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A Pragmatist's Take

By Douglas Moran

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About this blog: As a teenager (in the 1960s), I stumbled across the insight that real power doesn't reside with those who make the final decision, but with those who decide what qualifies as the viable choices. As a grad student, I belonged to an...  (More)

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Why the City doesn't hear residents' perspectives? It doesn't want to (part 2 of 3)

Uploaded: Dec 4, 2013
Residents complain that they and their viewpoints were not treated fairly after far too many of the Council and Commission hearings that I have participated in over the years. The details of their complaints confirm that the problem is one of fairness, not that the vote went against them. And to be fair, there have been a number of Planning and Transportation Commission meetings over the years where residents came away impressed by how well they were treated.

This blog entry is intended to serve as a foundation for comments from people who have actual experience trying to participate as members of the public--for them to comment on that experience and/or to make suggestions. Part 1 (Web link) addressed the problems of public participation over a sequence of meetings. Part 2 (here) addresses the problems of participating effectively at a single meeting. Part 3 will address some promising, albeit understated, reactions of several of the Commissioners to a bad Staff report.
This split is both for length and to allow more focus in the comments by segregating them to the different aspects (hint, hint, hint).

The meeting that occasioned this essay was the November 13 Planning and Transportation Commission hearing on what should have been a mundane issue—the Matadero-Margarita Bicycle Boulevard—but it could just have well be a host of very similar meetings that I and many others have been involved in.

---- Terms of this discussion ----
The problem is an institutional one, a combination of a long-established culture, practices and procedures. Mentions of individuals is to be only to make examples more concrete. Various individuals--on Staff, the Council and various Commissions--have expressed their awareness and serious concern about some of this in private, but their public behavior reveals little of this.

Mentions of the Bike Boulevard proposal here are to be limited to providing concrete examples of the stated topic. For anyone who wants to hear the discussion, the webcast is archived.(f1) For discussion of the specifics of Bike Boulevard, please see the news article and use the on-going Town Square Forum discussion: "Commissioners kick back bike-boulevard plan: Matadero-Margarita proposal lacks bicycle-traffic data, Planning and Transportation Commissioners say" in PA Weekly November 14/15 (online/hardcopy) (Web link).
---- end Terms ... ----

I became involved in trying to improve bike safety on this route starting in 1998, pursuing it both as an individual resident on Matadero Avenue and as a representative of the Barron Park (Neighborhood) Association (Traffic Committee Chair, Vice President, President, Board member). It was fairly easy to get it recognized as a top priority in the various Bike Plans, but as is common with the City government, being a top priority doesn't mean anything will actually get done: This project sat for the full duration of the previous Bike Plan as the #3 priority. And not because it was expensive: The estimates were $50-100K (speed humps and some signage).

Yet with it finally looking like something might actually happen, I deliberately chose not to attend the meeting. From long experience, I knew it would have been simply a waste of time: travel time there and back and then waiting for the agenda item to come up (20-60 minutes, sometimes more). Just in order to give a 2-3 minute statement that would be largely ignored because the Commissioners already had their own set of questions and typically don't get around to those raised by residents because of time constraints. I could just as easily be ignored by sending an email (Web link), which I did. I didn't see evidence of those significant questions being any part of the Commission's discussion. (although one Commissioner subsequently replied that it had helped him). But remember that future public participation is heavily influenced by their perception of whether they will be listened to.

The current system of testimony at hearing is adequate for some categories of public input. It's fine if you want to register your support or opposition to a proposal, and highlight your primary reasons. Especially if those aspects are covered in the Staff report. And even more so if what you are saying reinforces or augments what a Council or Commission member was already thinking about. And that in turn suggests what the current system is poorly structured to handle.

The public's first disadvantage comes in trying to prepare what to say. You have 3 minutes--more often only 2--to make your points. While you should have read the Staff report, you will have no idea which of those aspects Staff will cover in the introduction, nor what else will be included. You will no idea of how well the Council or Commission members understood the Staff report, especially their misunderstandings and points that didn't register. You can easily waste your time addressing points that are unimportant to them, or that are important but non-controversial. Similarly, it can be very difficult to prepare for what other members of the public will say.

My experience helping neighbors who were new to the system create a 2-3 minute statement was that it would take an hour or more of my time, helping them understand what was important to say and what was irrelevant, and what terminology and phrasing to use to help their points be more memorable. But many people wanting to testify don't get such assistance.

The public's second disadvantage arises from the very nature of the public comment format: Multiple speakers making short statements in an arbitrary order produces a disorganized presentation, that in turn makes it harder for the officials to remember that information. The City has partially remedied that by allowing a group of people to designate one person to speak for them and have more time, although not the cumulative total time for those individuals. Given the efficiency of this arrangement, this "discount" is reasonable relative to other speakers from the public. However, favored interest groups get extended speaking times without a similar penalty.

The cumulative weight of the disadvantages for the public doesn't seem to register with officials--because they don't experience it. They start with better information, and priority access to answers to their questions before meetings. They talk later in the process, they get to talk longer, and they get to respond and make follow-up statements.

A formal period for testimony is supposed to give all stakeholders similar opportunity to have their viewpoints heard. Except that it is a charade--extensive testimony is given after that in response to questions from officials. This post-testimony testimony gives the favored interest groups a chance to reiterate their points, respond to arguments made by others, and make new claims that the public won't be given an opportunity to rebut. It is not uncommon for the public to leave fuming, both because they felt they had not been fairly heard and because they felt that the playing field was so tilted that it was a waste of time. They are particularly incensed by the many deceptive practices that occur during the after-testimony period.

The most favored of the favored interest groups is Staff (f2), but developers, formal advocacy groups and the like are routinely prompted for "answers", and that additional testimony often dominates the deliberations. Even when a member of the public has demonstrated that they have the expertise needed to answer a question, rather than ask that person, Council and Commission members prefer to get a wrong answer or no answer or engage in uninformed speculation.

----
The Matadero Bike Boulevard proposal provided a good illustration of how a biased Staff report puts the public at a disadvantage. Residents of the street and those using it saw the issue as one of improving safety, and having it designated an official bicycle boulevard was a bureaucratic prerequisite for getting those safety improvements.(f3) However, for Staff, the priority was increasing the City's network of bike ways, with safety improvements as a side-effect. You can see this in the Staff report (Web link)(f4) where four lines are dedicated to custom signage such as specially colored street signs (pg 4) and only two lines are dedicated to safety (pg 2): "Residents expressed interest in traffic calming measures, predominantly speed humps, to help reduce vehicle speeds to benefit both bicyclists and pedestrians." Note how this reads--as not being endorsed by Staff, but merely a concession to residents.

The biases and omissions in the Staff report determined the course of the Commission's deliberations. The issue of providing better safety for the existing bike traffic got no traction, and the substantial issue of better safety for pedestrians was total ignored. Instead the deliberations treated the Staff proposal as whether to try to attract bicyclists to a street with safety problems. This misconception could not be undone by the oral testimony by both Staff and the public. This is completely understandable and predictable by those with experience and/or training in the dynamics of meetings.

In trying to decide what comments to give to the Commission, I faced a dilemma. I could explain the misconceptions created by the report, or I could explain what I thought the real focus could be, or I could explain what I thought were the deficiencies in the proposed actions. To be effective, I needed to do all three, but the time limit constrained me to addressing only one, and would require careful preparation of the comments to even be partially effect. Unable to resolve the dilemma, I decided the best course was to not waste my time testifying.

----Footnotes----

1. To see for yourself parts or all of this item of the PTC meeting (not that I recommend it), see the archived Webcast (Web link) with this agenda item starting at minute 55 and lasting almost 100 minutes. Public comments (6) begin at 1:14:45. The Commissioners comments begin at 1:31.

2. Staff as advocacy group: In "Residents, developers clash over city's vision:..." (Palo Alto Weekly 2013-July-19) (Web link) City Manager James Keene is reported to have acknowledged this: "The findings in the staff reports tend to support the particular staff recommendation rather than represent all views, he said." (also cited the accompanying editorial "In city that loves to plan, Palo Alto's creates cynicism" (Web link)).

3. Bureaucratic prerequisite: Matadero has long been an East-West/across-El-Camino connector for bicyclists. In 2002, a long overdue resurfacing of the street was a mixed blessing: The smoother surface was safer for bikes, but the speeding problem became noticeably worse (numerous and substantial potholes had implemented speed control of a sort). Led by me, the residents of the street overwhelmingly petitioned for "traffic calming" (speed control). When the City rejected the application, residents argued that the policy had been created without taking into account exceptional situations like Matadero. Matadero is a very narrow street: Two 10-foot wide lanes (the legal minimum) plus gutters but no sidewalks. As such it is narrower than most residential streets in Palo Alto. However, it is official classified as a "Collector Street"--because the neighborhood was developed in small increments, no collector streets were actually built, so several of the residential streets were pressed into service as such. Real collector streets are typically at least double the width of Matadero. However, the City decided to decide based upon this (ill-considered) artificial classification rather than the actually attributes of the street. That is, it was more important to protect the rules than to protect people. Or, more bluntly, the sanctity of rules trumps the sanctity of life.

Matadero would have qualified for safety improvements if it were treated as a residential-category street. However, as a collector-category street, the only way for it to qualify was to become officially classified as a bike boulevard, and that has taken a decade and counting.

4. Staff report (Web link) and presentation and 2 emailed comments (Web link).

----
The Guidelines (Web link) for comments on this blog are different from those on Town Square Forums. I am attempting to foster more civility and substantive comments by deleting violations of the guidelines.

Comments

 +  Like this comment
Posted by kludged, a resident of Barron Park,
on Dec 4, 2013 at 1:56 pm

kludged is a registered user.

Doug, Excellent comments, I think you explained a glaring hole in the feedback loop for city council. As a resident of Barron Park, I remember trying to advocate to limit CPI's Chemical Plating Plant 20 feet from Barron Park. We were all forced to make out points in 2-3 minutes and our issues have never been solved. This format allows the council to postpone resolutions indefinitely. Not on the agenda? Get in line with the 5 galdflys who are always complaining about something....

How about a petition system where 100-200 concerned residents can get a hearing on a particular topic, like PC Zoning, Private School Use permits, and say whether CPI should be the only EPA registered hazmat facility in Palo Alto, especially when it is 20 feet from a residential neighborhood.



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