The Weekly article on Aug. 3 on the Planning and Transportation Commission (PTC) was fuzzy and potentially misleading to readers. The headline and clever cover graphic citing "Dysfunction" and "Polarization" seem to indicate that the PTC is paralyzed in a political standoff and not getting much of anything done. In the article, 60 percent of the column inches focused on one commissioner. But the headline and story pre-dispose the reader to believe that the commission is (1) voting substantially along presumed political lines and (2) not even functional in executing its work. Neither of these is true. As the chairman of the commission, I was not interviewed for the story, so I want to address the above two themes and clarify the role of the PTC in the community.
Dysfunction: Does this word suggest to the public that the PTC is not executing (functioning) on its frequently packed agendas? This is incorrect. If the author is referencing parts of PTC meetings as "dysfunctional" because they include digression, combative comments, or repetitive arguments to sway colleagues, I agree. But the commission's work still gets done. The PTC is not backed up on any recommendation. Indeed, the opposite is true. We are standing by for staff to prepare a number of agenda items as their heavy work load allows. Regardless of how difficult it is to manage a debate to closure, timely action is taken. If an item is occasionally continued to the next meeting so that staff or commissioners can gather more information to make a better decision, that approach should be applauded, not criticized. The PTC should not be making recommendations to the council without comprehensive information on an issue to inform those recommendations.
Polarization: The generalized charge of polarization suggests that PTC votes are driven by lock-step political bias rather than analysis, debate and good judgment on each issue. If that charge were true, almost every PTC vote would be 4-3 based on the presumed political leanings of the 7 commissioners. Actual votes do not support that claim.
Here are examples of PTC's votes on some controversial topics - where one might logically expect political bias to creep in. (1) July 25:. A staff proposal to approve a code amendment repealing a 350,000 cap for non-residential square footage downtown. After debate the vote was 4-0-1 against changing the ordinance. (2) Our Jan. 18 action to approve a staff recommendation for an overlay zone ordinance on a housing project at 2755 El Camino (VTA site) was approved 6-0. (3) Our June 27 hearing on 999 Alma St. for a new gym in retail space had legitimate arguments on both sides. The staff proposal passed 5-1. In short, there is no pattern of repetitive 4-3 votes suggesting polarization.
PTC's function in the community: By way of review, the PTC — created by citizen initiative — is an advisory body to the council on myriad specified issues — with commissioners appointed by the council to serve at its discretion. PTC deliberates independently from the council and has no political role. The value-add from commissioners is to study key issues — many of them quite complex — with information supplied by staff and consultants and to then provide recommendations to the council. Commissioners also hear from, and reach out to, citizens and developers for input on issues. And the commission provides an important forum for public hearings. Considering public comment is a critical part of the commission's analysis of an issue prior to forming recommendations to the council.
Hence, the council benefits from a constructive divergence of views on a given issue and the council also benefits from our initial spade work on an issue before it reaches the council for final action.
Our July 25 meeting represents the above process at work. After reviewing a staff report, listening to many public speakers, and having a productive discussion, PTC voted against the proposed ordinance due to a number of factors. These include the fact that much has changed in the city since the council proposed eliminating the cap in January 2017. It also took into consideration current priority on housing and the then-pending ballot measure to reduce the current 1.7 m office cap to 850,000. (Approved as an ordinance 10 days later by the council — a shift in the council's prior position.) We fulfilled our mandate to advise the council after studying an issue. With a 4-0-1 vote there was no polarization, and we made our recommendation that night.
Recently the council has had a pattern of polarization on many policy issues with many of the votes being 5-4. It is not our place to reference that tendency to try to predict what the council would like us to do. We are charged with independent analysis on issues and making informed recommendations to the council for their decisions.
There is one process area on PTC in which there is often a divergence of opinion. Some commissioners believe that issues should be acted on immediately as they come to the commission and be forwarded to the council. Others feel that certain issues are presented to us without sufficient data to make an informed decision and, given the gaps, we can't vote with integrity. I am in the latter camp. I believe that it is our responsibility to make an informed decision with the right data instead of moving it to the council with gaps that it has to fill in. We need enough real information to make informed decisions, not quick decisions. We are making recommendations that impact the city for years or decades. Spending an extra month to "get it right" just makes sense to me. And we should do the leg work on missing pieces of information; not the council. It is jammed.
To me the definition of PTC success is to wrestle with complicated issues for the city and ultimately come together as a commission with judgment and compromise to make recommendations to the council that are best for our citizens. That is what we try to do — quite functional in our output and without excessive polarization — to execute on our responsibilities.
Ed Lauing is the chairman of the Palo Alto Planning and Transportation Commission. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.