisions."
Debate on this subject has become so heated and so intensely focused on the administrator and his staff that the Gazette asked if he has considered resignation from the post. The answer was no. "If I resign," he said, “I'd like to do it over a particular issue or reason. I don't: see any of the issues that have arisen, even if there is a lot of focus on the staff right now, that have conflicted with the advice or planning we have presented to the commission. So, no; I guess I haven't considered it and no one has asked me to consider it." Still, the commission has been having image trouble. ls there a blame, either on the staff or on the elected and appointed commissioners, for the element of distrust toward the regional body?
Mr. Komives accepts, along with the commission, the responsibility, but questions whether blame can be placed. “I think a lot of the present feeling about the commission relates to those things that were dictated by Chapter 637, like the moratorium that we couldn't do much about but had to accept responsibility for. None of us were directly involved with the creation of the legislation, but we're all involved in its administration."
Adequate public participation in planning, he says, is a continuing problem. "There is no question," he added, “that if people feel they've been part of the process and have been well considered, they are much more likely to accept the leadership of a public body.”
Advisory committees, often established and required when the commission accepts federal and state grant money, don't do the job. “Every grant we get sets up a public participation process, but the only one they always set up is the advisory committee representing the community. Well, it turns out that no one wants to come to an advisory committee meeting if they can't deal with specific issues."
To this area Mr. Komives hopes to devote more time in the coming months. “So much was happening for so long.” he said, "that an easy thing to worry about last was how an issue was presented. But we have more time now and less excuse for making mistakes, because we've been through it and our work load has solidified a bit and we should be able to structure things better."
There is no danger, he believes, of communities' facing unworkable or imposed planning. It is why Mr. Komives believes planning is where it should be in the hands of elected officials. “I am convinced that the elected officials have to make the decisions. because they are the ones who arc really responsible – they're the ones vino are elected and have to live with the decisions. "l don't think the planner has the power to produce a plan the community doesn't want. Even if it does get adopted, it can be ignored. Because if you create plans that people don't believe in, they just won't happen."
His belief in accountability makes Mr. Komives doubt that he or any other commission administrator should remain forever.
He said: If you're a professional running a small organization or working for one, you've got to expect that other people are going to have other ideas that could help the organization, and skills you have to offer can go stale – for that organization. Change can be good for the organization, and healthy for the individual too.