Last week the Palo Alto City Council reviewed a series of policy and program choices sent to them by the Citizen's Advisory Committee (CAC) and staff. A Weekly editorial spoke of a "reckless majority." Councilman Tom DuBois went further in an op-ed using words like "democracy is hijacked" and "massacred our Comprehensive Plan" and referred to his council colleagues as "wolves in sheep's clothing."
I have a different perspective from serving on the CAC, the CAC Land Use Subcommittee and serving on the committee discussing performance standards and community indicators. Before I get to the editorial and op-ed I want to mention two achievements at the meeting that are important for democracy and Comp Plan goals.
First was the mayor's decision to allow public speakers before the first round of council comments and questions. This also happened at this week's council meeting. Second was the positive engagement between council and representatives from Stanford University on the possibilities on Stanford land in the city for more housing and transportation-demand-management success -- goals desired by the CAC and critical for Comp Plan success.
The main issues for land use discussed at the meeting concerned a series of policy and program choices that did not have consensus among CAC members. Three of these choices were decided quickly and mostly with a large council majority. These include (1) maintaining a cumulative cap on commercial development citywide, (2) supporting exploration of housing on Stanford lands within the city and (3) removing performance standards from the Comp Plan.
With regard to performance standards, a large majority of the CAC, after hearing from a subcommittee on this issue, decided that these standards were not ready for immediate inclusion in the Comp Plan and would take an enormous amount of staff, CAC and council time to develop agreement.
With regard to building heights for housing and mixed housing/retail projects, there was no CAC consensus, which is why choices were brought to council. In fact a majority of the CAC favored some exceptions to the height limit. The council saw no clear majority and took the issue out of the Comp Plan so there could be more debate, not less, in light of changing resident positions as evidenced by the large number of speakers in the public comment period favoring more housing.
As was typical of most votes during the meeting, the vote here was not 5-4 but was 6-3 with council member Filseth joining the majority. A public tabulation of votes will show that the large majority of land use votes were not 5-4. The Weekly or staff would do a service by tabulating the number of times each vote margin occurred.
There was a wide difference of opinion on the CAC as in the community about the merits of the other caps as an appropriate or most effective approach to handling the impacts of commercial development. So the council left debate and decision on most of these issues for later as the ordinances come before council. Since there is no consensus in the community, the council decided to hear more debate as the issues come up again.
The most serious charge as I read the editorial and DuBois op-ed is that the council moved programs out of the Comp Plan for later individual review and implementation and that this action rejects public input and compromise and wastes enormous amounts of time and money. There is, however, precedent for doing this. Last year, the council opted to have a Sustainability/Climate Action Plan that included only high level policies and, at the request of staff, asked for programs to be located separately.
I agree with the council majority that this is a wise choice and preserves the ability to adapt to changes in the economy and public input and allows staff and council to develop programs as needed. The programs that were put aside for separate consideration are not scrapped or lost. Moreover, it is good to remember both that designing programs takes extensive staff and council time and that few programs in the last Comp Plan were actually implemented.
We should not let disagreements on the direction of the city or how best to develop and implement programs lead to inflammatory language and accusations. The decisions were neither reckless or a hijacking of democracy. The council accepted strong consensus where it existed, kept open debate where no clear consensus has emerged, infused flexibility into a plan that lasts until 2030 and made room for extensive public participation as programs comes before council. These actions strengthen local participation and democracy.
Steve Levy is an economist and consultant to public agencies and private companies, specializing in the California economy and demographic trends. He is a member of the Comprehensive Plan Citizens Advisory Committee. He has a blog, "Invest & Innovate," at PaloAltoOnline.com/blogs.