Debate heats up on proposal to restructure HMB Planning Commission

By on Tue, January 10, 2006

At the January 3 meeting, the Half Moon Bay City Council resumed deliberation on a proposal initiated by Council members Patridge and McClung to reduce the size of the planning commission from 7 to 5 members and to make the terms of the commissioners run concurrent with those of the sponsoring Council members. The issue was previously discussed at the December 20 meeting

After a lengthy debate where each Council member weighed in more than once, Patridge made a motion for the draft ordinance under discussion to be formally introduced into the legal record for a vote at the next meeting on January 17. The motion was seconded by McClung and passed on a 3-to-2 vote. Fraser sided with Patridge and McClung while Gorn and Grady voted no.

If passed into law, the ordinance would end the terms of five sitting commissioners (McCarthy, Freer, Falcone, Lansing, and Kellenberger), effective on the date of the ordinance. The terms of the other two sitting commissioners (Poncini and Benjamin) would be adjusted to expire on December 31, 2007, so as to run concurrent with the terms of Council members Fraser and Gorn. Council members Patridge, McClung, and Grady would then presumably each have the opportunity to appoint a planning commissioner whose term expires on December 31, 2009.

One contentious issue was the idea of adopting concurrent terms in place of the existing arrangement that imposes staggered terms relative to those of the City Council. Gorn and Grady asked City Manager Debra Ryan to bring back additional information about the use of staggered versus concurrent terms in other local cities, as well as the reasoning behind the chosen setup.

The original ordinance that established the Half Moon Bay Planning Commission on September 16, 1959 called for a 5-member commission with a staggered-term arrangement for the members . At the time, there were four separate term expiration dates for 5 commissioners. The current staggered-term arrangement uses only two separate expiration dates for 7 commissioners. But those expiration dates are chosen specifically to fall during years when there is no scheduled City Council election. The draft ordinance discussed on January 3 would create a 5-member commission with terms that always expire during City Council election years.

The Council discussion touched on a number of intertwined issues. What is the right number of commissioners for planning efficiency or effectiveness? What is the logic behind the expiration of terms? Why does the current ordinance need to be changed if it already allows the replacement of commissioners without cause?

One pointed exchange between Council members Gorn and Patridge highlights the controversy that this proposal has stirred up on the Coastside. Gorn said “I don’t think we are talking about 5 or 7 planning commissioners. I don’t think we are talking about increased efficiency or streamlining the process…If you want to appoint your own people, then that is what you should do. Changing the rules is a red herring.”  Patridge responded “For you to sit there and tell me that I have not been upfront really makes me angry, because I have been upfront.”

As part of Coastsider’s continuing effort to provide coverage of this story available nowhere else, click "read more" to see actual excerpts from the January 3, City Council debate, as well as statements from members of the public speaking before the Council.

Mayor Marina Fraser

“There has been a lot of talk about this being politicized. You have to face the facts. When people are elected, they choose people to go on boards and commissions who reflect their views. This is no different than anything that has happened before.”

“Maybe we should give 5 planning commissioners a try for a year to see how the process works. The people who elected the people here have asked them to do certain things—-we are not making it political just now.”

Vice Mayor Naomi Patridge

“It’s been stated that Bonnie and I did not speak about changing the planning commission. I did speak about it. Everything that I have brought forward, I did speak about at forums and I did talk to people about it. People knew that I was interested in bringing the planning commission back to 5 members.”

“If people do not want the terms to be concurrent, I am not etched in stone about that. But it does make it easier to remove somebody—-so it does not polarize people.”

Council Member Bonnie McClung

“I think we need concurrent terms so that we can be humane. I take offense at saying that anyone who I would appoint would not be independent of me, because that is not accurate. The planning commissioners do need to be independent and not under the influence of the Council members. But I would like to see someone on the planning commission who reflects the people who voted for me. I would like to see some diversity and balance. I do not see balance right now. I do not see a great deal of diversity of thinking.”

“We have proposed something that will appoint people cleanly in the future who reflect the people elected to the City Council.”

Council Member David Gorn

“The reason for the staggered terms is to create independence from the City Council election cycle. About one-half of the cities in San Mateo County have 5 planning commissioners while the others have 7. But none of the cities in the County have concurrent terms.”

“One of the big things that separates this city from others in the County is that we have a lot more planning decisions to make since we are in the coastal zone. It is very hard and we all know that. If you want a compelling reason for 7 commissioners, then that is it. I have not heard a compelling reason for 5 commissioners” 

Council Member Jim Grady

“There is reason and good thinking behind good public policy. It is not just happenstance. We are talking about two issues here. One, should the planning commission be 7 or 5 members? Two, should the planning commission appointments run staggered or concurrent with the City Council members?

“Land use should be as politically disconnected as it can be. I think to have the planning commission—-the very body that is making decisions about the Coastal Act—-be tied directly to the City Council is folly. I would like to know what other communities do. If other communities don’t do that, then we should understand why that is.”

List of speakers for agenda item 8 at January 3, 2006 meeting of Half Moon Bay City Council

Scott Singer, Half Moon Bay
“Do not remove the planning commission. Keep the knowledge there and let them filter and do the work—giving you time to catch up and learn about what is going on in the City.”

John Lynch, Half Moon Bay
“I can suggest one change that would show you are going in the wrong direction. There are two cities in the coastal zone in California—-Point Arena and Irvine—-that do not even have a have a planning commission. You could do whatever you want by getting rid of the planning commission.”

Jules Sofar, Half Moon Bay
“Normally when a group wants to do something in a nonpolitical manner that has political implications, they make it effective down the road. If you decide to reduce the size of the planning commission, then there is no reason why you can’t make it effective two years from now. That would remove any political implications. Right now, many in the community see this as a political move.”

Jeff Corbett, Half Moon Bay
“This proposal seems a bit peculiar because it was not stated in the campaign platform during the election period. One must wonder why the first action of the City Council is to reconstitute the planning commission…There is a suggestion to change the rules of appointment to be one appointment per City Council member, coinciding with the Council member’s period of service. I find this to be a potentially dangerous form of tampering with an otherwise sound system of checks and balances.”

Harvey Rarback, Half Moon Bay
“Our new council members ran on a platform openness, transparency, and honesty. Then all of a sudden, when they get elected, it seems like the first thing they do is rush into an unwise decision to restructure the planning commission. My feeling is that if the new council members had been honest and announced that this was their intention, we would not be here arguing about this unwise position.”

Joe Falcone, Half Moon Bay planning commissioner speaking as an individual
“You can’t have staggered and concurrent at the same time…The Council members terms are staggered in time. The planning commission terms are either going to be coincident and concurrent with the Council members’ terms, or they are going to be staggered from the terms of the City Council.”

Mike Kimsey, Half Moon Bay
“I think the City Council will accomplish more of what it wants to accomplish by leaving the planning commission exactly as it is…Whenever you try to make such a massive change, you will have more people resisting rather than cooperating as you want. Wider public support actually helps you accomplish your objectives.”

Bob Hansen, Half Moon Bay
“I am here to encourage you to change the structure of the planning commission. I served on the planning commission for five years. It was a very difficult time with 7 members. During my first year, there were only 5 members and it was much more workable. With a 7 member commission, it took longer and you got less done. I think most people want to move things along.”

Kerry Burke, Half Moon Bay
“I also support re-establishing the 5-member planning commission. When I was on staff here almost 20 years ago, we had a 5-member planning commission. It has served the City well for 40 years. I really think it will be more efficient and more effective. It will save staff time and save money for copying and conferences.”

Michael La Guardia, Half Moon Bay
“It seems to me that the number of planning commissioners, while important, is not the real issue…The important issue at hand is the politicization of the planning process. Changing the terms of the commissioners to run concurrent with the City Council seems to be a bad idea. My friend John Lynch shared with me some of his research which shows that none of the other cities within San Mateo County actually have planning commissioners serving concurrent terms.” 

Kevin Lansing, Half Moon Bay planning commissioner speaking as an individual
“The terms of the commissioners are staggered, or decoupled, from those of the City Council to provide some independence of the planning commission. Why is that? Because independence provides some measure of checks and balances on the decisions that are made. The system recognizes the fact that the planning commission and the City Council are not always going to see eye to eye. That is why the appeals process is in place.”

Tom Roman, Half Moon Bay
“I want to comment on the idea of more public input at planning commission meetings. Maybe reducing the number of planning commissioners is a way to do it and maybe there are other ways to do it…One thing that was very frustrating for me was to have a 3-minute window to get out a lot of information on the substandard lot issue and then listen to 45-minutes, one-hour, or even one-and-a-half-hour sometimes, of 7 commissioners discuss it and give us feedback. It was good feedback, but there was an immediate desire to interact back. But then the item would not come back on the agenda for another two months. So this was not an efficient way to interact with the planning commission.”

Dale Dunham, Half Moon Bay
“We have had a number of people, including several members of the planning commission, remark that the planning commission doesn’t make the law, it simply applies the law in performing its duties like a court. I was relieved to hear that’s how a commission works. Clearly then, at least from a political point of view, it makes no difference at all who is on the planning commission. Now if you believe that, and some of what has been said tonight, I suggest we pass this information on to the White House and Congress. I am sure they will be pleased to apply this philosophy and do away with the significant dissension and needless fuss over appointments to the Supreme Court.”