Replacing the defunct Planning and Transportation Commission: Part 1: Cronyism and Corruption | A Pragmatist's Take | Douglas Moran | Palo Alto Online |

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By Douglas Moran

Replacing the defunct Planning and Transportation Commission: Part 1: Cronyism and Corruption

Uploaded: Aug 18, 2015

In a move that was long in coming, but that still managed to surprise, the members of the Planning and Transportation Commission (PTC) abandoned the pretense and reconstituted themselves as a lobbying group for developers. Only half-joking.(foot#1)

When it was functioning, the PTC played an immensely valuable role in formulating City policy, and this is a void that needs to be filled soon. This presents a stellar opportunity to learn from the past, and, in creating the replacement, establish precedents and other expectations for what this body should be. As you should detect from the title, this is intended to be the first of a multi-part discussion (I haven't fully mapped out the subsequent topics).


The PTC is routinely described as the second-most powerful body at City Hall, after the City Council (I would bump both down at least one notch, putting the City Manager first). Its members are residents of Palo Alto appointed by City Council (details outside the discussion here). Its job is to oversee the development of policy on development, transportation and related area and to review specific projects in those areas, and to ensure that issues are ready for Council to make a decision before they are put on Council's agenda (official description).

With a smaller purview, the PTC members are expected to have more expertise on these items and to spend more time on consideration. Major issues routinely come before the PTC for review in increments and at stages. Through these hearings, the PTC is supposed to ensure that the questions have been properly addressed and that the argumentation both for and against the proposal is well represented in the written record before it goes to Council.

One of the most important roles of the PTC is to ensure that the interests, perspectives and opinions of residents are well represented in this process. The ordinary resident enters the process at an extreme disadvantage to the special interests. It is not just a problem of not knowing the terminology and other jargon, the history ? They routinely receive belated notification, having to read, evaluate and respond to a complex proposal on a tight deadline, whereas the special interests have often been involved from the very beginning. And the notifications they do receive often obscure what is and isn't on the agenda for discussion and decision. The ideal is that PTC members, being residents themselves, would be able to empathize with the situation of the citizens and to be better able to bridge the gap between them and the "professionals" (City Staff, developers, architects, lobbyists and other advocacy groups?).

Background: Corruption

The word "corruption" is in the title because I know it will be an unavoidable part of the discussion here, so I want to provide some background and ground rules. In Western Culture, there is a 23-century consensus about the term "public corruption", typically credited as beginning with Aristotle (384-322 BCE) and his "Politics" (8 volumes).(foot#2)(foot#3)
Note: Very limited discussion of traditions in other cultures are acceptable comments if they are intended to be interesting to a broader audience. However, remember that the US political and legal system evolved in Western Culture.

However, in 2010, "The Supremes, a John Roberts Production, today featuring Ruth Bader Ginsberg" found rationalizations to declare the traditional understanding of "honest services" to be "unconstitutionally vague", and limiting "corruption" to clearly identifiable bribes and kickbacks (how is that for throwing out precedent). There still is no question that public corruption has occurred if a politician and the other party chant in unison "This is a bribe. This is a bribe. This is a bribe." while the money is changing hands. However, go much beyond that and things get murky.
NOTE: Although it will be hard to resist, further discussion of "The Supremes", their decisions, cover bands ? are off-topic here.

Consequently, if the unadorned term "corruption" is use here (main post and comments), it refers to the traditional, everyday meaning. If you want to refer to the 2010 Supremes' version, you need to refer to it by a term such as "Supremes' corruption". If you don't like typing the capitalization and the apostrophe, "legal corruption" is an acceptable alias.

----Cronyism - The main topic----

When I became involved in Palo Alto politics, I was surprised at how pervasive the cronyism was, and how unembarrassed the ruling class was about it.(foot#4) This was not the mild version of cronyism where the qualified insiders receive some favoritism over better qualified outsiders. For the PTC, this routinely meant that unqualified applicants were selected over highly qualified ones. I remember sitting through PTC hearings that were were rendered ineffective because the new appointee didn't understand basic terminology and concepts. If we were lucky, he would ask Staff to explain, and re-explain, to him; if not, he voted based on fundamental misunderstandings. As a Palo Alto resident, the appointee was typically smart enough and a good-enough learner to get largely up-to-speed in "only" 6-9 months.

But there also were people appointed that were not intellectually up to the job. As a neighborhood leader (Barron Park), I would help groups of residents that were making presentations to the PTC. While waiting for their agenda item to come up, they would listen to the other debates, and it was interesting how they would refer to the various commissioners?they would rarely remember names, but would use descriptions?some positive, some negative. There was one commissioner that was routinely labeled "The Stupid One" because of the inability to understand concepts that the residents found obvious despite this being their first exposure to the issue. Aside: That former commissioner continues to be appointed to important City panels.

Just how unqualified were these cronies? Some had never even attended, or watched, a single meeting of the PTC before applying.(foot#5) After I and others started pointing this out, the advice went out to attend one meeting before formally submitting the application. And who got passed over? People with years of working on the issues, providing them not only knowledge of the issues themselves, but the perspectives and concerns of the various stakeholders. However, if someone has had this sort of meaningful participation, they will have taken positions and made presentations, which means they can be dismissed as "Too controversial" or "Too opinionated".

Even if cronyism didn't produce inferior appointees, the group (tribal?) loyalties inhibit necessary debate. Insiders aren't allowed to ask the "inconvenient" questions, and outsiders aren't present.(foot#6) The 2013 Referendum on the Maybell Upzoning demonstrated the dangerous interplay: The cronyism had produced a set of insiders that didn't even know that they were not asking the "inconvenient" questions. Citizens with serious concerns were treated contemptuously at multiple levels of hearings. And after the referendum qualified for the ballot, the campaign for the upzoning centered on a series of false claims. I am assuming that the insularity of the ruling class made them oblivious to the problems with those claims, rather than their falsity being meant as an intentional affront to the opposition.(foot#7) However, I wouldn't rule the latter out: The 2014 Council election demonstrated an Ancien Régime resistant to accommodating other perspectives.

The effects of the long history of cronyism make the remedies more difficult. Over the years, I (and others) have encouraged well-qualified people to apply for various Commissions and Boards. Some I found had applied in previous rounds and been rejected. Some did try and were treated shabbily. Some even made multiple attempts. The common complaint was that they realized they never even had a chance, for example, the preordained candidate didn't even bother to show up for the interview by Council members. I was at one such interview (not PTC), waiting for the next agenda item, and the Council member who was a neighbor of the absent applicant told the Council that they didn't need to schedule a make-up interview because "We all know ((the applicant))". No surprise who got appointed. Even worse, two of the applicants interviewed showed knowledge, perspectives, insight, ideas and experience that would have made them much better additions to that commission than the appointee. These were people who would have represented the community; Council chose someone to represent the oligarchy. And yet from time to time, we hear Council members claiming to be distressed over the lack of applicants.

In trying to get PTC members better connected to the concerns and perspectives of ordinary residents, I have repeatedly heard from Council members that it is critical to have representatives of various special interest groups, especially developers, as members of the PTC (not recently?plus many conversations on City politics now begin with the constraint "You can't put this in your blog"). Imagine that: They believe that developers can't get fair consideration of their interests unless they have vote(s) on the Commission, plus the privileged status accorded to Commission members: that of being able to make arguments, supply "facts" and misrepresent/disparage other perspectives where neither the public nor the Staff can respond, unless invited. Naturally, those "invitations" tend to go only to those who will reinforce the unchallengeable opinions of the PTC members.

You might think that if our ruling class was so concerned that the normal PTC process wasn't giving a fair hearing to developers and other well-connected special interest groups, then it would recognize that that process must also be failing ordinary residents horrifically. If so, you would be wrong: so very, very wrong.

Tidbits to ponder

Tidbit for history buffs: Think about the current situation in relation to the Revolutions of 1848 in Europe (also known as "The Spring of Nations", "Springtime of the Peoples"), or the Prague Spring of 1968 or the Arab Spring movements of this decade). In 1848 (and 1968 and ?) the democratic reformers initially had great success, but failed to consolidate their positions, and most were then crushed by the reactionary forces.

Tidbit for junkies of current national politics: Think about (but don't discuss here) the phenomena of both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders: A common diagnosis is that the popularity of each represents the alienation of a large part of their respective parties from the ruling elites of those parties.

----COMMENTS Sought----

Please add your experiences and perspectives on cronyism and its consequences for Palo Alto governance. And how we might undo the legacy of cronyism.


1. Planning commission slams Palo Alto's proposed office cap: Commissioners say proposal unfair to developers, ineffective in reining in city's pace of growth by Gennady Sheyner, Palo Alto Online/Weekly, 2015-08-12.
This displays the attitude of today's "crony capitalism": "Profits should be privatized; risks/costs/losses should be socialized" with the assumption that the level of profit should include on risks of failure that are no longer present, having been "socialized" away.

2. Aristotle's "Politics", Book 5, addressing the basis for maintaining or changing regimes: "Above all, every state should be administered and regulated by law so that its magistrates cannot possibly make money. In oligarchies, special precautions should be used against this evil. For the people do not take any great offense at being kept out of government?indeed they are rather pleased at having time to attend to their private business. However, it irritates them to think that their rulers are stealing public money, and that they, the people, don't partake in the profits nor other benefits."

3. For a very recent statement of this, may I recommended the opening paragraphs of Gary Hart: America's Founding Principles Are in Danger of Corruption - Time, 2015-06-26 (an article which is a promotional excerpt from his book The Republic of Conscience).

4. I am not naïve about cronyism. Where I grew up back East, the semi-rural factory towns were dominated by oligarchies. Some of the towns were dominated by oligarchies that believed in duty and honor, yet nearby were towns where they didn't seem to feel the need to hide their abuses. The typical phrase for this was "Country Club Cronyism" because it centered on the private, exclusive country clubs, which routinely had membership policies that excluded Jews, Blacks? altogether and exclude women from many of the areas where the deal-making occurred.
For an up-and-coming outsider, working the valet station at their events provided a quick introduction to how much the system was rigged and a crash course in cynicism: People was remarkably indiscreet about what they talked about while waiting for their cars. Technology has allowed these moments of candor to be widely distributed, for example, a significant factor in Mitt Romney's loss in the 2012 Presidential election were his derisive comments about the "47 percent of the people" to a private audience, oblivious to the presence of "the help".

5. Why would someone who had never shown any interest in the PTC, and the issues before it, want to be a commissioner? Skipping the obvious reasons, there are two that most people don't think of. First, some are people that have decided to become involved in civic affairs, and their hubris dictates that they start at or near the top. Second, it gives you a title that is advantageous at a variety of governmental and political events.
? Example 1: If you want the status and power that comes from being a fundraiser for various state-wide and national political candidates, having that government-official title is a real plus.
? Example 2: When you are lobbying for your own special interests before other governmental bodies, the title can give your advocacy additional weight.
? Example 3: At government meetings and political events, you are regarded as an official and get pointed out and introduced by name during the often interminable introductions. Sometimes wanting the title is vanity; sometimes it is defensive. For example, I have been at events where a significant majority of the attendees were introduced as officials and former officials?the clear message for people like me was that our presence was being tolerated?our status was slightly above that of "the help" but our presence was less essential.

6. From Elizabeth Warren's book "A Fighting Chance", recounting an April 2009 conversation with Larry Summers:
"Larry's tone was in the friendly-advice category. He teed it up this way: I had a choice. I could be an insider or I could be an outsider. Outsiders can say whatever they want. But people on the inside don't listen to them. Insiders, however, get lots of access and a chance to push their ideas. People?powerful people?listen to what they have to say. But insiders also understand one unbreakable rule. They don't criticize other insiders.¶ I had been warned."
? Section: "Insiders Don't Criticize Insiders", pp 105-106, final two paragraphs.
More context: Warren was then the chair of a Congressionally-appointed panel examining the government's response to the financial crisis. With Warren unwilling to play the insider game, she was forced to withdraw from becoming the first head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and had to settle for becoming a US Senator from Massachusetts.

7. If Palo Alto's ruling class were to produce a logo/coat-of-arms/? I would suggest that the motto be Latin for either "In your face" or "Talk to the hand".

An abbreviated index by topic and chronologically is available.

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