Recreating the Planning and Transportation Commission: Part 2: Credibility and Confidence | A Pragmatist's Take | Douglas Moran | Palo Alto Online |

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By Douglas Moran

Recreating the Planning and Transportation Commission: Part 2: Credibility and Confidence

Uploaded: Aug 23, 2015

The credibility of the Planning and Transportation Commission (PTC) involves its relationship to three groups: (1) the City Council which appoints it and to which it reports; (2) the City Staff, in the dual role of being the PTC's staff and of being a group that the PTC is supposed to help Council oversee; (3) the rest of the community, both residents as an amorphous group and organized interest groups. This is a complicated balancing act, and has often been badly out-of-balance.

----Relationship with City Council----

The previous City Council chose to destroy the credibility of the PTC with large segments of the community by removing representatives of broader community perspectives, and overloading it with a very narrow range of special interests. Most brazenly, the outgoing Council were widely regarded changing the PTC composition to undercut the results of the Council election. The August 12th meeting showed a PTC in open revolt against City policy,(foot#1) using classic obstructionist tactics such blocking any action by arguing that the proposed action isn't absolutely perfect (classic admonition: "The perfect is the enemy of the good-enough")(foot#2) and placing the interests of developers first. Oh, and spending time discussing a proposal that not even its originator supported.

The reverse situation has also occurred: A diligent PTC was subverted by a Council that was intent on favoring special interests. Developers were telling PTC members that their hearings were irrelevant because the developer had already had extensive (private) discussions with various Council members and consequently was confident of what Council would give them. The most prominent example from this period was the Alma Plaza PC zoning. The PTC and City Staff had twice—for the "pre-screening" and final hearings—done extensive work to gather and synthesize public input and add their own analysis. Despite this, many Council members demonstrated spectacular unawareness of the basics contained in the PTC report—I wouldn't be surprised if a majority of that Council hadn't even tried to read the report. However, the highlight (lowlight?) came when, in dismissing a wide range of factual and analytical objections to the project, one Council member gave the justification "We all know McNellis (the developer) from serving on boards together" (my notes). My initial shock was that a Council member would so explicitly acknowledge cronyism in such a public event, but my bigger shock came when I looked around and didn't see any of the other Council members or the audience reacting—just another day in Palo Alto politics.

----Relationship with the public----

I have written extensively in this blog, and elsewhere here on Palo Alto Online, about the problems of public input before Commissions and the Council (link to index at end). Quick summary: First, if you show up at a hearing, you are likely to be dismissed—unrepresentative ("one of the usual suspects"), uninformed?and if you don't, you are uninterested. This is not individual arrogance, but rather the interplay of a variety of factors.

Second, if you testify about problems in a proposal—either the Staff Report or the proposal by the developer/advocate—you should not be surprised to be admonished for not having raised issue earlier, even though you did and your testimony is about a continuing failure to address the issue. Because it has long been known, and even officially acknowledged, that many concerns raised by the public are ignored by the Staff reports,(foot#3) this sort of lecturing from the dais can be presumed to be hostile, rather than a result of cluelessness and inattentiveness.

While residents will be publicly admonished from the dais, I have never, ever, heard a PTC member even ask the Planning Director why the Staff report and presentation failed to address major concerns and issues raised by residents. Similarly for City Council and the City Manager. While avoiding public criticism of employees for the occasional lapse is appropriate management practice, when "lapses" become standard practices, that silence becomes consent.

Third, the structure of the hearings routinely results in residents feeling that their testimony has been ignored: "If I am going to be ignored, I rather do so in the comfort of my own home" (the benches in Council chambers are notoriously uncomfortable for most people).

There don't seem to be either simple or incremental fixes. For example, on an issue I had long worked on, I made an email submission to the PTC on omissions and other problems in the Staff report, and then-chair of the PTC Mark Michael offered me additional time beyond the normal speaker limit. Council similarly allows groups of speakers to "bundle" their allocations. However, these dispensations seem ineffective, being overwhelmed by what comes before and after.

When residents regard streaming an archived video of a meeting as an improvement over being at the meeting, there is a serious problem.

----Relationship with City Staff----

Background: The term "Regulatory Capture" became prominent in 1971, but awareness of the phenomenon probably dates to the 1950s. This refers to the natural inclination of regulatory agencies to bond with the companies and industries they are supposed to regulate, that is, taking their side against the public interest they are supposed to be protecting. Those advocating against regulation often portray this as inevitable, but there are a range of measures that are effective in avoiding this.

Although the name "Regulatory Capture" implies it is unintentional and unwanted, sometimes it is the opposite: Some politicians came to see facilitating capture as a way to say one thing while doing the opposite.

A similar phenomenon occurs within government agencies, where those appointed by elected official to lead the agencies get captured by the bureaucracy and their agenda, which can conflict with that of the electorate. The British have a term for this that was inherited from colonialism: "going native".(foot#4) I know of no similar term in US politics, an absence I find interesting.

Back to the PTC: A key role of the PTC is providing oversight of Staff and one of the checks against regulatory capture. For example, when Staff has gone through multiple rounds of revisions of a developer's proposed project, it is easy for Staff to come have a sense of ownership of the result. We need PTC members who are going to be on the lookout for unconscious capture and to challenge it. Just because a fox is a canid, you can't put it in a henhouse and call it a guard dog.

Another key role is to supervise the formulation of policy—new or updates—to have it ready for debate and decision by the City Council. This is a combination of oversight and management, and the latter leaves them vulnerable to capture by Staff. Over the years, I have seen a few times where Staff refused to take PTC direction and an ad hoc committee of PTC members wrote the required documents (Pat Burt and Michael Griffin deserve special thanks). However, the PTC usually contents itself with making limited adjustments to what Staff gives it.

The same situation occurs at the Council level. For example, the City Manager and PTC is presenting Council with proposed "reforms" to the Planned Community (PC) zoning have been widely derided as unresponsive to Council's directions and public sentiment. For example, see the Weekly's Editorial: Unworthy PC 'reforms': Proposed changes to special 'planned community' zoning should be firmly rejected (2015-08-21) and Council set to revive — and revise — contentious zoning tool (2015-08-22).

----The public as staff----

One of the routine responses to criticisms of Staff reports is that Staff is stretched too thin. There is an element of truth to this, City Hall—the City Manager and City Council—tries to be too many things to too many people and groups. But City Hall also rejects and discards tremendous amounts of efforts by the public on these issues. To understand what is possible, look at the Residential Preferred Parking Permit Program (RPP - don't ask about the missing P's) for the University Avenue area. This would not have happened without the heavy involvement of residents at every stage: defining the problem, collecting the data, developing the alternatives, public outreach, and general "care-and-feeding" (keeping it from dying of "starvation" and other forms of bureaucratic neglect). Similarly for the RPP for College Terrace.

In contrast, I have served on too many committees and panels where the primary purpose seemed to be to exhaust enough of the residents so that there no longer was the critical mass needed to achieve anything. When you make cooperation an exercise in futility, you forfeit the right to talk about "civility".


The problem with the PTC is not going to be fixed with a tweak here and a tweak there. Turning the situation around is going to take a lot of work spread over a lot of people. For example, applications are currently being accepted for one of the seven seats on the PTC (closes this Wednesday 8/26). But is someone going to apply if they foresee at least a year of being marginalized by the current stacked membership? Possibly, if that person was convinced of having enough support from above (Council) and below (the public). But the latter is a chicken-and-the-egg problem: They have become so disillusioned with the PTC that they are unlikely to return, and even if they do, the impact will be slight. All they can hope to accomplish is to demonstrate a base of support that will encourage others to apply for the PTC in the next round (summer 2016, two positions).

When people tell me that they support change, I try to get them to see that "support" needs to be more than private agreement and voting that way in the next Council election. The spreading of awareness of this type of problem is slow, so to be a factor in the Council election it needs to start soon. A side benefit is that as it spreads, it might intrude into the social circles of our ruling class and gain some legitimacy with them.


1. Planning commission slams Palo Alto's proposed office cap: Commissioners say proposal unfair to developers, ineffective in reining in city's pace of growth by Gennady Sheyner, Palo Alto Online/Weekly, 2015-08-12.

2. At the national level, the prominent examples of this obstructionist tactic are in the debate on climate change, where the deniers use the slightly controversy—real or manufactured—to try to block taking any actions whatsoever.

3. In a 2013 interview with the Palo Alto Weekly, City Manager James Keene is reported as acknowledging "The findings in the staff reports tend to support the particular staff recommendation rather than represent all views." See: "Residents, developers clash over city's vision:?" (Palo Alto Weekly 2013-07-19) and the accompanying editorial "In city that loves to plan, Palo Alto's creates cynicism".

4. This was the theme of a BBC-TV situation comedy Yes Minister and its sequel Yes, Prime Minister. The TV shows inspired books, now out-of-print, that I found to be vastly superior because they were more sophisticated, nuanced and detailed, and the characters more credible (the TV show was played as broad comedy, with the main characters close to buffoons, but was still effective in making its points).

An abbreviated index by topic and chronologically is available.

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