Column: The Public Eye: "Planners' Alchemy" By ZELDA BRONSTEIN

Tuesday July 19, 2005

It’s not often that I discover a rich new metaphor in a bureaucratic memo. So it was a pleasant surprise to come across the image of the planner as alchemist in the California Senate Local Government Committee’s analysis of Assemblymember Loni Hancock’s Assembly Bill 691.  

AB 691 would make it easier for counties and cities to designate existing land use plans, including redevelopment plans, as transit village plans and thereby easier to create transit villages—dense, mixed-use developments within walking distance (a quarter-mile) of transit stations. “The bill,” writes Senate staff analyst Peter Detwiler, “lets local officials practice a bit of planning alchemy, converting existing plans into golden opportunities.”  

Clearly, Mr. Detwiler intends his magic trope as a high compliment. Metaphors are however notoriously unstable things, susceptible to multiple, indeed conflicting, interpretations. To my mind, the image of the alchemist-planner wonderfully captures some of the more dubious aspects of the planning profession, particularly as that line of work is pursued in the Land Use Planning Division of the Berkeley Planning Department.  

For starters, it exposes the pretension of planners’ claims for the objective, not to say scientific, character of their work. That pretension is legitimated by claims for the value-free authority of professional expertise in general.  

During the City Council’s recent public hearing on the budget, City Manager Kamlarz shot down the money-saving idea of having the minutes of commission meetings taken by citizen volunteers instead of paid staff. Official minutes have to be taken by a neutral party, said the city manager, and that meant that only staff could take them.  

In the nearly seven years that I served on the Planning Commission, staff-taken minutes accurately reflected the commission’s proceedings. As far as I know, that’s still the case. But the fairness of those records stands in stark contrast to the partiality that skews so much of the other work done by the city’s planning staff.  

As documented in numerous articles, editorials, commentaries and letters in the Daily Planet, the Planning Department is heavily biased toward development. And not just any development: it favors big over little; urban amnesia over historic preservation; housing and retail over development that benefits light industry, artists and artisans; transit-oriented projects over those geared to the private automobile. Some of these preferences, such as transit-oriented development, are generally desirable. But that’s beside the point, which is that our officially neutral civil servants have their own agenda.  

That agenda also includes a cause that staff pursue with greater zeal than development of any sort: the aggrandizement of staff authority and power. Because it’s members of the public who most often challenge both the development promoted by the Planning Department and staff per se, a top priority of the Land Use Planning Division is the suppression of citizen participation and influence.  

Mind you, I’ve worked with Berkeley planning staff who serve the community with dedication and respect, and who welcome citizen participation. Unfortunately, the leadership of the Planning Department has cultivated a model of civil service in which the public figures principally as an adversary. Since Berkeley is professedly a democracy, the adversarial model can’t be openly acknowledged. Instead, planners pay lip service to the public while subverting its prerogatives.  

Like the alchemists of yore, their strategems include mystifying language and esoteric procedures. To be sure, some of these expedients are based in city, state and or federal laws not of their own making. The complex process and abstruse terminology associated with environmental impact reports, for example, are stipulated by the California Environmental Quality Act.  

But how CEQA and other laws get interpreted and implemented is largely determined by city staff. Again and again, citizens find themselves flummoxed by staff machinations: selective and/or prejudicial readings of the law, cooked data, weird schedules that fast-track controversial projects, manipulative meeting formats and prevarication that sometimes verges on mendacity.  

The most potent deterrent to public influence, however, is secrecy. Standard dodges include inadequate notification, untimely reports, withheld or buried information and—perhaps staff’s single most effective expedient—secret meetings.  

It’s a major flaw of California’s sunshine law, the Brown Act, that it applies only to elected officials and their appointees, not to professional staff who work for public entities. Unlike their nominal bosses, our civil servants can and do take their decisions behind closed doors. Presumably their exemption is justified by the mistaken belief that staff are singularly disinterested parties. Whatever the rationale, this huge loophole shields our bureaucrats from public scrutiny, thereby giving them undue power over the people they’re paid to serve.  

Getting rid of voodoo expertise will involve a lot more than training sessions in customer service. Berkeley residents may think that city staff’s principal duty is to the citizenry, but it’s not. The staff’s first obligation is to the city manager.  

That was made painfully obvious in June, when Berkeley’s outgoing health officer, Dr. Poki Namkung, publicly charged the city’s Health and Human Services Department with fiscal mismanagement. According to the Daily Planet, on May 3 City Manager Kamlarz sent Namkung a letter reminding her “that under Berkeley’s form of government she was not to have written or oral communication with the mayor or council.”  

In other words, staff secrecy and non-accountability to the public are embedded in Berkeley’s city manager system itself. If we want staff to be open and accountable, we need to rethink and then reform the very foundations of Berkeley municipal governance. The first step is to stop believing in magic.  

Taking that step, by the way, means casting a wary eye on AB 691. The downside of this bill, as noted in Peter Detwiler’s admirably evenhanded analysis, is that it “limits public participation.” To designate an area a transit village—the phrase itself qualifies as planner mumbo jumbo—cities and counties now have to go through two noticed public hearings, the first at the planning commission and the second at the city council or county board of supervisors. AB 691 requires only that a public notice be issued ten days before the new designation is enacted.  

The assumption here is that transit village-ization is unquestionably a good thing. But planners’ alchemy can run in reverse, turning urban gold into the equivalent of base metal. Would ten days have been long enough to mobilize the hundreds of north Oakland residents whose protests have delayed the Oakland Redevelopment Agency’s plan to declare their neighborhoods a blighted redevelopment area so as to subsidize, among other things, a transit village at MacArthur BART?