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By Douglas Moran

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About this blog: Real power doesn't reside with those who make the final decision, but with those who decide what qualifies as the viable choices. I stumbled across this insight as a teenager (in the 1960s). As a grad student, I belonged to an org...  (More)

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Visioning or Potemkin Villages?

Uploaded: May 8, 2014
The city government of Palo Alto has announced that it will be sponsoring a series of meetings about the future of Palo Alto and wants ordinary residents to participate in the process. (foot#1) This has been met with skepticism and much, much worse. The reason: There is a long history of the City suppressing meaningful citizen input before, during and after such meetings. Residents routinely complain that public input was simply "for show", a local version of the Potemkin Village (Wikipedia), an illusion meant to impress passersby who didn't get up close enough to see behind the facades.

The City wants us to believe "This time it will be different!", but I have yet to see any real signs that it will be any different. I see negligible recognition by the City of what the past problems have been, much less attempts to address those problems. To the contrary, the meetings so far have all the appearances of "same old".

The goal of this blog entry is to start a discussion of what the City needs to do for these meetings to have credibility with the public. This partly involves me and commenters explaining what the problems have historically been, without venturing (too far) into griping. And partly it involves proposing what needs to be done, both to reduce these problems and to visibly demonstrated to the public that this time the City is actually serious about considering public input.

CompPlan Update: Real or Exercise in Futility:
A large part of these Visioning meetings revolve around updating the Comprehensive Plan (CompPlan). Yet the City -- Council and Staff -- have long displayed utter contempt for the CompPlan. First, rather than guiding decisions, it is primarily used to justify what Staff and Council want to do, by cherry-picking the sections that support them and ignoring/suppressing any portions to the contrary. It has long been observed that the current CompPlan can be used to justify or oppose virtually anything.
Issue: The design and format of the current CompPlan encourages this cherry-picking. If the CompPlan Update doesn't address these structural problems, what is the point of participating in the creation of a plan that will be ignored at the whims and biases of the powers-that-be?

The second way the City has demonstrated its contempt for the CompPlan is in staffing, or rather lack of. For years the City has claimed a shortage of Planning Staff as the reason for failures to adequately review projects and to meet deadlines for CompPlan updates. These are not minor delays -- being 5 years behind schedule is not uncommon (just check news stories here on Palo Alto Online). I served as a resident on a Advisory Panel for a CompPlan update, and the "monthly" meetings were routinely less-than-quarterly.
Issue: This purported deficit of Planning Staff has been both long-standing and high-profile. The persistent failure of Council and the City Manager to resolve it cannot be attributed to budget problems: They have no problem funding plenty of new, peripheral projects. (foot#2) So why should we believe that the City will give this enough priority that it won't be yet another exercise in futility that dies in a fetid morass of bureaucratic delays?

Meeting Structure:
There are many different types of meetings, and they are structured differently to achieve their different goals. It has been a long-standing observation and complaint that the structure of what the City claims to be "public outreach" meetings is contrary to that supposed goal. The most common format of these meetings is a lecture followed by break-out sessions. The lecture, by Staff or consultants, is typically heavily biased toward one perspective or desired outcome. The break-out sessions are easily dominated by Staff, the consultants and activists. The results of the break-out sessions are a list of ideas where the wildest pie-in-the-sky idea is given the same weight as what the participants identify as their most serious concern. This format allows Staff to cherry-pick the comments that support what Staff wants to do.

I have made multiple attempts to talk to City Manager James Keene about this, and been rebuffed. I have also attempted to talk to a variety of the Council members and not gotten any expression of real interest.

Stacking Panels
The City has a long history of stacking panels to represent very narrow perspective and this continues into this stage of meetings. Most notably, the panel for the CompPlan's Housing Element is heavily stacked with advocates for high-density housing. I was a member of an earlier iteration of this panel and found those advocates unwilling to consider a balanced perspective. For example, the notion of having high-density housing near transit, which typically means within a half mile of high-frequency transit, was distorted to mean anywhere in Palo Alto, because that was closer than Tracy or Modesto. And they pushed to eliminate important walkable destination in favor of high-density housing.

Too-Early/Too-Late and Exhaustion
One of the frequent frustration for the public in attempting to provide input is that it is never the right time. You show up at an outreach meeting and are told that it is "too early" to consider your concerns. You then show up at the next meeting and are told it is now "too late". Far too many of the decisions are made in private meetings between Staff and the City's favored interest groups.

Meaningful Notification and Participation
Because Staff is paid to attend meetings, they often have little appreciation for the burden that such meetings impose on residents. In deciding whether a meeting is worth attending, we residents need to know
(1) whether the topic is important enough,
(2) what is to be decided, and
(3) whether our participation will have any effect on the outcome.
Typically the City's announcements of meetings are so superficial that they are badly deficient in each of these areas.

One of the keys to effective meetings is that the participants come prepared to present and to discuss. This is typically achieved by distributing briefing materials in advance so that people have a chance to think and consider alternatives and think how to effectively present their responses.
Aside: I attempt to avoid attending meetings where a large portion of the agenda is dedicated to people orally presenting status reports that could/should have been distributed beforehand (by email). Similarly for meetings where an item with a large time slot is described with a single sentence -- this often indicates that the presenter is unprepared to lead an effective discussion and that much of the allotted time will be unnecessarily spent dealing with confusions and half-baked ideas.

Disrespectful Behavior
Disrespectful behavior by advocates of positions favored by Staff is often allowed to suppress input by ordinary residents. As a neighborhood leader and activist, I made it a practice to sit near the door to make it easy to step outside if someone wanted to ask a question of me. This meant I would also hear from residents walking out on the meeting angry at how they were being treated or because they decided "the fix was in".

Many of the controversies involve fervent advocacy groups that are quick to vilify, even demonize, those that disagree with them. It is frustrating for ordinary residents to be subjected to this from favored advocacy groups and not have the meeting leaders (Staff or consultants) not try to rein it in, but especially when they try to defend themselves, they get denounced for disrespectful behavior (the problem of the person defending himself attracting blame is so very well known that it is hard to excuse these sort of mistakes).

Quality of ideas, not quantity of supporters at a meeting
Many Council members admit that they are heavily swayed by how many people physically show up at meetings (emails are said to have far, far less impact). This favors organized advocacy groups. The structure for public comment also favors single-issue, all-or-nothing advocacy -- people who understand the complexities and tradeoffs of an issue are at a great disadvantage ("When you can appreciate two sides of an issue, you are just beginning to understand it." -- Unknown).

The upcoming meetings are in response to Council being surprised by the vote on Measure D (Maybell development), yet it doesn't seem like they are going to change the mechanisms and processes that allowed them to be so clueless about about public opinion.

Previous Blog Entry In December, I blogged in three-parts on this issue, using a particular meeting of the Planning Commission as the basis/example of my comments. Part 2 of "Why the City doesn't hear residents' perspectives? It doesn't want to" is the most relevant to the above (each part contains links to the other parts).

Invitation for comments
My hope for comments is for
(1) additional general categories of the problems,
(2) illustrative examples of these problems, that is, ones that educate readers unfamiliar with the situation. I don't want this to become a gripe session (or therapy session for those who have been abused by the current system),
(3) pragmatic suggestions on what could be done to change the current situation,
(4) comments on recent changes that you have observed that could reduce these problems (that is, "reasons for hope").

---- Footnotes ----

1. "Palo Alto looks beyond City Hall for its vision: City Council tries to engage residents who are not 'usual suspects' in update of Comprehensive Plan" by Gennady Sheyner, Palo Alto Weekly, 2014-May-06. Plus earlier articles in the Palo Alto Weekly/Online.

2. The City may be adding two to the Planning Staff, but this doesn't undermine the observations about the lack of support for rational and strategic planning. "With revenues up, Palo Alto looks to beef up workforce: New librarians, planners part of budget proposal from city manager" by Gennady Sheyner,Palo Alto Weekly, 2014-May-06.

The Guidelines for comments on this blog are different from those on Town Square Forums. I am attempting to foster more civility and substantive comments by deleting violations of the guidelines.
Local Journalism.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of College Terrace,
on May 8, 2014 at 4:53 pm

>The break-out sessions are easily dominated by Staff, the consultants and activists.

Exactly. The fix (sometimes big, sometimes small) is always in. One has only to look at Steve Levy's big fix to figure it out.

Good post, Doug.

Posted by Jerry Underdal, a resident of Barron Park,
on May 8, 2014 at 9:43 pm

Jerry Underdal is a registered user.

Your big-picture description of what the problems have been, based on your experience in responding to calls for citizen input in the past is both informative and discouraging. But it does not describe the format that has been used for the first three "visioning" meetings.

Maybe you are more pessimistic than called for given the success of the No on Measure D campaign and the subsequent collapse of the 27 University and Jay Paul proposals. Even Eric F has made note in Town Square of the changed tone of the discussion in the City Council chambers in recent months.

Barron Park and Green Acres critics of the direction of public policy should engage rather than withdraw from processes set up by the city to solicit comments from the public. Otherwise they risk being marginalized and seen as spoilers as the city moves forward in its attempt to meet the challenges of maintaining the economic, social and environmental quality of life in Palo Alto.

Posted by anne, a resident of Green Acres,
on May 9, 2014 at 10:19 pm

You absolutely nailed the state of our governance, Doug.

Posted by Neilson Buchanan, a resident of Downtown North,
on May 10, 2014 at 8:23 am

Recently I attended the American Planning Association Annual meeting to better understand the art and science of city planning. One of the topics was more effective civic engagement. Here is my takeaway. First, Palo Alto is no better and no worse than most cities. Second, our political and social culture is moving away from long, boring, time consuming public meetings, especially Gen X and Y. Third, there is no magic alternative for open, public debate and decision-making. There are dangerous trends: public avoidance of attending meetings, lower voter registrtion and low turnouts at election time. Public apathy, in my opinion, will deteriorate. Fourth, there is a widespread pattern of budget-starved city planning departments in the US, so we citizens have to be practical when the actual planning and forecasting functions are minimally funded. Many planning departments are torn with their obligation to treat developers with due process vs stepping back and taking a professional, long range view of what their city/region needs. Fifth, Palo Alto is like many other cities. We are just one small government entity. However, we are in the midst of a profound, unique, regional economic boom. The data on our regional GDP growth is startling.

Use of technology to engage the public will evolve. The PA Weekly blogs are one example. The recent Housing Survey has potential, especially if subjective comments are encouraged and tabulated., our local Survey Monkey and others have real potential to capture public opinion and guide citizens, City Staff, Commissions and Council. It is obvious to me that both city government and private citizens will increasingly initiate web-based technology to engage the "public spirit".

Posted by Wayne Martin, a resident of Fairmeadow,
on May 10, 2014 at 12:49 pm

> It is obvious to me that both city government and private citizens
> will increasingly initiate web-based technology to engage the
> "public spirit".

It?s understandable that someone might make a positive statement like this?but what is the real evidence that this kind of optimism will see a lot of technology that could help residents/businessmen/taxpayers increase their ideas in the City/Regional planning process?

For instance?Host Doug Moran has mentioned that many events which pretend to be of an ?outreach? nature are scheduled at odd/late times. I would like to add that a couple of these sorts of events I?ve attended the room size has been very small, making attendance unlikely/uncomfortable. So?why hasn?t video conferencing technology been utilized?that would allow people to ?tune in? and see/hear these events in real time, as well as to ask questions of the presenters, just as if they were present? And of course, the question of why all of these events are not recorded, and made available via the Internet/WEB will probably go unanswered?if put to any Palo Alto official.

Attempts to get City/PAUSD officials to set up ?virtual office hours? so that people can schedule 10-15 minutes of 1-on-1 time has never seriously been embraced.

Other technologies?such as use of 3D rendering software to provide people a realistic view of all projects under consideration has been ignored?even though other Cities have embraced such technology with great success.

The City has no technology plan?which certainly would give departments like Planning an opportunity to review the vast store of software that now exists?from CAD to traffic simulation packages. Planning also has been doing very little with real time traffic volume collection hardware?even though this hardware/software has been around for at least a decade now.

And then there is the possibility of collaboration with other Planning Departments in other local Cities. Collaboration might reduce the learning curves for some of this hardware/software that is clearly needed to make more sophisticated judgments in the future.

There just isn?t much evidence that the Palo Alto Planning Department will be jumping on this bandwagon any time soon.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park,
on May 10, 2014 at 4:32 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

RE: "First, Palo Alto is no better and no worse than most cities."

As management guru Tom Peters famously pointed out, "We're no worse than anybody else" should not be your organization's slogan.

The discussion should be based on measures such as what is possible and what is good-enough.

For example, when I was in industry, the PowerPoint decks for my important presentations had to have enough explanation in the notes section so it could easily be given, in whole or in part, by a range of other people -- my managers, sales reps, my evangelists among my customers and potential customers, someone substituting for me if I got sick or conflicted, ... With the City's meetings, the PowerPoint deck is rarely available before the meeting and at the meetings available only as hardcopy slides (without the speaker notes). Sometimes this is because the presentation is by a consultant that views the presentation as its intellectual property (the City's contract doesn't deal with make this info more widely available). This makes it very hard to further disseminate the background materials for such meetings in a usable form.

Posted by Fred Balin, a resident of College Terrace,
on May 10, 2014 at 5:32 pm

Fred Balin is a registered user.

Doug Moran is correct that the Palo Alto Comprehensive Plan is generally ignored, except for when staff or developers cherry pick parts that justify an out-of-compliant project. The city does not view the Comp Plan as a state-mandated "land-use bible whose major tenets are to followed, but rather as something to work around.

This misuse of the Comp Plan is also disrespectful to those who participated in the intensive community engagement that produced it: ??the product of an over five-year effort that involved hundreds of Palo Alto residents and other interested parties. Early in this effort, the City Council appointed a 38 member Comprehensive Plan Advisory Committee (CPAC) made up of 28 community members, 10 alternates and nine representatives of boards and commissions.? (As per the Comp Plan Introduction Page I-5 at Web Link )

Palo Alto?s current zoning stems directly from the Comp Plan to supposedly help insure consistency between the plan and the zoning code sections applied across the various areas of the city.

In three-quarters of California cities, the zoning code as well as any proposed projects asking for exceptions to the code are required by state law to be consistent with Comprehensive (?General?) Plan.

But Palo Alto is part of the one-fourth of California cities that are charter cities and therefore not legally required to have such consistency, unless required by city ordinance or charter amendment to do so.

This loophole, explains why:

1.) Alma Plaza, an area designated as one of four neighborhood centers in the Comp Plan, and which previously was 100% commercial, and 90% retail, became 75% housing.

2.) The "JJ&F Block? zoned as neighborhood commercial was allowed to be redeveloped as College Terrace Centre, a regional office complex.

3.) The council decided to entertain a proposal that the built out site at the 395 Page Mill Road, should be allowed to triple in square footage under a developer?s plan

4.) Why the city held private back-of-the envelope discussions with a wealthy developer, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of mitigation funds to present his plans, privately shuttled groups of council members into meetings to see the plans, and, until revealed in the press, was ready to confidently walk into a council meeting to move forward with four commercial office towers on the site of a historic property, zoned Public Facilities, at 27 University Avenue.

Thanks to the Vote Against D referendum, Numbers 3 and 4 above have been halted, at least for the time being.

But if Palo Alto had been required to have consistency between Comp Plan and zoning these items would never have gotten to first base, and would have saved us all much wasted money, time, energy, and division.

At any time between the early 60s, when residents successfully sued the city to end Palo Alto?s refusal to adopt a state mandated General Plan and today, an interim of 50 years during which Palo Alto has ignored its Comp Plans by use of the consistency loop for charter cities, any city council could have passed an ordinance by a simple majority vote to require such consistency.

It has not happened, and Palo Alto?s disregard for its own Comp Plan is so long standing and ingrained that many council members and much of the public are not even aware of the consistency loophole for California charter cities.

As the council considers possible charter amendments at its Monday meeting, it should add discussion of closing the consistency loophole by ordinance or charter amendment as other other charter cities, such as Irvine, have done.

Such an ordinance would immediately enforce project application consistency within the current Comp Plan and give residents something worth working and fighting for in the current Comp Plan revision process.

Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on May 11, 2014 at 9:37 pm

You have it all wrong, Mssrs Moran, Martin, and Balin: Palo Alto scrupulously keeps its Comprehensive Plan in compliance. As I've pointed out many times, the city routinely amends its CP so it conforms with developments that it would otherwise conflict with.

Posted by Tom DuBois, a resident of Midtown,
on May 17, 2014 at 4:16 pm

Tom DuBois is a registered user.

Excellent blog and thoughtful comments.

One major problem, is that we're approaching this update to the Comprehensive Plan backwards.

Instead of forming citizen's working groups to hash out and write updates first, and then send it to commission/staff for editing and assembly, as was done with our current plan, we are now being asked to provide feedback to element updates written over a period of years by the PTC (and which reflect the split personality of that commission).

Rather than creating the update we are being asked to give feedback. As Doug points out, this often leads to lists of ideas without a prioritization framework - so that all ideas seem to carry equal weight. Without having citizens involved in the creation process, there is very little ownership of the current proposed updates.

So my suggestions for moving forward - I would like to see the "Our Palo Alto" process quickly become focused on gathering meaningful feedback on individual elements of the Comp Plan update.

Before that can happen though, I think we need a meeting or two to create the framework for the overall goals of the comp plan. Personally, I believe many can carry over from our current plan (Residential Neighborhoods have priority, Sustainability, and Quality of Life). These goals should then be the priorities for each and every element, and be a consistent theme that is applied to prioritize which policies and programs are most important, and which are minor.

Several meetings should then be scheduled for each element - Business, Transportation, etc. Meeting notices should have detailed agendas and require review of the current element and proposed update prior to attending. Additions/deletions/modifications to the plan should be evaluated against the overall goals. This would be the time for detailed feedback, but would require a professional moderator in order to run an effective meeting. Where possible individuals representing groups of people should state that there feedback represents a previous group discussion, giving it more weight as representative of a group.

Prioritized feedback would then need to be incorporated into the current plan to create the update.

No method is perfect, and I realize what I've outlined would be difficult to pull off. Ideally, we'd form a new citizen's update committee (susceptible to stacked panel problem) and task them with producing the Update, approaching this in the right order.

Posted by david schrom, a resident of Evergreen Park,
on Jun 2, 2014 at 2:55 pm

Potemkin Village, as usual.

The Journal of the American Institute of Planners (July, 1969) outlines "Eight Rungs of Citizen Participation" (See below). I perceive the latest "visioning" exercise to lie on the lowest two rungs. If we want real power (i.e., to stand on the eighth rung) we'll need to create a parallel process with greater public support.

1. Manipulation
Officials place residents on rubber-stamp advisory committees to ?educate? them, engineer support, and ?prove? that ?grassroots people? are involved.
2. Therapy
Under the guise of engaging residents in planning, power-holders bring them together to adjust their ?values and attitudes? to accept harmful change.
3. Informing
Information flows primarily in one direction, and is often presented at a late stage in planning, after residents? opportunity for influence has largely passed.
4. Consultation
Consultation without guarantee of influence remains just a window-dressing ritual.
5. Placation
Residents may be awarded token concessions, but are still being planned for by others.
6. Partnership
Residents and powerholders share planning and decision-making responsibilities, and ground rules are not subject to unilateral change.
7. Delegated Power
Residents achieve sufficient decision-making authority to assure accountability.
8. Citizen Control
Residents govern a program or an institution, in full charge of policy and managerial aspects, and negotiate the conditions under which ?outsiders? may change them.

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