By KENDRA SITTON | Uptown News
The City Council’s Land Use and Housing Committee voted to reform community planning groups (CPGs) on Dec. 5 that includes revisions from a maximum length of meetings to how elections are run.
The reforms come after a city audit, a Grand Jury report and Circulate San Diego’s Democracy in Planning all raised serious concerns about how the groups are run. In response, a task force was formed that created 33 recommendations on how to improve the groups. Those recommendations were voted on by CPGs throughout the region as well as the Community Planners Committee before being brought to the San Diego City Council.
The advisory groups are filled with elected members who volunteer to weigh in on land-use issues in their neighborhood. They are meant to be the lowest rung of democracy, but critics worry they are often inaccessible to marginalized groups. Research has shown CPGs skew whiter, wealthier and older than the neighborhoods they represent. In addition, they are often filled almost exclusively with homeowners, even in areas where the majority of people rent.
On a basic level, homeowners and renters have different concerns when looking at new developments — one of the main purposes of CPGs. A typical renter might favor bringing in developments that keep rent down by adding more housing stock, while a typical homeowner might favor keeping developments out that could potentially bring down their property value.
“Planning Groups cannot represent their community if they do not look like their community,” said Maya Rosas, director of policy at Circulate San Diego, in a press conference before the vote.
To that end, the reforms include creating a distinct category between renters and homeowners and reserving at least one seat for renters to be represented on the board.
If the reforms are enacted, members of the CPG boards will have to fill out a demographic survey (which would not include religion, as members of Normal Heights Planning Group worried) and termed-out members must wait two years to be elected again. In addition, a compromise was reached that in order to qualify to run for the group, a person only needs to attend one CPG meeting in the past 12 months. Rosas pointed out that for boards like the Uptown Planners that required three meetings before even being able to run for elections, people would have dedicated 10 hours without even knowing if they would be elected to a volunteer position.
The stringent rules to run for Uptown Planners played a role in the last election. Oscar Tavera’s application to run for the group was rejected because although he had proof he attended three meetings, at only two of them did he sign in on the official sheet. For the first meeting he went to, before he even decided to run, he failed to sign in. Despite showing GPS data that proved he was at the meeting, his run was still blocked.
“It was on a technicality that it was being rejected,” Tavera explained in a phone interview. “The measure isn’t in there to be inclusive of everyone.”
Tavera is a young Latino renter— in many ways he embodies the demographic that makes up most of Uptown yet is least likely to be a part of this democratic process.
Tavera was told the three meeting rule was present to make sure those elected to the board would be able to attend meetings.
“I’m lucky I work a 9-to-5 job, but there’s people that have a more fluid schedule. They have things that conflict. At other CPGs, you don’t even need to attend a single meeting,” Tavera explained. “It’s just the desire and ability to go and run. That’s all they really should need.”
He praised efforts to bring down the meeting requirements in order to qualify for the race. “It’s more inclusive because it really lowers the requirements for people to come in and actually participate,” he said.
Tavera’s experience discouraged him from participating in CPGs, but other members of Rise Uptown helped him work through the rejection. Because he sees the importance of CPGs in the community, he plans to be involved in the next election cycle.
CPGs have seen little support from the city of San Diego in recent years. Few have staff from the Planning Department assigned to attend and answer questions. Even fewer have representatives from the City Attorney’s office ensuring the group is following the Brown Act — which means any question about the specifics of a project or the legality of an action requires significant discussion with officials not in attendance, sometimes delaying the process.
The new reforms include directing the Planning Department to closely monitor CPG actions and provide timely guidance to preclude requests for inappropriate project additions or modifications. The Planning Department is also tasked with providing resources to improve recruiting that could result in more diverse CPG membership. The city attorney will also be more involved in conducting disciplinary reviews if a CPG violates the Brown Act.
There will also be more transparency within CPG groups if the reforms are passed by the full City Council as the changes include deadlines on putting documents such as minutes, agendas, and rosters in a centralized location available for the public. Project review recommendations and member applications will also be recorded. It will also be explicit that groups are allowed to use social media, in accordance with the Brown Act.
Another major aim of the reforms is increasing training for members of CPGs. Instead of just new members going through training, all members would be trained annually on the Brown Act, CEQA Review, and the city’s development review process. Some CPGs said this would put an undue burden on members, but the recommendations passed 4-0.
One group in favor of the changes are developers, with several speaking out about issues they faced getting project recommendations from CPGs at a public hearing before the vote. With each CPG being vastly different, getting projects past them was described as “shaking a magic eight ball.” Intentionally or unintentionally, CPGs can hold up projects or even shut them down by drawing out the process of giving recommendations. The cost of delays is then passed on to homebuyers and renters, according to the developers who spoke. The reforms would standardize the process of making recommendations and impose deadlines so developers can get community input early on in the planning stage and not have to repeatedly return before the group.
While the committee overwhelmingly supported many of the recommendations, a plan to make CPG members file economic interest forms was sent back to staff. Council member Chris Ward spoke out strongly against volunteers being forced to fill out the forms required by the Political Reform Act, as small mistakes could incur major fines and the forms themselves are complicated and burdensome.
A recommendation from the task force to tape, either via audio or video, any land-use items on the agenda failed as council members worried the city would not provide the tools to do this and it would be too difficult to have volunteers do.
Another recommendation that would have disbanded a CPG or forced it to merge with another CPG if it failed to meet a quorum for three months in a row was changed so the CPG in question would be considered inactive, and would have to complete specific steps to regain its active status.
After Council member Vivian Moreno opposed the original wording on the grounds that no community should be without representation, she pointed out Barrio Logan, the neighborhood south of Downtown quickly undergoing gentrification, has only had a CPG for a few years — long after it began going through significant changes.
Next, the approved reforms will go before the full City Council and City Attorney Mara Elliott for review.
— Kendra Sitton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.