Letter: Deja vu—Newly-elected Council members take aim at HMB Planning Commission

Letter to the editor

By on Fri, December 16, 2005

Lani Ream is a former Chair of the Half Moon Bay Planning Commission. Before she moved out the Coastside in 2004, she was a longtime resident of Half Moon Bay. In 1998, before becoming a Planning Commissioner, she was part of a grass-roots movement that collected over 1000 signatures in less than 10 days to protect the structure of the City’s Planning Commission from politically-motivated tampering.     

A December 7 article in the San Mateo County Times reported that newly-elected Council Members Bonnie McClung and Naomi Patridge will attempt to implement "a plank in their campaign platform" by "downsizing the Planning Commission from seven to five members." In the article, McClung also stated that she wants to "facilitate citizen participation." Both McClung and Patridge took office on Tuesday December 6 after McClung defeated incumbent Mike Ferreria by just 15 votes. A recount requested by Ferreria is currently underway.

Longtime Coastside residents might be feeling a sense of deja vu over the idea of purging the Planning Commission of two members in the aftermath of a City Council election. On January 6, 1998, newly-elected Council Member Betty Stone joined incumbents Jerry Donovan and then-Mayor Naomi Patridge to pass an ordinance that reduced the Planning Commission from seven to five members. [PDF]
Prior to the adoption of the 1998 ordinance,input from the public warned that it was "a very bad idea" to "replace our planning commission with a revolving crew of political appointees whose planning horizon is only as far as the next election." [PDF] Stone, Donovan, and Patridge forged ahead and passed the ordinance over the dissent of Council Member Dennis Coleman, while the fifth Council Member, Debbie Ruddock, was absent.

The 1998 City ordinance spurred a group of Half Moon Bay residents, including myself, to circulate a petition in support of a referendum that would overturn the Council’s decision and restore the Planning Commission to its original seven-member configuration. A sample of some of the flyers handed out during the 1998 petition drive can be downloaded from Coastsider.

On Tuesday, February 3, 1998, our group turned in a total of 1,026 signatures, 62 percent more than were needed to force the City Council to either rescind the ordinance or put it up for a Citywide vote [HMB Review story]. On Tuesday, February 17, 1998, the City Council backed down and repealed the ordinance [HMB Review story].   
Some may also recall that back in 1998, Half Moon Bay was in the midst of considering the notorious Wavecrest project for approval at the local level. As part of our petition drive, we surveyed the Planning Departments of Woodside, Los Altos, Los Gatos, Santa Clara, Monterey, and Carmel. All had seven-member Planning Commissions with terms staggered from those of the City Council. In calling around, we heard comments like these:

From Los Gatos, "Concurrent terms would completely politicize a commission that should be an impartial panel of individuals who interpret, to the best of their ability, the land use plan of our City. That would open the door to political favors."

From Los Altos, "The Planning Commission of Los Altos is in no way, at all, tied to the elections of our City Council."

From Woodside, "We recently changed our nominations such that no appointments to the Planning Commission occur either immediately before or after elections to the City Council. We did this in an attempt to make it as hard as possible to politicize our Commission."     

Last week’s online edition of the Half Moon Bay Review also carried a story about the possibility of downsizing the Planning Commission. The Review went to great lengths digging up the history of how the Planning Commission went from five to seven members back in 1996, but curiously omitted any mention of the more recent 1998 attempt at downsizing involving Stone, Donovan, and Patridge. Why do you suppose that is?

Written campaign materials distributed by McClung and Patridge made no mention of their intent to downsize the Planning Commission if elected. [PDF] McClung did not list the downsizing issue as a priority as part of her candidate profile at Smartvoter.org. She did, however, indicate a priority for "developing a long range planning and implementation process." A downsized Commission will be deprived of the knowledge and experience of two additional citizens. How does that improve long range planning and facilitate citizen participation in local government decisions?

McClung’s Smartvoter page lists her top priority as "Establishing open/transparent government practices and ending the polarization present in our politics today." How does a calculated political move to dump Planning Commissioners further that goal?   

Our current seven-member Planning Commission includes an architect, a retired educator, a journalist, a practicing lawyer, a mathematician, an economist, and an engineer. These people give their time and attention to our City with no compensation to help make studied planning decisions. 

The downsizing issue is set to be discussed at the next City Council meeting on Tuesday, December 20, 2005. My advice to Half Moon Bay residents is to step up and once again say "no" to any attempt to politicize the City’s Planning Commission. Do not back down from a referendum. In 1998, it took us less than 10 days to gather the required signatures. Back then, the Planning Departments we talked to were "horrified" by this kind of action.