One reader wrote to ask me what are some of the frustrations of being a Planning Commissioner, and if you could change the city’s current land use planning and zoning practices, what would you do? Same question regarding the county’s land use planning and zoning policies.
Well, I may not get to the county today – one quick answer is to increase the size of the Board of Supervisors to help make the elections more competitive.
In the city, I’ll address the frustrations first, possible changes later. One frustration is a lack of real discussion of much of the rationale behind the text of the findings that staff are required to write justifying approval for any project. This text rarely gets debated and when I question it, there tends to be little serious discussion. Another is a kind of blind faith that what’s being presented is the truth and the whole truth. And I’ve learned the hard way that this is not always the case, but it’s damn hard to address this in a public hearing. Sometimes I think we should be swearing people in like they do when you testify in court. That might make some people think twice.
But what do you do with city staff who withhold information? I’m about to find out because I’m pursuing a specific case with evidence and have an appointment with the Public Integrity Unit of the City Attorney’s Office tomorrow. I intend to report back on this little accountability project and I’ll let you know.
Some of the lack of questioning and accountability is due to the culture of the decision makers themselves. Truly I believe some of them feel it’s part of their job to go along with what’s presented.
Some of it is just that it’s always uncomfortable to question people.
But I happen to think that this is part of the job.
One of the things I’ve learned from serving on the Planning Commission is that the only real power an honest decision maker has is the power of the question. Both what they ask and whether or not they actually get an answer tells you a lot about how they think, or don’t think. Do they have real questions or is it just a love fest?
Do they ask again if the first answer doesn’t make sense? Do they inquire about facts, or simply respond to personalities? Do they even consider that staff could be manipulating an outcome? Mostly I feel that decision makers do not wish to go there. It’s too uncomfortable and difficult to handle in a public hearing.
Another problem at the council level is the tolerance with which they accept receiving materials at the last minute, as well as abiding by discussions in closed session without asking specifically what was confidential and why it honestly merited discussion only behind closed doors. With the Planning Commission, we receive our materials on the Friday before a Thursday hearing, if we get a report late, we will continue it. Closed session is only used infrequently. This is a big cultural difference between us and the council.
Another of the consistent failings of decision makers is not just not asking key questions – it’s also shutting down those who try. I’ve been lectured from time to time by fellow Commissioners who think I talk too much – but not as often as has happened to Donna Frye on the City Council. The Kroll interviews reveal that Frye was consistently told by Murphy to take her questions “offline.” This dismissive approach was tacitly supported by the rest of the council who seemed to prefer not to do their business in public. Clearly sometimes it’s merely expedience – after all they have lots of other meetings to attend. But clearly it’s too often because they’ve made their minds up in advance due to who is involved and not based in the facts of what’s being presented.
For years I suggested to a number of council members that they change the rules about docketing to require that materials are delivered at least five business days in advance and not what we have now which allows staff to deliver items late Friday for a hearing Monday afternoon. All I ever got was sympathy and excuses about how difficult that would make it on the staff. Excuse me? I knew then that the council preferred being subservient. Now it’s clearer than ever that most folks weren’t really reading or absorbing a lot of what they read. Well you don’t really have to if you’re not making your decisions on the facts to begin with, or don’t believe it’s your job to question what staff is presenting.
I would like to see some indication that council members understand that the interests of the mayor and city staff are distinct from interests of the public. Sometimes they coincide, but their job is to understand and question when they do not.