The Remedy to Inadequate Citizen Input? More of the same | A Pragmatist's Take | Douglas Moran | Palo Alto Online |

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By Douglas Moran

The Remedy to Inadequate Citizen Input? More of the same

Uploaded: Jul 31, 2015

City Hall is inviting citizen input on the section of the Comprehensive Plan up for review this month. The current attempt is the result of City Council's dissatisfaction with the public outreach and input in the previous go-round.

What I found was a document not ready for public comment. First is its sheer size: 5 top-level "Goals" divided into 49 "Policies" to be implemented with 89 "Programs" (give or take). This takes 16 hardcopy pages, with 14 more pages of introduction and wrap-up (PDF). Second, I had numerous questions about what the wording meant and why certain elements were present. Third, as a veteran of strategic planning in a private sector company smaller than the city government, I found the elements displayed inadequate critical thinking, both in the underlying intent and in the wording.

This section of the Comprehensive Plan will be discussed on August 11 meeting of the Citizens Advisory Committee, so you have only a few days to submit online comments. The deadline is 9am on August 5, but this was not part of the announcement that went out?you need to maneuver to the index listing the announcement to find the deadline. You may have gotten the very muted announcement of this sometime between July 25-28 if you were subscribed in the "correct" places.

Be Aware: The public is being asked to comment on the current version of the CompPlan rather than on the current draft of the Update (PDF mentioned above). That draft Update has significant changes: in content, in language and in structure. The comments here are relative to the draft Update, not the current CompPlan.

But public comments are probably moot: The meeting is 150 minutes, with 143 items to be discussed by a 20-person committee and City Staff. Because of legal requirements, the meeting allows for in-person public comment, but that is scheduled for the end of the meeting, after all decisions have been made.
Update: CAC Vice Chair Arthur Keller informs me that the format of the meeting has been changed to have public comment at the beginning of the meeting.

What follows is a sample of the problems I spotted in a quick read-through of the proposed update.

Where did my problems begin? With the very first word, "Prioritize". The basic purpose of strategic planning is identifying and making choices. If you prioritize everything, you have prioritized nothing. The word "prioritize" is ambiguous. It may mean to make the item the/a top priority. Or it may mean the process of determining how important that item is, and that process may result in it be being ranked low, high or anywhere in between. The statement of that first goal is ambiguous between these two senses, but my guess is that it meant to be the first. If so, it doesn't give any sense of where it ranks relative to the other items that are to be "prioritized".

This very basic problem with the statement of the very first top-level goal is indicative of a lack of leadership and due diligence in the basics of formulating a strategic plan. As I read the items, I saw this repeatedly and consistently. However, don't be too quick to fault the contributors. This update has dragged on for 9 years already, so people can be excused for thinking that effort expended "getting it right" will be for naught.

My second problem comes with the second sentence, which is the first policy and is new: "Promote City stewardship of its parks, facilities, programs and services for present and future generations." As I interpret it, this is a fancy way of saying "Do proper maintenance of the facilities." Isn't this a basic function of the government? So why does it need to be part of the plan? There are multiple instances of this problem in this section.

The next sentence is the second goal and also new: "Recognize and respond to the City's changing population demographics in order to meet the needs of Palo Alto's diverse community." Isn't this a verbose "Be competent managers."

The next category of problem is in the fourth policy, again new: "Incorporate the 'Developmental Assets' approach into the City's planning, development, implementation and evaluation of programs and services for children and youth." This plan is supposed to cover the next 15 years, but it locks City Hall into a very specific approach: "Developmental Assets" is a registered trademark of . Not only is such lock-in bad, but you don't want to use the name of a product/approach as a proxy for what you want to achieve: What if they change it? Or refuse to change it in the face of research showing serious failings? Or ??

Policy C1.12 is another instance of the CompPlan locking the City into a specific group (Project Safety Net). This is not saying anything bad about the programs or groups, but exercising reasonable paranoia about what can happen to groups and coalitions over the years. For example, at the time the current CompPlan was being drafted, City Hall had a close relationship with Digital Equipment Corporation?imagine a CompPlan specifying DEC computers. Or those of Compaq which bought DEC, or of HP that merged with Compaq ?

I suspect that City Hall didn't pay attention to the wording of Program C1.5.1: "Facilitate and expand access to existing and future farmers' markets throughout Palo Alto." Because it is "future" instead of "any future", the current version reads as commitment to additional farmers' markets, regardless of demand.

Similarly for Program C1.5.3 (new): "Ensure that City-provided vending machines, café menus, and menus for City-sponsored events provide healthy, nutritional and affordable food and beverage alternatives." The word "ensure" means monitoring and enforcement, and that means staff time = money. Was this intended? I suspect that this is a "Sounds good to me!" item, one of many, where nobody bothered to consider the common examples. For example, a public outreach meeting where City staff brings some bottled water would be in violation: There is no "alternative" provided to the water, and many people's interpretation of the word "nutritious" doesn't include water. However, the basic question is "Does this, and many items like it, belong in this document?"

Am I being petty? Yes, and that is precisely the point. Strategic plans should be subjected to substantial critical thinking and the ease with which I was able to come up with numerous examples of how the items failed is an indication that this plan didn't receive even token due diligence.

One of the basic criticism of the current Comprehensive Plan was that every interest group and advocacy group was allowed to throw in its favored programs and causes, and there was no sense of prioritization, tradeoffs, cost/benefit, ? It created a situation where anyone could find support in the CompPlan for anything they wanted to do, and opponents could similarly find CompPlan items supporting their position. Rather than being an actual plan and guide, the CompPlan is simply cherry-picked to provide rationalizations for actions.

"Comprehensive" was meant to indicate breadth of coverage, not "Something for everyone"?or more accurately "Lots of things for everyone who had enough free time to participate in interminable meetings"?and certainly not to mean "Nothing is too small or trite to be included."

North Palo Alto Bias
One of the persistent problems in Palo Alto politics is a strong North Palo Alto bias. The draft update makes this worse, and the unrepresentativeness of the appointees to the Citizens Advisory Committee is likely to further this. Of the 17 appointees to the Committee, 7 live within 6 blocks of University Avenue and another 2 live north of Embarcadero; only 5 of the appointees live south of Page Mill/Oregon (map). The city has a long painful history of its North Palo Alto political elite being uninterested in even learning about conditions in the rest of the city, often to the extent that they projected a sense that the "hinterlands" was so irrelevant that it might as well not exist.

For example, there was a policy "Strategically locate public facilities and parks to serve all neighborhoods in the City" which is to become C4.8 "Locate new parks and community facilities so that it is safe to walk and bike to them from all neighborhoods." I suspect that the authors once again forgot about neighborhoods like Palo Alto Hills (between I-280 and Foothill Park). Are we really going to delay opening any new facilities until it is "safe" (whatever that means) to walk/bike from that neighborhood?

Two pieces of evidence that the authors didn't bother to even glance at a map of Palo Alto in making their proposals: Program C1.14.2: "Maintain existing senior programs and seek opportunities to expand programs, including programs promoting health, life-long learning, recreation, arts and cultural experiences designed for seniors at all public community facilities and parks." Notice "all". The College Terrace Neighborhood has multiple small parks, and two of them?Weisshaar and Werry Parks?are in the middle of adjacent blocks. Similarly for Cameron Park and Mayfield Park/College Terrace Library. Does it make sense to seek to duplicate efforts in those pairs of parks (or the quartet)? Similarly, one of the facilities on City Hall's Parks Interactive Map is the Skateboard Park. When I think "seniors" and "Skateboard Park", I don't think "promote health" or "cultural experiences" or ?

This refusal to let "facts on the ground" interfere with ideology or grand visions is a long standing one: In the mid-1990s I was a participant in the workshops and meetings for the current CompPlan, and this was on full display then. For example, the bike advocates specified a bike route because it looked good on the map they were using, but that particular map didn't show the location of houses, and they were unwilling to consider that that route would require condemning 20-some homes.

Reminder: I am pointing out the absurdities to indicate how little critical thought and due diligence must have gone into these exemplars, and thus an indication of the broad, general problem with this.

Controversial Proposals
Policy C3.5 includes "Support the rigorous compliance with, or exceeding whenever possible, the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA),". This may seem laudable until you know how the new phrase "or exceeding whenever possible" has been used. This was part of my very first blog entry, "Librarians Against Books: Subverting the will of the electorate." As a stratagem to reduce the number of books in the library, the Library Director pushed for wider aisles between the bookcases (fewer bookcases = fewer books), first falsely claiming it was required by ADA and then arguing for above-and-beyond, even though leaders of the ADA community said that those wider aisles provided no benefit to them. It is a sad commentary on City Hall that people like me know that such a clause needs to be regarded not just as something that City Hall will likely pervert, but likely something that may have been added with the perverse intent of it being abused.

Program C3.2.1 (new) "Align capital improvement projects with statewide and regional grants and outside funding sources in order to leverage limited City capital funds." Again, here you need to look at what already has happened ("Past is prologue"). We saw former Chief Transportation Official, and now-consultant, Jaime Rodriguez pursue grants that were contrary to official policy. Regional agencies?ABAG, MTC? are attempting to use grants to "persuade" cities to "drink the Cool-aid" of massive densification. Part of the decade-long battles over California Avenue was City Hall's inclination to distort policy to fit potential grants, rather than emphasize what was good for Palo Alto and its residents. This program can be seen as sanctioning end-runs around the voters and legitimate policy-making.

Policy C3.4 has been changed from "Maintain and enhance existing park facilities." to "Maintain and enhance existing urban park facilities in order to keep up with changing recreational and sports trends and public interests." The red flag is "sports trends". There have been a number of prominent advocates who have wanted to shift the parks from serving all age groups to giving top priority to organized athletics, especially youth athletics, and serving people from nearby cities that haven't provided parks and athletic fields for their residents. There was advocacy a number of years ago that got squelched before it became too public that would have converted most parks into soccer fields (game and practice), leaving little for families who wanted to go somewhere nearby that they could let their small children run around.

Policy C4.2 (new) is likely an attack on the Natural Environment within Palo Alto proper: "Parks and open space should be included in climate mitigation planning to preserve the natural environment, reduce the amount of carbon emissions and positively contribute in meeting the City's Climate Protection goals." Although this sentence seems to give protection to the natural environment, it allows that aspect to be overridden in favor of the others. Again, remember what has already happened or been tried. During the debate on the Composting Facility in the Baylands?and the earlier attempt to put an industrial trash sorting facility there?we saw the leaders of the "Sustainability" community repeatedly characterize natural habitat, habitat corridors? as wasted land. Many sustainability advocates are actively hostile to natural habitat within urban boundaries, seeing it as wasted space that should instead be used for higher density housing.

There are a number of items that are written in a way that they exclude people not using certain technologies. For example, Policy C2.1 ? "Engaging the Community" ? and its Programs C2.1.1 and C2.1.2 use the terms "innovative ways", "social media" and "internet listings" without any mention or awareness of residents with other preferences or needs. By the way, this policy is probably contrary to ADA.

More importantly, this policy is another demonstration of a lack of leadership in the drafting process. Someone in the leadership should have said "Whoa. This may work for you and people like you, but what about others? We need to think about them."

In Palo Alto, cost is no object
There are the expected examples of hubris, such as Policy C2.4 which call for Palo Alto to take on an outsized role: "Fully participate and continue to take an active leadership role in addressing community service issues that cross jurisdictional lines." And numerous items that specify that Palo Alto taxpayers should "support" a wide range of outside groups and activities (experience is that "support" often means various subsidies: direct payments and indirect contributions such as Staff time and free use of other resources.

Program C3.2.5 (new) "Enhance existing childcare and senior care facilities to meet emerging and future needs." seems to authorize an open-ended and very large expenditures of public funds. Notice that there is no mention of "Palo Alto" relative to "needs". This is not a minor point. One of the long-term trends in Palo Alto politics is that there are multiple advocacy groups with the view "Palo Altans are so rich that they can ...". I have routinely heard that exact phrase. These advocates confuse Palo Alto having some very rich people with everyone in Palo Alto being absurdly rich. And they refuse to understand that the typical tax Palo Alto can levy is regressive. Should Palo Alto taxpayers be providing senior care for people throughout the SF Bay area? Should Palo Alto taxpayers be relieving highly profitable companies of the need to provide child-care for their employees? The wording of this program indicates that its proponents answered "Yes".

Call to Action
Normally the summary of an article like this contains a call to action. However, one of the basic themes of the entries in this blog (closing in on 2 years old) has been problems with public input, and the need to fix those problems. I don't know what to suggest.

My earlier blog entries and related GuestOp:
? Unrepresentative Sample of the Community? 2015-05-15.
? Why not "constructive engagement" with City Hall? 2014-10-23.
? Visioning or Potemkin Villages? 2014-05-08.
? Guest Opinion: Improving Palo Alto's stakeholder group process by John Guislin, Palo Alto Weekly, 2014-05-08.
? "Why the City doesn't hear residents' perspectives? It doesn't want to" : Part 1, Part 2, Part 3. 2013 December 3-6.

Palo Alto Online/Weekly articles:
? Editorial: Nine years in, a citizens committee: After almost a decade of meandering work, a final push begins for a new Comprehensive Plan for Palo Alto, 2015-07-17.
? Citizen panel brings focus to Palo Alto's long-term vision: New committee holds its first meeting on city's Comprehensive Plan, 2015-07-15.
? Panel appointed to help update Palo Alto's land-use vision: New group charged with recommending changes to Comprehensive Plan, 2015-07-07.

An abbreviated index by topic and chronologically is available.

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