They are either the unsung heroes of Palo Alto's planning process or a rogue group of pro-growth advocates with a recent tendency to provoke, rather than support the City Council.
Whatever one's view is of the Planning and Transportation Commission, just about everyone on the council agreed that something isn't right with what has traditionally been the city's most influential advisory board, one whose purview includes everything from bike paths and housing policies to new developments and zoning reforms.
On Monday night, in a joint meeting between the council and the commission, the two sides had their chance to air their grievances, explain their positions and forge a path toward repairing the increasingly dysfunctional relationship.
Part annual review and part group therapy, the discussion featured words of gratitude and appreciation, constructive criticism, clarifications about the commission's role, and a few sharp rebukes.
On the latter-most front, Councilman Pat Burt led the charge. The planning commission, he argued, has traditionally enjoyed a range of perspectives. In some cases, Burt said, he had supported appointing a commissioners whom he disagreed with, just to add a new perspective to the board.
Today, however, that diversity of perspective doesn't exist, Burt argued. He pointed as examples the commission's recent recommendation to reform the "planned-community" zoning process (a recommendation that the council quickly rejected for not going far enough) and its vehement criticism of the council's proposal to adopt an annual cap on new office developments in main commercial areas.
"We've now seen the commission all too frequently feeling or expressing a real frustration with the policies and values of the majority of the council and taking a very much oppositional role, even when policy direction had been provided to the commission," Burt said.
He also took exception to Commissioner Kate Downing's comment at the Sept. 30 commission meeting, when the commission was considering a change in the zoning code that would remove density bonuses for developers who demolish seismically unsafe buildings and replace them with new developments.
"Is the council really saying that extra square footage and extra parking are more important than the lives of the people who live and die in these buildings?" Downing asked. "I really can't support this."
Burt said Monday that he found this comment offensive, echoing a sentiment that Councilman Tom DuBois expressed last month.
"I can't tell you how offensive and wrong that was," Burt said.
The comment, he argued, showed a misunderstanding of the council's direction. It seemed to be "oblivious" to the fact that the council is moving ahead with an ambitious new program in the Development Center to enhance the city's seismic program through both mandates and incentives, a program that will soon be returning to the council for approval, Burt said.
"In any event, if you disagree with a recommendation, make rational arguments that you think may be persuasive," Burt said. "But I can't imagine under what possible scenario that kind of statement would be viewed as constructive or of value, not only to the council but to the governance of the city."
Burt also observed that several commissioners (namely, Eric Rosenblum and Downing) have a strong financial tie to Palantir, one of downtown's largest employers (Rosenblum works at the firm, as does Downing's husband). Burt requested that the Office of the City Attorney take a fresh look as to whether these commissioners have been recusing themselves from discussions affecting downtown office development, which could have an impact on Palantir.
"These are as strong a comment as I've ever made about a body that serves the city," Burt said at the conclusion of his remarks. "I regret that I feel obliged to make them."
Other council members were far more generous toward the commission, a group of volunteers who are appointed by the council. Cory Wolbach was one of several council members to thank the commission for its work, even if its conclusions often don't jibe with his own.
"I certainly enjoy when they burst my ideological bubble or get me out of my cognitive bubble," Wolbach said.
Councilwoman Liz Kniss agreed.
"In so many ways, you're unsung," she said. "I'm not sure the public knows how much time and energy you put into this. Just know that we're all grateful and appreciate what you do."
Vice Mayor Greg Schmid, whose views tend to go toward the slow-growth side, nevertheless said he is a "big fan" of the commission and called verbatim minutes of its meetings a "must-read" for council members.
Yet he also questioned a recent vote by the planning commission to revise the boundaries of a proposed "single-story overlay" district in the Greer Park North neighborhood (the council approved the new zoning designation, which prohibits two-story homes, along the original boundaries on Tuesday morning).
In their deliberations in October, commissioners observed that numerous proponents of the ban already own two-story homes and argued that their votes should thus not hold as much weight. Schmid disagreed with the commission's logic. Nothing in the city's rules prohibits these property owners from voting for the overlay, he said.
"When you set up the rules for voting, you've got to respect every single vote," Schmid said. "You can disagree and say why, but it's hard for a council member to override a 70 percent majority."
Schmid urged the commission members to make a "clear statement" at the end of the meeting, explaining the vote. Mayor Karen Holman also recommended that the commission rely more on the city's "foundational documents" like the Comprehensive Plan when making decisions. She concurred with Burt that to effectively vet an issue, the commission needs to have a "balance of perspectives."
"I have some concerns that we don't have a balance of perspectives on the commission right now," Holman said.
Commissioners countered the criticism by characterizing their panel as an independent body that is more concerned with a thorough analysis than with any ideology. Commission Chair Greg Tanaka noted that members "serve at the pleasure of the council" and that their job is to "help the council."
"All the commission members have heard the feedback from the council and we're going to try our best to make sure we can serve in the best way possible," Tanaka said.
While acknowledging that they aren't always as coherent and articulate as they could be, several commissioners said they take their roles in the process very seriously.
Downing stressed that while the council can give the commission special directions, it is the commission's job to review new ordinances in their entirety.
"We're required to approve and disapprove an ordinance in totality," she said. "We can't ignore the rest of it. We can't not talk about the rest of it. I think that's part of the discord happening between us and the council."
Downing also offered an explanation of her Sept. 30 comment, which she said was meant to highlight her view that the removal of the seismic bonus should constitute a serious policy decision. The September meeting, she noted, focused mainly on trivial cleanup items in the zoning code. Her comment intended to make the point that this zoning change warrants more discussion.
"I'm sorry my comments were taken the wrong way about that, but I think there are a lot of things that need to be taken into account and they (parking exemptions) aren't the only one," Downing said.
Commissioner Michael Alcheck, a real estate attorney who often advocates for greater density in downtown and on El Camino Real, characterized the commission as an independent body that, unlike the council, is not beholden to popular sentiments from the public.
The council, Alcheck argued, is "subject to the popular whims of this community." The commission isn't, he said. This distinction is "fundamental" to the commission's work, he said, because a large part of the job is to "provide guidance that won't be popular."
"It's not surprising to me that in the past year, you've experienced a very significant change about how you feel about the commission," Alcheck said. "We didn't change that much."
Councilman Eric Filseth, who is affiliated with the council's slow-growth "residentialist" wing, rejected that logic.
"We, the council, report to the residents," Filseth said. "When you describe elections as 'popular whims,' that's our boss you're talking about."
The council's priority, he said, is to "execute the community's business" as efficiently as it can. The direction from the community, as evidenced in the recent election, is to pursue a "slow-growth" path.
"Not everyone agrees with that direction," Filseth said. "That's OK. But there's a variety of ways to act when that's the case."
Councilman Greg Scharff, meanwhile, joined those who praised the commission for its work. He thanked the commissioners for their hard work and for making significant contributions to the city's planning process. He also urged commissioners to more clearly spell out their areas of agreement and disagreement, possibly through issuance of minority opinions.
"I don't think we need to be on the same page at all," Scharff said. "But I think we need to be in the same book. That's the distinction we're looking at."