Responding to criticism about insufficient representation from the southern half of the city, the Palo Alto City Council agreed on Tuesday morning to add five new members to the nascent Citizen Advisory Committee, which was appointed in July to help the city update its Comprehensive Plan.
With 20 total members and 17 voting members, the committee includes former planning commissioners, housing advocates, neighborhood activists and other concerned residents. But with 12 of the 17 voting members making their homes north of Oregon Expressway, critics maintained that the group lacks the geographical balance needed to give the process credibility.
Critics have also maintained that the committee is loaded with too many proponents of new developments, pointing to the large role of Palo Alto Forward on the panel. The citizens group, which advocates for more housing and transportation options, includes three voting members who belong to the Palo Alto Forward steering committee.
The concerns were expressed in countless emails to the City Council and a formal letter submitted two weeks ago by a group of residents that included leaders of the neighborhood group Palo Alto Neighborhoods (PAN) and the slow-growth "residentialist" group Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning (PASZ).
The letter's signatories included PASZ president Cheryl Lilienstein and board members Tim Gray and Joseph Hirsch, PAN leaders Annette Glanckopf and Sheri Furman, and residents Robin Bayer, Norm Beamer, Neilson Buchanan, Jeff Levinsky, Elaine Meyer, Doug Moran, Mark Nadim, Becky Sanders, David Schrom and Peter Taskovich.
Several members of this group attended the Monday night meeting and stuck around well past midnight to reiterate their concerns.
"I'm a firm believer in the process and it is most important that the Citizens Advisory Committee be given opportunity to succeed," Sanders told the council. "As it is now, it would operate under a cloud and it cannot end well. The way in which the members were selected and the lack of transparency does not inspire confidence in the process."
Councilman Tom DuBois, who is affiliated with PASZ, said he has received about 100 emails on the issue of the panel's composition, more than he had received on any other item since joining the council. DuBois said that when the council decided in May to form the new group, it explicitly tried to create criteria for members that would achieve balance. He acknowledges that this is not what happened and pointed to the high number of people from the northern half of the city serving on the panel.
"The majority of any one group isn't good," said DuBois, who then proposed adding five new members as a remedy.
The council also agreed with DuBois that unlike the earlier appointments, which were made by City Manager James Keene, the new ones would be made directly by the council. Applications for the group will be extended until Aug. 25 and the council is scheduled to make the appointments in two weeks.
The council rejected, however, calls to oust two of the committee's members: Chair Daniel Garber, an architect and former member of the Planning and Transportation Commission, and Steve Levy, a regional economist who consults for the Association of Bay Area Governments.
Fred Balin, who addressed the council Monday, said he doesn't see how a resident who contracts for a planning authority "that creates policies and goals that are at odds with both the City Council and the public at large" can also serve as a voting member on the citizens group working on the Comprehensive Plan -- a clear reference to Levy.
Balin and others also emphasized Garber's role with 27 University Ave., an unpopular and ultimately ill-fated project proposed by John Arrillaga in 2012 that included four office towers and a theater. Garber was commissioned by the city in 2012 to work on the project and resigned from the planning commission. Last month, the citizens panel voted to elect him as its chair.
Meyer argued that the project at 27 University Ave. had cause a "stain on the reputation of our city" and argued that Garber should resign because of his involvement with that project, which was heavily criticized for its lack of transparency.
"If the Comprehensive Plan discussion has to have even the appearance of representing residents, these development-tainted individuals cannot be part of the leadership," Meyer said.
Councilman Cory Wolbach was the first to reject these calls for Garber's and Levy's resignations and implored residents not to "attack citizen volunteers," commissioners, committee members or staff. He called allegations of conflict of interest "baseless and unfair."
"If you want to attack someone, attack us ... attack the people on the dais," Wolbach said. We are the ones you elect and we are the ones responsible for the things you like and the things you don't like in Palo Alto."
Wolbach also called it "absurd" for citizens to see a membership in Palo Alto Forward (or any other land-use, civic or environmental group) as a "black mark."
Yet council members also agreed that the group could benefit from more balance. Vice Mayor Greg Schmid noted that Palo Alto's geography is pretty straight forward, with about half the number of residents north of Oregon Expressway and half south of Oregon.
"You'd expect the committee, which is political in nature, should have equal representation," Schmid said. "It is somewhat surprising to find the committee that has 12 on the one side and five on the other."
Councilman Marc Berman lobbied his colleagues to use this opportunity to add more people who rent in Palo Alto and who are under 35 two categories that have very little representation on the group.
Berman's proposal initially faced push-back from Councilman Pat Burt, who warned against adding too many new factors into the mix.
"If we're going to open it up to other greater diversity concerns, we stand a good chance of not correcting an imbalance that's there right now and maybe exacerbating it," Burt said.
He and the rest of the council agreed to Berman's proposal after members agreed that adding younger members and renters should be a focus but not a requisite.
The council also debated and agreed on several proposals aimed at making the committee more efficient and transparent. This includes supporting the idea of group "subcommittees," focusing on particular Comprehensive Plan topics and a new policy of having the meetings be recorded. The council also supported a process that would allow four committee members to write minority opinions if they disagree with the majority.
The citizens group is charged with reviewing every chapter (of "elements") of the Comprehensive Plan and working with the council to complete the update, which was launched in 2006 and which the city hopes to conclude by the end of 2016. Often referred to as the city's "land-use bible," the document sets the foundation for the city's zoning code and other citywide policies.