By Jim Rodriguez
An independent planning commission is essential for a balance of power between people and government. This entity represents a semi-judicial body, responsible for decisions on many complex land issues. Each of the five councilpersons selects one planning commissioner (PC) to act as a voice and final check on the cities’ process of developing and improving land use.
I have had the honor to sit as a commissioner for the last six years for Councilman Alex Saab’s district 5. In my experience, having five Downey citizens' input is critical to establish an “of the people” balance.
This kind of citizen input can make the oversight process cumbersome. Although decisions by experienced staff and officials can be made more efficiently, without this outside input, the necessary checks and balances would be sacrificed. Loss of independence leads to the five-person planning commission acting simply as a rubber stamp without thoughtful scrutiny of the requests brought before them, compromising citizen input.
The learning curve for an effective planning commission is steep. Fortunately, California offers an annual Planning Commissioner Academy, typically attended by thousands. The academy teaches and encourages planning commissioners to maintain their independence, ask tough questions, challenge staff, think critically, and commit to a thorough review of projects to uncover solutions through compromise with applicants and city staff.
There is strong pressure to go along with staff’s recommendation without counterbalancing it with your own independent review, study, and thought. By resisting this pressure, cities can reap the benefit of improved development, staff motivation, and quality of work. Unfortunately, I don’t believe this goal is shared by our city staff.
Our city has encountered both challenge and success. We have seen inspiring new developments, as well as improved standards, including better radius ingress and egress curbing, improved business signage, and a more vibrant downtown reflective of conservative values put toward progressive ends. (ie., no to go-go dancers and marijuana, and increased hookah lounge restrictions).
The KB Homes townhouse development is a valuable housing opportunity for our city. However, it has also been a great example of an opportunity sold short. Considering the vastness of the development, I requested an early study session. The written petition was denied. Per the city’s response: “...the design, elevations, and site plan has been peer-reviewed by an outside professional and renowned architectural firm, in addition to staff reviews. Thus a study session wouldn’t be required.”
A few relatively straightforward changes to the KB development could have made a significant difference, including greater setbacks and more defined architecture and design (patios, balconies, greater articulation, etc.). The planning commission vote was close, 3-2, with myself and Pat Owens voting for additional improvements and changes.
But who were we to even dare ask for a study session, when the project had already received a thumbs up from a “professional and renowned architectural firm” as well as the many “staff reviews”? We were stopped in our tracks…and so, too, our community.
During the first four years of my six-year tenure, we were unable to make significant progress toward increased citizen awareness and engagement. But the last two years have been different; Pat Owens and, later, Dr. Steven Dominguez (selected by councilmen Sean Ashton and Rick Rodriguez), two courageous voices and independent thinkers, undeterred by outside influence, were added. With these two commissioner appointments, progress began to accelerate.
However, they, too, have been hindered. When first coming on board, they promptly looked into attending the planning commission academy as a means of readying themselves for the prodigious task before them. Although they made no request for transportation or hotel costs, the seminar entry fee request was denied. Only after appealing to the city council was the request granted. When asked if they could pay for their own city logo shirt and obtain business cards, they were also denied.
As an academy attendee, I was embarrassed for them -- they could not even share their business cards with others. To not even allow a planning commissioner to have a business card seems very petty and oppressive to me.
In the beginning of last year, many of you might remember when the planning commission was presented with the Marriot Springfield Hotel project. During our discussion period, the then mayor, Fernando Vazquez, was visibly frustrated with the commission’s questions and analysis. He later even came out publicly to share his frustration with our process, calling it grueling and nitpicking.
This, I believe, is a form of undue influence, to attempt to reduce the commission’s independence by exerting pressure for passivity. That kind of public display of frustration during the hearing, by a legislative body, who potentially will have a decision making say, borders on violations of its own.
Still, the sentinel efforts continued with this now more educated and inspired group. Among recent efforts, a stand against the increased use of lot splits was taken. Both initiatives were denied by the commission.
The commission also worked diligently toward the goal of increasing citizen awareness and engagement. Last year, as chairman, I was able to get citizen awareness on the agenda. After a 10-month battle, to illustrate the challenge of even securing the opportunity to discuss this in an open hearing, I was called into a private meeting and scolded for asking the City Attorney to clarify if the chairman has the right to place an item on the agenda. The response called for staff and the chairman to come to a consensus, yet we were unclear on the next steps should this consensus be challenged or unachieved altogether.
Arising from this frustration, I was called into a meeting with my councilman, Alex Saab, the city attorney, and the director of community development. In no uncertain terms, I was told to extinguish my pursuit.
The commission finally had the open-meeting discussion on Oct. 4, 2017. During the two-hour exchange, the commission unanimously directed the staff (and they agreed) to post the following four items on Facebook for community discussion and return to the commission in 6-9 weeks for possible action.
The topics items were:
1. Increase resident-notification radius from 500’ to 1000’.
2. Place advertisement in the Downey Patriot for bigger projects.
3. Provide billboard-style notification and information on future project sites.
4. Provide an interactive Facebook page where citizen comments could be legally included in the formal public hearing.
No posting was ever made by staff. To our collective dismay, the commission’s efforts were once again stifled. No posting and no call to the chairman as to why. Four months later, we were asked to approve minutes that stated a completely different set of events than actually occurred.
Instead of the clear direction and acceptance to post the four items on Facebook for community discussion over 6-9 weeks with return to the Planning Commission, the minutes presented to us for approval (moved to the 3/7/18 meeting) stated that staff was to “consider options” (video available on-line).
Shortly thereafter, my councilman, Alex Saab, notified me that he felt it would be best to “give another person an opportunity to serve” my remaining two years -- a move rarely, if ever, done, especially mid-term. In my opinion, the new commission’s majority was getting dangerously close to making effective changes.
I’m sure an appropriate selection will be made to get the city back to its standard business practices and token planning commission oversight, without the "unnecessary" distraction of my and others desire to have meaningful community awareness and engagement. A step backward. A loss for our city. A move toward mediocrity and status quo.
A group of civic-minded citizens committing countless hours to make the city better should not be met with such resistance.
It has been an honor to serve on the Planning Commission and dutifully stand for what is right and best for our community. My goals included maintaining ethics, honesty, and action orientation, regardless of personal time, cost, and outside pressures.
I hope these comments will be met with positive change, rather than continued obstruction and inaction. As a community, we need to work together, with true transparency, to achieve goals of excellence.
I continue to love Downey. Anyone who knows me, knows my dedication and passion to our city. I write this not to sow discord, but rather to inspire engagement for those who follow with the open, ongoing citizen support this wonderful city has always afforded.