Editorial: Managed Participation = Bad Planning By BECKY O'MALLEY

Tuesday September 27, 2005

A few weeks ago we received an email from a member of the Downtown Berkeley Association’s design committee asking if the Planet’s opinion pages would be available for a forum on the future of downtown Berkeley. The idea, not yet adopted A few weeks ago we received an email from a member of the Downtown Berkeley Association’s design committee asking if the Planet’s opinion pages would be available for a forum on the future of downtown Berkeley. The idea, not yet adopted by the DBA or fully fleshed out, was that there would be a two-part process. First, the public would be asked to submit ideas in writing for publication: a kind of “civic visioning exercise” to tap the creativity of Berkeley citizens to think about what Berkeley Downtown might be. That would be followed by a well-conceived scientific phone poll to gauge citizens’ preference for what should be happening downtown.  

Our quick reply was an easy “yes!” That’s why we’re here—to provide a way for good ideas to be brought forward and debated in public. The group’s preliminary proposal can be viewed on the internet at http://busduse.org/VisioningDowntownProposal.html. It hasn’t yet been launched, but it’s promising. 

In the same spirit, we’re happy to provide space for the opinion from the Mayor’s Office which appears today. We firmly believe that sunshine in the planning process is the best way to avoid mistakes. In the days to come we expect that citizens with all kinds of opinions on how to plan for improving downtown Berkeley will come forward to comment on the Mayor’s ideas, and that’s great too. We’ve already received comments on the University-City aspects of the planning process, and we expect more. 

And of course we reserve our own right to make our own comments on the process as it develops. In fact, as it happens, when we got the mayor’s comments on Friday we were preparing comments on the proposal for public participation in planning for Downtown, authored by Dan Marks, head of the city of Berkeley’s planning department, which the City Manager included in the Council’s packet for this week’s meeting. Comparing the mayoral statement and the staff proposal, we note a certain amount of overlap, indicating perhaps a certain amount of pre-proposal collaboration, which is fine. But we urge the city council, who should be the ones with the real power to decide what’s going to be the policy here, to pause for reflection before rubber-stamping any process which bypasses the Planning Commission, the body which under the city charter has been set up specifically to do this job.  

One comment on the mayor’s opinion: we haven’t heard what he characterizes as “troubling misinformation”—that the city gave the university explicit veto power over city planning decisions regarding downtown. That’s a straw man, easily knocked down, as it should be.  

What we have heard is that the University has the right to dock the city, at the rate of $15,000 a month, if the joint plan isn’t finished on schedule. The money would come out of the very meager compensation the university has agreed to provide in lieu of taxes for sewer use, fire protection and other necessities of life for campus employees and residents. At the rate of $15,000 a month, the tiny hoard would soon be gone. Since the total is so small anyway, perhaps the penalty clause isn’t a major issue, but it’s profoundly irritating.  

What’s more serious in the agreement is that the university can indeed veto lots of aspects of the process, for example in Section II.B.6 of the agreement: “Joint review of DAP and EIR: because the DAP is a Joint Plan, there shall be no release of draft or final DAP or EIR without concurrence by both parties.” If that’s not a veto, what is it? 

Here’s the worst problem with the agreement: it says nothing about public participation in the planning process, which has always been one of Berkeley’s core values. It’s clearly an attempt to bypass our long tradition of citizen-led planning. Yet Mayor Bates’s opinion says that the Downtown Area Plan is the most effective way for the citizens of Berkeley to have a voice in downtown development. If that’s the case, why is the Planning Commission, the body which is entrusted by the city charter with planning responsibility, not leading the effort? In Sacramento, where the Mayor has perhaps spent too many years, decisions are often made in advance behind closed doors, but here in Berkeley we’ve become accustomed to open planning. But the Marks proposal, in bureaucratic double-speak, says that “staff specifically does not recommend” that the planning commission take the lead—in other words, he’s against it. 

The key to the staff attitude regarding citizen-led planning can be found in the Marks proposal’s frequent use of the word “manageable” in discussing various approaches to citizen participation. We counted four instances with no effort, and there are probably more. Yes, yes, we get it, city staff wants a process that they can manage! 

Well, “managed public participation” will be no more successful than “managed care” has been, and for many of the same reasons. The city of Berkeley’s planning department submitted an appalling first draft of the city’s general plan, which required four hard years of citizen effort to straighten out. We expect the City Council to speak up for all of us at this juncture, to make sure that if we’re stuck with a UC-led downtown plan, at least citizens’ voices will be heard loud and clear from day one of the planning process, even if Berkeleyans aren’t always “manageable.” Democracy is a messy process, hard to manage indeed, but a lot more likely to work in the end than top-down planning a la Robert Moses.