Visioning or Potemkin Villages? | A Pragmatist's Take | Douglas Moran | Palo Alto Online |

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By Douglas Moran

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.