Towards a New Planning Commission

Selecting Planning Commissioners

In coming days City Council will fill three positions on the Planning Commission. In political circles, the hubbub on who will ascend to these important seats can be heard over in the next county.

How do candidates get nominated? In principle, interested candidates fill out a form and submit it to City Hall. Those forms remain archived until openings appear on the Commission and announcements are published seeking candidates. City Council then reviews the candidate statements, nominations are made by Council members, and the Council votes.

It is not only individuals that are interested in a position at the Planning Commission, but political groups as well. As soon as Commission openings are announced (and often before then) there is much feverish behind-the-scenes activity by organizations wanting a Commissioner representing their interests. Individuals are approached to see if they’d like to serve. Names of suitable candidates are circulated to gather a response from the faithful.

Apart from those connected with political groups, there are often other candidates–unaffiliated folks with an interest in serving, and with background and experience that can truly contribute to the city’s welfare. Those freelancers must compete with politically-connected candidates that have behind-the-scenes backing of powerful circles, all jockeying for influence and leverage. This is part of a larger process, in which political groups attempt to control City policy by placing their members, or their sympathizers, in positions of authority and importance.

What makes this competition tougher is that a position on the Planning Commission can be a stepping-stone to City Council. For such groups, the effort to place a Commissioner becomes the first step in developing the career of a future City Council candidate representing their views.

Since the Planning Commission has an impact on development, getting a suitable candidate into the Planning Commission is seen as critical for the advancement of different organizations’ agendas. In many ways, the naming of a Planning Commission member eclipses in importance the actual working of the Commission itself, because of the candidate’s potential to ascend the lofty heights of the City Council dais down the road.

Lost in all this is the actual purpose of the Planning Commission. The Commission’s mission statement is on its web page:

“To promote the health, safety and general welfare by encouraging the most appropriate use of land; provide adequate open spaces for light and air; prevent undue concentrations of population; lessen congestion on streets; facilitate adequate provisions for community utilities and facilities such as transportation, water, sewage, schools, parks and other public requirements; and, designate, regulate and restrict the location and use of buildings, structures and land for residents, commerce, trade, industry and other purposes.”

It is clear to the most casual observer that these essential functions have often, though not always, become submerged in the intense divisive battling that is a feature of political life in Santa Monica. Because City Council appoints planning commissioners by majority vote, many Planning Commission appointees reflect the political and ideological positions of the City Council majority at the time of their appointment. Instead of acting as a source of objective advice to City Council and a ground-level arbiter of land-use policies for the community’s benefit, a politicized Commission majority will often either strongly support the City Council majority, or strongly oppose it. The result is a politically-divided Commission that is often a stage for proxy battles between different City Council factions, carried out by their allies on the Planning Commission. It is an absurd situation that does the residents of this community little good.

A politicized Planning Commission is nothing new, of course. Some of the most notable politicized commissions date back at least to the SMRR victory in 1981, when the then-Planning Commission acted, for a short while, in conservative opposition to the new City Council majority (See Pierre Clavel’s The Progressive City: Planning and Participation, 1969-1984). Politicized Planning Commissions are almost a traditional feature of progressive city governments throughout the country. One school of thought suggests that a politicized Planning Commission is an important place to hash out ground-level battles, because it provides City Council with a window into the priorities of important constituencies, and an effective venue for carrying out City Council policies.

But in today’s Santa Monica, divided as it is among political camps, a different approach is needed to help make the Planning Commission less of a City Council redux, and more a strong government body that is effective in looking out for the interests of everyday residents. One step could require members of the Planning Commission whose terms expire (or end voluntarily) to wait at least two years before running for City Council. This would help create a healthy separation between their function as Commissioners and the political campaigning needed for a City Council run.

It is also important to attract, and keep, candidates and commissioners who represent a broad swath of Santa Monica stakeholders, regardless of their individual political positions. Architects and others with knowledge of planning and real estate should be represented on the commission, as should residents of other professions (or no professions). All of them, however, must have experience in the community, and preferably a record of service that demonstrates a commitment to the needs of ordinary residents, and the community as a whole.

The City should help alleviate the crushing amount of work faced by planning commissioners by providing knowledgeable researchers who are not members of the City’s planning staff, and do not report to the City Manager’s office. These people would be less affected by the dynamics that inevitably develop between the City Manager and City Council. The Planning Commission fulfills a critical role in the functioning of this city, and planning commissioners should have independent support for their work.

A change is needed in the way planning commissioners are selected and appointed. And it is important to separate their function as commissioners from the pressures of running for City Council.

Daniel Jansenson, Architect, for Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow

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