Planning commissioners back private meetings

Palo Alto commission scraps policy that discouraged ex parte communications with developers

One day after a City Council committee recommended curbing private meetings between council members and land developers, Palo Alto's planning commissioners headed in the opposite direction Wednesday night.

The Planning and Transportation Commission voted 4-2, with Arthur Keller and Susan Fineberg dissenting and Eduardo Martinez absent, to revise a commission policy discouraging its members from holding private meetings with developers whose applications are undergoing city reviews.

The four commissioners who supported the change -- Chair Samir Tuma, Vice Chair Lee Lippert, Daniel Garber and Greg Tanaka -- argued that meeting with applicants allows commissioners to gather more information about the project and reach a better decision.

They also argued that permitting ex parte communications would bring the commission's policy on private meetings in alignment with the council's. The two decision-making bodies were previously at the opposite ends of the spectrum, with commissioners discouraged from such communications and council members permitted to engage in them.

This week's policy changes would delay the council's ability to meet with applicants until after commissioners do so.

Garber, Lippert and Tanaka wrote a colleagues' memo in late October arguing that existing city policies, which allow council members to speak to applicants but discourage commissioners from doing so, "short circuit" the development process. The problem, the memo stated, is that some developers ignore the commission's recommendations and appeal directly to the council, which has the final say over development projects.

"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," the memo stated.

On Tuesday, the council's Policy and Services Committee took a major step toward closing this loophole by unanimously recommending a revision of the council rules. The proposed policy, which the full council is expected to take up next month, would "discourage" council members from speaking to project applicants until after the planning commission and the Architectural Review Board complete their own reviews.

Keller and Fineberg both argued Wednesday that council approval of the proposal would close the loophole and, in doing so, remove much of the planning commission's rationale for revising its own policy. Fineberg said the council's proposed changes make the commission's memo "very weak."

"That doesn't leave this body in a position where there is appearance of operating with ethical behavior and beyond reproach," Fineberg said.

Last year, the commission considered scrapping the policy banning ex parte communications last year but did not muster enough votes to do so. Since then, former Commissioner Karen Holman joined the City Council and was replaced by Tanaka, a supporter of the policy change. The commission reintroduced the subject with the Oct. 20 memo and discussed the memo on Nov. 10.

At that meeting, the commission agreed not to vote on the proposal until the memo's authors came up with rules for disclosing any private meetings between commissioners and developers.

The policy adopted Wednesday directs commissioners to disclose verbally their private meetings with applicants but does not require them to put the disclosures in writing or to submit any records from the meeting. Garber said he considered adding a requirement for a written disclosure after the Nov. 10 meeting but later decided that additional safeguards aren't necessary.

"The disclosure requirements we have that are already part of the memo already raise us above the bar," Garber said.

Among the memo's stipulations is a requirement that the commissioners "disclose any information that he or she learned that may have an impact on how that commissioner decides the matter." In addition, any documents submitted by the developer in a private meeting are to be made public.

In all private meetings, commissioners are not to communicate their positions on the application, either by stating their opinions or asking questions that would reveal an opinion.

Garber was one of several commissioners who argued Wednesday that the new policy would promote openness and transparency by breaking down the wall separating the commission from the community.

"For me, the value of having open access and not having hurdles to our appointed and elected officials is the issue," Garber said.

Fineberg maintained her long-standing position that private meetings between commissioners and developers would reduce transparency and raise questions in the community about the commission's ethics and conduct.

"Avoiding the ==I ex parte= contacts protects commissioners from unwittingly developing a bias," Fineberg said. "Furthermore it protects commissioners from the public appearance of having a bias, even if there isn't one."

Keller and Fineberg both urged the authors to revise the memo to provide a new justification for the policy change. Keller urged his colleagues not to vote on the policy.

"It would be a travesty to do so under this rationale," he said.

Martinez didn't attend the meeting but sent in a letter stating his opposition to the policy change. The commission had already rejected the policy change in 2009 and nothing has changed since that time, he said.

But the majority decided to go ahead with the change. Tuma, who co-authored the 2009 memo, denied that the commission's revised policy runs counter to the changes being considered by the council. He noted the council's change doesn't discourage ex parte communications with developers unless these developers have projects that are undergoing reviews by the local boards and commissions.

The commission's revised policy also specifies that the commissioners are not required to meet with applicants or members of the public.

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Like this comment
Posted by Transparency Please
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 16, 2010 at 11:01 am

Good move, Council. Bad move, Commission. Private meetings between Developers and Planning Commissioners are simply wrong. Looks like the "good old boys" won this one. Guess this will be good for Mac's Smoke Shop. More cigar sales.

Transparency, please. Public meetings only.

Like this comment
Posted by Money-Talks
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 16, 2010 at 11:03 am

Private meetings of this sort are always bad practice for good government. What could possibly be learned in a private meeting between a developer and his friend on the Planning Commission that hasn't already been made known in the public hearings, or presentations?

There has been a perception in Palo Alto that the Developers "rule this town". Well, with private meetings, and no real evidence that money isn't changing hands in these private meetings .. "what's a poor resident to think?"

The City Council needs to move definitively against this practice, and outlaw it, if necessary.

Like this comment
Posted by Money-Talks
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 16, 2010 at 11:16 am

Oh .. and before any of the Planning Commissioners start howling about their "integrity" .. here's a little evidence that bribery does go on in the public planning process --

Web Link

Gwinnett Superior Court Judge Michael Clark unsealed the indictment against Kevin Kenerly and it’s a blockbuster. Kenerly has been indicted on three counts including bribery, a felony with a maximum sentence of 20 years. Two other counts allege that Kenerly failed to disclose a financial interest in two properties that came before the Commission for rezoning.
With all of the so-called PC projects that have made their way through the Palo Alto planning process, with virtually nothing to show in terms of "public benefits", there is no reason to believe that the Palo Alto process is as "pure as the driven snow".

Sunlight cures a lot of public ills.

Like this comment
Posted by No private meetings
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 16, 2010 at 11:39 am

It's a pleasure to hear Commissioner Fineberg refer to ethics. It is a subject we don't hear mentioned very often. Fineberg and Keller appear to be the only voices for ethical government (Martinez was absent) on the Planning Commission.
Those who profit from development and developers want private meetings. Commissioners Garber and Lippert have put so much effort into this need for private meetings, there must be sizable rewards out there.

Like this comment
Posted by John
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 16, 2010 at 11:45 am

I guess private meetings with developers are fine as long as equal time is given to any opponent of the developer who wants such a meeting. Private meetings with developers always put the developers one step ahead of any opposition.

Like this comment
Posted by Paul
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 16, 2010 at 2:00 pm

Here's the script:

City council: wink, wink

Planning commission: nudge, nudge

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Dec 16, 2010 at 3:44 pm

"For me, the value of having open access and not having hurdles to our appointed and elected officials is the issue," Garber said."

If you want and value open access then do these meetings in public. Why should open access for the developers not also be open access for the public whom you represent and are sworn to serve?

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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