Planning commissioners clash over private meetings
Split commission calls for revisions to policy that discourages meetings between commissioners and applicants
A Palo Alto policy that discourages planning commissioners from meeting privately with developers whose projects are under review could be on its way out, despite complaints from neighborhood leaders that the change would deal a major blow to transparency.
For the second time in two years, the Planning and Transportation Commission is considering scrapping the policy, which states that "direct conversations or correspondence with an applicant, and applicant's agency or other interested party about a pending application outside of a public meeting are strongly discouraged." On Wednesday night, a split commission directed staff to draft revisions to this policy.
A year ago, a similar proposal fizzled by a 3-4 vote, with commissioners Arthur Keller, Karen Holman, Susan Fineberg and Eduardo Martinez dissenting. Since then, Holman has joined the City Council and Greg Tanaka replaced her on the commission. On Wednesday, Chair Samir Tuma joined the proposal's three authors — Vice Chair Lee Lippert and commissioners Dan Garber and Tanaka — in directing staff to draft revisions. This year, Keller also voted in favor.
In their proposal, the three commissioners noted that the City Council doesn't have a policy discouraging outside communications with project applicants. This creates a loophole that allows the applicants to appeal directly to the council and ignore the commission's recommendations.
"This conflict has encouraged application process 'short circuits' in the past which has, at times, limited the utility of the Planning and Transportation Commission's work," the memo stated. "Applicants appear to have used this loop hole to gauge their need to heed or ignore the direction and action of the Planning and Transportation Commission regarding their application."
Garber pointed to the example of Alma Plaza, John McNellis' mixed-use development that gained the city's approval last year after years of intense negotiations and neighborhood criticism. Garber said the sense in the community is that the developer basically ignored the commission's recommendations because he knew he could speak directly to council members, who had the final say on the project.
Tanaka said the present rules, by discouraging commissioners from visiting sites or talking to applicants, force the officials to act on incomplete information. The proposed policy would enable commissioners to get more information and, in doing so, actually promote transparency, Tanaka said.
"We're looking at these projects through a very thin straw, and it doesn't do the project or the public justice," Tanaka said.
The memo proposes to add a series of other rules, including ones "strongly encouraging" commissioners to receive training on appropriate communications, to disclose any meetings that had taken place and to publicize any written materials connected with the meetings. It would apply to "planned -community (PC) zone" projects such as Alma Plaza and quasi-judicial hearings.
"We are recognized throughout the bay as one of the most difficult cities to get work done (in)," Garber said, citing a recent case in which a resident spent a reported $500,000 over three years to get the city's approval to demolish and replace a home in the Professorville neighborhood.
"There's nothing to be lost by engaging," he added. "Cloistering ourselves from the community doesn't help us — it's not what Palo Alto is about."
Keller argued vehemently against the memo, but ultimately joined the majority after the authors agreed to add new policies guiding disclosure of information gleaned at the private meetings. He said he reserves the right to vote against the memo if these rules aren't stringent enough.
Fineberg and Martinez both argued that the change would create new problems rather than solve existing ones. Fineberg said the commission is now respected for its impartiality and integrity and argued that the proposed change would undermine this reputation.
"Anything that we have that allows us to act with impartiality, with a firmness, with compliance and with the difficult issues that are caused by human nature, I think, keeps us in a better place," Fineberg said.
Martinez said the change would add a new problem in the public's "perception of us as a city."
College Terrace resident Fred Balin, land-use watchdog Tom Jordan and Palo Alto Neighborhoods President Sherri Furman also lobbied the commission Wednesday to hold off on making changes. They noted that the council's Policy and Services Committee is now revising the council's own procedures. The changes would prohibit the council from talking to applicants until the planning commission and the Architectural Review Board have completed their deliberations.
Furman said one of her group's priorities is transparency and openness and urged the commission to continue discouraging private meetings with applicants.
Balin and Jordan asked the commission to hold off on any changes until after the council makes its revisions. Jordan described the commission's consideration of the colleagues' memo as "two ships passing in the night."
"It doesn't give the citizens of the city a great deal of confidence to have a majority changing the rule one way while the council is changing it the other way," Jordan said.
Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.