The Palo Alto City Council's abrupt decision on Jan. 30 to remove all programs from the city's guiding land-use document, the Comprehensive Plan, destroys the balance of the plan, violates public trust and impairs the city's ability to act, according to six members of a citizens panel that has been working with city staff to update the document.
In an open letter to the council that claims the decision has left members of the community "rightfully confused and upset," the six request that the council return the programs to the plan. The six co-signers from the Citizens Advisory Committee for the Comprehensive Plan (CAC) are Len Filppu, Annette Glanckopf, Jennifer Hetterly, Hamilton Hitchings, Shani Kleinhaus and Mark Nadim.
In the letter, the six protest both the decision regarding the Land Use and Transportation elements of the Comprehensive Plan and the "fast-track" voting process used to get to the 5-4 vote, which allowed for just a few minutes of debate.
The citizens committee has spent close to two years on the update, which itself has proceeded in fits and starts since 2008 and which the council hopes to conclude this year. The draft Comprehensive Plan update was similar to the current document in format: a set of high-level goals, each supplemented by a series of policies for helping achieve the goal. Many of the policies also included programs, which were more specific means for meeting the policies' objectives.
While some of the programs proposed as part of the Comprehensive Plan update were controversial (including ones pertaining to annual limits on the development of new office space and also to building heights), others had broad consensus. One program that drew support called for updating the zoning code to "preserve ground-floor retail and limit the displacement of existing retail from neighborhood centers." Another proposed moving forward with a study "to evaluate various possible tools for preventing displacement of existing residents."
Mayor Greg Scharff argued in his "State of the City" speech last week that the removal of programs is a "formatting change that many other communities use" when developing their general plans.
"It allows the key goals and policies to remain in place for the long term while giving more flexibility to future City Councils to adjust implementation measures as circumstances dictate and as conditions change," Scharff said.
The six committee members who penned the letter reject that view. Rather than defining the city's path into the future "based on thorough deliberation and consensus building (as a Comprehensive Plan is intended to do)," they wrote, the council's action "leaves the public, staff and City Council uncertain about intended strategies, lacking data to inform decisions and measure impacts, and devoid of tools for accountability for years to come."
The letter co-signers also argued that the policies and the programs in the plan are "interdependent" and that they were "debated, negotiated and crafted by the CAC to balance often competing citizen interests and to meaningfully address community challenges in ways that were actionable by city staff."
"In addition, Council's fast-track disposition of all implementation programs devalues the challenging and responsible efforts of the CAC and the input of hundreds of citizens," their letter states. "It undermines and discourages future citizen engagement in the self-governance of the City."
They pointed to the most recent National Citizen Survey, which showed a shrinking percentage of citizens reporting that they believe that Palo Alto does a good job at welcoming citizen involvement (the percentage dropped by 11 percent between 2015 and 2016) and that they believe the Palo Alto government generally acts "in the best interest of the community" (a 9 percent drop).
"In Palo Alto's current political climate, public trust is fragile," the letter states. "Wholesale rejection of community compromises and flying blind into the future in the name of simplicity and flexibility will not fortify it."
They also argue that removing some programs effectively weakens the policies these programs are supposed to support. As one example they point to the policy that calls for "providing sufficient but not excessive parking," which becomes broad and effectively unenforceable without the accompanying program, which calls for conducting a parking-needs assessment for each commercial center and employment district and updating parking standards as needed.
"We sincerely hope that City Council will reaffirm its commitment to inclusive and collaborative city governance, recognize the critical interdependence of policies and programs, and value the practical and hard won balance of community interests reflected in the CAC recommendations."
Not every member of the 22-member citizen committee shares this view, including Adrian Fine, who served on the committee before being elected to the council in November. And economist Steve Levy, who also sits on the committee, called the removal of programs "a wise choice" that "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 were not scrapped or lost," Levy wrote in a guest opinion on Palo Alto Online. "Moreover, it is good to remember both that designing programs takes expensive staff and council time and that few programs in the last Comp Plan were actually implemented."
The council's 5-4 vote reflected its political division, with the members who are more friendly to development (Scharff, Fine, Vice Mayor Liz Kniss and councilmen Greg Tanaka and Cory Wolbach) supporting the change and the four favoring a philosophy of slower city growth (Tom DuBois, Eric Filseth, Karen Holman and Lydia Kou) dissenting.
Wolbach, who proposed removing the programs, said the goal is to have a "cleaner, simpler and more direct document." DuBois sharply criticized the decision and called it "truly a slap in the face to the CAC."