A Palo Alto policy that discourages private meetings between planning commissioners and project applicants could be on its way out -- despite complaints from neighborhood leaders that the change would be a major blow to transparency.
The current policy says such meetings are "strongly discouraged," even though the policy doesn't apply to the City Council -- which is considering its own policy changes.
For the second time in two years, the Planning and Transportation Commission is considering scrapping the private-meeting rule. The policy 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.
A year ago, a similar proposal fizzled by a 3-4 vote, with commissioners Arthur Keller, Karen Holman, Susan Fineberg and Eduardo Martinez dissenting. Holman has since been elected to the City Council and Greg Tanaka replaced her on the commission.
On Wednesday, Chair Samir Tuma joined Keller and the memo's three authors -- Vice Chair Lee Lippert and commissioners Dan Garber and Tanaka -- in directing staff to draft revisions.
They said in the memo that the lack of a City Council policy discouraging communications with applicants creates a loophole that allows applicants to appeal directly to the council and bypass 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 loophole to gauge their need to heed or ignore the direction and action of the Planning and Transportation Commission regarding their application."
Garber cited Alma Plaza, John McNellis' mixed-use development that gained the city's approval last year after years of negotiations and neighborhood criticism. Garber said the community felt the developer basically ignored the commission's recommendations because he knew he could speak directly to council members, who have the final say on the project.
Tanaka said the present rule, by discouraging commissioners from visiting sites or talking to applicants, forces the commissioners 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, disclose any meetings, and make public any written materials in connection with private meetings. The new policy would apply to "planned community" 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," Garber said, citing a recent case in which a resident had to spend 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 from 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 urged the commission Wednesday night 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.
Balin asked the commission to hold off on any changes until after the council completes its revisions.
Furman said one of her group's priorities is transparency and openness and urged the commission to continue discouraging private meetings with applicants.
Jordan also asked the commission to wait until the council completes its own revisions and described the commission's consideration of the 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.