A citizens committee that is helping to revise Palo Alto's land-use vision already has 20 members, including former planning commissioners, avowed "residentialists," housing advocates and neighborhood representatives.
One thing the panel doesn't have is geographical balance, a fact that has exposed it to criticism and that may lead to new members being appointed later this month.
Appointed in July, the Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) is charged with helping the City Council complete the long-awaited update to the city's Comprehensive Plan, which is often referred to as the city's "land-use bible." The update began in 2006 and the city plans to complete it by the end of 2016, provided the update process doesn't take yet another swerve.
The City Council approved the creation of the committee in May and the city subsequently received 59 applications. City Manager James Keene then appointed the group, which includes 17 voting members and three nonvoting members. Twelve of the 17 voting members live north of Oregon Expressway. The roster also includes three members from the steering committee of Palo Alto Forward, which advocates for more transportation and housing options. Both of these factors have irked members of Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning (PASZ), a group that favors slow-growth policies, and neighborhood leaders from the umbrella group Palo Alto Neighborhoods (PAN).
Last week, a group of citizens that includes PASZ President Cheryl Lilienstein and group members Joseph Hirsch and Tim Gray submitted a letter challenging the composition of the new citizens committee. The letter also included as its signatories long-time PAN leaders Sheri Furman and Annette Glanckopf, land-use watchdog Jeff Levinsky and residents Norm Beamer, Peter Taskovich, Neilson Buchanan, Elaine Meyer, Mark Nadim, Doug Moran, Becky Sanders, David Schrom and Robin Bayer.
The group protested the inclusion on the panel of Dan Garber, a former planning commissioner who last month was elected by the committee to serve as its chair. The letter argues that Garber has a conflict of interest because he had worked for the city on 27 University Ave., a controversial and ultimately unsuccessful development proposed by developer John Arrillaga.
"Having those who work for the city then participate in citizen panels intended to be independent is the much maligned 'revolving door,' which is illegal in many places,'" the letter states.
Garber addressed his involvement in 27 University Ave. in the beginning of the committee's first meeting, on July 14. He called prior allegations by residents that he had worked for Arrillaga a "remarkable untruth" and emphasized that all his work came at the city's request. The project, which included four office towers and a theater, was ultimately scrapped after an upswell of citizen criticism about the secretive nature of the city's negotiations with Arrillaga.
The letter signers also protested the inclusion of Steve Levy, an economist who consults for the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), who is also a founding member of Palo Alto Forward, and blogs on Palo Alto Online. The letter cites his involvement with ABAG and claims that his blogs on planning issues pose "a direct conflict of interest and also is likely to violate the Brown Act."
The letter concludes by calling for more "balance of people from north and south Palo Alto" on the committee, as well as "more representation from community groups other than Palo Alto Forward."
"City Council should have final approval of appointments. We can provide the names of several qualified persons," the letter states.
The council will have a chance to weigh in during the Aug. 17 meeting, its first since a six-week vacation. A report from City Manager James Keene notes the criticism the appointments had received "for not adequately representing a balance of perspectives or geography or other factors."
Keene wrote that while members were not selected to represent specific neighborhood groups, an effort was made to achieve geographic diversity. There is also the expectation, he wrote, "that members will not simply advocate their own particular perspectives, but work together and serve as trustees for the good of all Palo Alto."
"Nonetheless, the planning process will be most effective if the CAC is seen as balanced as possible in its representation of all geographic areas and interests," Keene wrote.
If the City Council decides on Aug. 17 that the balance of the group needs to be adjusted, it should make three to five additional appointments to the group and set "targeted, explicit criteria" for new members, Keene recommends in the report.
On Tuesday evening, in its second meeting since formation, the committee showed no signs of neighborhood discord or ideological schisms. In a two-hour discussion of the Community Services and Facilities chapter, committee members generally found themselves on the same page as they offered their thoughts on five goals and dozens of programs and policies.
Over the course of the discussion, members made arguments for more senior services, increased attention to daycare programs and arrangements with schools and private companies for shared use of recreational facilities.
The five goals, or elements, in the current Comprehensive Plan are: effective and efficient collaboration of community services; a commitment to excellence and high quality customer service among City of Palo Alto officials and employees; improved quality, quantity and affordability of social services, particularly for children, seniors and people with disabilities; attractive, well-maintained community facilities that serve Palo Alto residents; and equal access to educational, recreational and cultural services for all residents
Committee member Ellen Uhbrock pointed to the element on social services and said that "seniors and people with disabilities are given the short shrift." Committee member Bonnie Packer said the element should consider services for parents and for caregivers of local seniors.
Glanckopf, who spoke during the public comment period, called the goals "off balance." She noted that the current elements has only two policies and four programs focused on seniors, while 12 programs and 21 policies are focused on children.
"We all know a key priority to the community is youth, but the element doesn't fully recognize the growing population of seniors, baby boomers or the community in general," Glanckopf said.
Garber, who narrowly beat out former planning commissioner Arthur Keller for the chair's seat last month, set the tone in the beginning of the meeting by proposing to make Keller (who is now vice chair) the committee's co-chair. The move was proposed by Neilson Buchanan, Garber said. The idea of changing the structure from chair and vice chair to two co-chairs was also proposed in the letter from PAN and PASZ members.
The citizens committee will formally vote on this change in its next meeting, in September.
Garber also said that the committee's meetings will be a "safe place to talk."
"There's going to be lots of different opinions here, lots of different thoughts raised," Garber said.