Letter: Attacks against HMB planning commissioners are unfounded
Some of the commissioners were very concerned about overriding the recommendations of the California Coastal Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and of ignoring provisions of our Local Coastal Program (LCP) and zoning ordinances.
Sofia Freer is a former member of the Half Moon Bay Planning Commission
Two members of the city council attacked two of our planning commissioners without any justification following a marathon six-hour commission meeting on Aug 24. This could have been avoided if the city’s planning staff had not forced an issue by putting it on the agenda before all the facts were known.
At the council’s September 5 meeting, one outspoken member of the public accused "the chair and one other commissioner" of subjecting planning staff to "vitriolic criticism." His charge was later echoed in somewhat muted tones by the Mayor and one of the other council members. I viewed the videotape of the commission meeting several times, and saw no evidence of disrespect on the part of any of the commissioners.
If there was any disrespect, it was on the part of the planning staff toward the commission and the public. Staff chose to ignore the planning commission July 13 request for additional information, and decided to eliminate prior conditions of approval without the knowledge of the commission or public review. Five of the seven planning commissioners expressed disappointment with these actions. During my year on the commission, I saw a number of cases when city planners failed to comply with commission requests for additional information or changed staff reports without public discussion. But I never saw anything like what happened at the August 24 meeting.
During the Sept 5 City Council meeting, the Mayor said she had seen a videotape of the planning commission meeting and was "distressed" and "disturbed" with the way staff was treated. She said was "embarrassed" by the proceedings, and felt that the applications of "member agencies" should be placed early on any given agenda out of "respect". Another councilmember, who had not seen the tape, declared that the "meeting did not work", and asked, "What happens when there is inappropriate behavior of planning commissioners toward staff or public?" The one councilmember who was physically present at the planning commission meeting had no criticism of the proceedings.
I have spoken and written publicly about the need to be civil to one another and to maintain a neutral forum for diverse opinions: between staff members, elected officials, appointed boards and members of the attending public. Any dispassionate observer would have to agree that the most egregious assaults on civility at these meetings come from members of the attending public. It’s a shame that we don’t have a camera or microphone directed at the audience. [Letters to the editor of the Review]
Some members of the public and the Mayor also objected to the fact that CCWD’s application for pipeline replacement was placed last on the agenda. There has been a tradition in both city council and planning commission meetings to reorganize an agenda, as needed, to accommodate the largest number of audience members. The chair’s motion to change the agenda was unanimously approved by the commission. Should exceptions to this courteous behavior be made when the applicant represents another agency? Does that not make some citizens more equal than others?
Unfortunately, this meant that the pipeline project was discussed into the wee hours of the morning. As I listened to the videotape of the meeting, two things became apparent: (1) None of the commissioners wanted to torpedo the project, and (2) Some of the commissioners were very concerned about overriding the recommendations of the California Coastal Commission [letter from the Coastal Commission] and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and of ignoring provisions of our Local Coastal Program (LCP) and zoning ordinances.
The coastal commission cautioned that adequate mitigation measures could not be determined without wetland delineation or without a detailed description of both biological resources and specific locations of all construction activities. In a similar vein, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was not satisfied that the CCWD’s plan took adequate care for endangered species. The city’s LCP also requires protection of wetlands and habitats. The city’s zoning code requires that a biological report performed by a consultant selected by the city be submitted prior to development review. The zoning code, which also requires a use permit for pipeline installation through wetlands, makes an additional case for formal wetland delineation.
Had staff not rushed CCWD’s application onto the agenda before all the facts were known, and the concerns of the regulatory agencies had been addressed, the item could have been placed at the top of a future agenda. If that had been done, the meeting would have "worked" (to use the councilmember’s word) very well indeed. The problem was not with the planning commission, but rather with the rush to force a decision on a project that was not yet ripe for approval.
Why this was done is anyone’s guess. We do know that CCWD has been pressuring the City Council for rapid approval of their project [Letter from CCWD to the City].
I can’t understand why staff members need to be protected from respectful questioning, no matter how tough the questions may be. After all, they are adults who are paid to do a job. Admittedly their work can be difficult and stressful. Anyone who has worked with the public on a daily basis and who has had to operate in public knows that full well. Most of the staff does good work most of the time under these difficult conditions. Of course, the planning department’s job would be easier if the planning commission rubber-stamped all their recommendations and all elected and appointed officials ignored their errors. But is it good governance if elected officials or their appointees look the other way when members of the staff fail to provide requested information or to take direction from them as required by law?
Half Moon Bay