Monday night, in a brazen display of power, some members of the Palo Alto City Council massacred our Comprehensive Plan, the shared long-term vision that guides all of the city's work.
While clothing themselves in language of inclusion and community values, they embarked on a scorched-earth policy, jettisoning language enshrining those values in city policy, and undid years of effort by dedicated volunteers to build consensus across diverse interests.
Starting with the strong foundation of our current, award-winning Comp Plan and proposed updates crafted by the Planning Commission, a Citizen's Advisory Committee (CAC) was appointed to represent a range of perspectives and began to draft the new Plan. Two years of effort by those 25 citizen volunteers, hundreds of citizen commenters, thousands of hours of staff time, multiple meetings of the Council and the Planning and Transportation Commission and more than $3 million dollars in expenses were effectively dismissed within minutes. All without public participation or notice of such sweeping impending changes.
There is clearly a divide among residents of Palo Alto around growth. Some support more rapid urbanization and others are slower-growth proponents. The disagreements center on how dense and tall the city should become and how quickly it can sustainably do so.
The CAC members, even with their diverse views, came together to form a carefully crafted Comp Plan. They did the hard work of debating and compromising, thoughtfully drafting a proposal that was nearly complete and had received steady feedback and support by the Council. It garnered their unanimous recommendation with a few key policy decisions left for the Council to make.
With little discussion late Monday night, five members of the Council rammed through votes to strip out growth-management policies, development requirements (such as affordable housing, reducing car trips, community character and parking requirements), and community livability assessments unanimously supported by the CAC.
Then, under a fast-track process imposed by the mayor to limit debate, they stripped out every single implementation detail, regardless of content, from the plan itself. By doing so, they left all remaining policies open to individual interpretation, eliminated virtually any accountability for performance and set the stage for decisions with little public input but freighted with their own narrow political interests.
By pivoting so radically at such a late point in the process, an enormous amount of public money was spent that need not have been. By reversing the practice used by our city and nearly all cities to include intended programs in their General Plan, they've removed critical bastions of democracy from the process: open dialog and transparency, community-based input, inclusion of minority voices and the need to compromise.
Through either lack of trust in public institutions or pure narcissism, their heavy-handedness has thrown away an emerging consensus around thoughtful programs that sought to minimize the negative impacts of inevitable growth. In so doing, they are driving our local government and community to remain as deeply split as the nation. And with these changes, once again developers will have the opportunity to build with impunity and the community will have little recourse.
The obfuscation of the attack started immediately at the Council meeting. Rather than admit they were rejecting public input and compromise, denials of the impact of stripping the Comp Plan were made. As lip service to community concerns about traffic and parking, a large growth "cap" (that will likely never be reached) was left in as window dressing. While touting their support for the 50-foot height limit, they removed all reference to it, saying they may want to change it soon.
Rather than admit they were rejecting public input and compromise, they moved the deleted programs to an appendix where they can be taken up at whim, or not, without the public scrutiny of Comp Plan deliberations similar to a line-item veto. Until now, programs have been considered as a package addressing a range of needs and supporting those compromises, not determined by a slim council majority on a line-by-line basis.
It is not yet clear how much, or how little, time it will take for the results of Monday's actions to negatively impact Palo Alto with yet more office buildings, traffic and parking woes and, perhaps most importantly, erosion of citizen participation and trust.
Can wolves in sheep's clothing undermine our local democracy? Apparently yes.
Palo Altans must not be fooled by public officials who say one thing and do another. Stay informed and hold your Council members accountable for serving the values they espoused in their campaigns and on the dais. Do not let the best qualities of democracy get hijacked in this age of expediency.
Tom DuBois is a Palo Alto City Council member. He can be reached at [email protected]