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What I Say About Frank Gruber

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Suspicious Minds

By Frank Gruber

Roll back the tape. Now that that election is over, it's time to get back to the everyday policy grind in Santa Monica. With all those candidates to write about, I neglected my promise to obsessively keep readers informed of the progress of the City's process to update the land use and circulation elements (LUCE) of the City's general plan.

In particular, I missed reporting on an important joint meeting the City Council and the Planning Commission held Oct. 26. The purposes of the meeting were to meet the project team from consultants Dyett & Bhatia, discuss the various roles of the Council, the Commission, planning staff and the consultants, and review and approve the public participation program.

As readers of this column and the Lookout know, the Commission had previously held a short-noticed special meeting Oct. 9 to prepare its strategy for overseeing the process. ( "WHAT I SAY: Gangs What Gangs?" October 11, 2004" and "Planning Commission Preps Land Use," October 12, 2004" )

After the Oct. 9 meeting, the Commission submitted to the Council a memorandum asserting the Commission's authority to participate "proactively" and not merely deliberatively in the drafting of the plan updates. The Commission based its argument on language in the Municipal Code that says the Commission, "with the assistance of the Planning Director," will "prepare and recommend" the general plan.

Staff replied with an analysis from the city attorney saying that the "prepare and recommend" language conflicted with controlling language in the City Charter saying that the Commission had the power only to recommend, not prepare; clearly staff was concerned that the Commission wanted to write the update itself.

Hackles were raised.

But as reported in the Lookout, everyone made nice at the Oct. 26 meeting, and a "potential power struggle among City officials to control a plan that will shape Santa Monica's future fizzled into a seemingly happy compromise." ("Council Distributes Control," October 28, 2004)

So why review the history of what seems to have become a non-issue? It's not only my obsession. No; the conflict that the Council mediated was bigger than a minor conflict between the City Charter and the Municipal Code, and this bigger conflict will inform the entire update process and is worth understanding.

The rhetoric that you will hear from everyone involved in the LUCE update process is that the process must be open and transparent so that the documents reflect the will of the people. But there are at least two contradictions underlying the rhetoric. One is that there is likely to be more than one "will" of the people; i.e., the people have varying desires for the future for the city.

Another contradiction is that all the people actively involved in the LUCE process have their own views of what the will of the people should be. They are concerned about who in the public is heard from and how what they say is interpreted.

It boils down to politics. Planning commissioners will vote on draft versions of the updates, while the City Council has the final say, as well as interim "say's" from time to time. Commissioners and council members, regardless how they vote, will want to be able to point to something in the record that shows that they are not merely exercising their judgment and authority, but are instead merely reflecting the will of the people.

So what is in the record is important.

There is a lot of suspicion out there. I'll start with people such as myself, who enjoy the urban amenities Santa Monica has, who would like to have more of the same, to a point, and who believe in general that more people living in good homes with good jobs are good things for Santa Monica. We are suspicious of anti-development planning commissioners, who do things like tell a developer who wants to replace an empty house on a big lot in the Pico Neighborhood (the Pico Neighborhood!) with twelve nice condos to build only eight instead because the commissioners want 20 fewer car trips a day on Virginia Avenue. (Which is what four commissioners did last Wednesday.)

On the other side of the coin, these commissioners are suspicious of planning staff and the consultants. As Commissioner Jay Johnson said at the Oct. 9 meeting (as quoted in the Lookout), "'Many of us have been very unhappy with how they [meetings with the consultants] have been handled.' . . . 'We go through and say what we want, and they go back and write what they want.'"

And that was said even before the process had started.

The reason the no-growth commissioners are suspicious of the professionals has to do with substance, not procedure; the work plan is overflowing with outreach, and they know it. But they also know that current thinking in planning emphasizes urbanism, or, as it's variously called, "new urbanism" or "smart growth," and that urbanism implies more density (as well as host of policies to enhance livability).

Consultants and planning staff tend to be book-learned in these subjects, and these commissioners are worried this book-learning will be used against the wishes of the "people" -- or at least the wishes of those people who regularly complain to the commissioners about how miserable life is in Santa Monica. Staff and consultants have designed the outreach efforts to get beyond the usual suspects who hang out at City Hall, and some commissioners are worried that the purpose of this is to "cook" the data.

These suspicious planning commissioners are not alone. There are council members who have the same fears. At the Oct. 26 meeting Ken Genser said that the staff's "effort to hold onto control" was getting the process "off on the wrong foot;" a few minutes later he said, regarding consultants, that at first it was good to have a "healthy distrust" that they would interpose their professional opinions between the people and the decision-makers.

It gets down to who will be listened to. At one point in the Oct. 26 meeting Council Member Kevin McKeown expressed concern that an employee of a local developer -- both developer and employee happen to be Santa Monica residents - had already appeared and had spoken at the Planning Commission's Oct. 9 special meeting.

The nerve. But the suspicions go both ways. Council Member Pam O'Connor expressed her concern that the Planning Commission -- mostly homeowners -- didn't reflect the diversity of the community, and she was worried that increasing commission oversight was a tool to delay the process; as she said it, "'We need more time' is a code phrase for people to use to hijack the process."

Fact is, the Planning Commission should take the lead oar in overseeing the process. Just as war is too important to leave to generals, a general plan is too important to leave to the professionals. When I was on the Commission the Commission prepared and/or recommended updates to various elements of the general plan. The Commission took both a proactive and a deliberative role, and I wouldn't begrudge the current Commission for wanting to do the same.

But let's not forget; we hire professionals for a reason, and it's not to be bumps on a log. The commissioners and the council members don't give up their own judgment by benefiting from someone else's expertise. I would reverse Council Member Genser's order of operations, and say that at first, a little "healthy trust" is in order.

* * *

Just when you want to trust everyone, and wallow in happy compromises, the Planning Commission short-noticed another meeting, this one to discuss a laundry list of LUCE items. (Agenda)

Emailed notices went out last Wednesday for another Saturday morning meeting at the Ken Edwards Center, where there are no facilities for videotaping meetings.

I won't hammer on the short notice issue, as the Commission received an earful on the subject from Council Member O'Connor and seemed genuinely committed to not having a short-noticed meeting again, and having all future meetings recorded on video.

As for the substance of the meeting, most of it was spent giving staff feedback on the language of a guidebook and questionnaire that the planning department will be sending to every household and business in Santa Monica. The purpose of the booklet is twofold: to explain what the LUCE update is all about, and to encourage residents and others to take walks in the city and communicate what they see back to the planners, who will then post all the feedback on the special LUCE update website (The site is still under construction, but the link will be:

While the bad news about the special meeting was that I spent an entire Saturday morning watching a meeting without benefit of a fast-forward button, the good news was that the meeting somewhat eased my paranoia. Whenever someone from the public or a commissioner would try to add their values to the booklet and questionnaire, calm voices on the Commission prevailed and directed the staff to make the documents as open-ended as possible.

At least for the moment, I am back to the "healthy trust" mode.

* * *

Book report: Just in time for the LUCE process, a new book has appeared that will be the perfect holiday gift for all Santa Monicans; a new history of our city entitled Santa Monica: A History on the Edge. The author is Paula A. Scott; I don't know who she is, but she deserves gratitude from all who have an interest in understanding our little city.

What's refreshing about the book is that of 150 pages, only eleven cover the past 30 years. Readers who read the book from the beginning instead of looking up their friends in the index, will learn that Santa Monica has been much more than what's in the memory of most people who live here now.

f the Library is looking for another book for everyone to read, I suggest this one.

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