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Op-Ed: Exploring the Definition of Good Governance

City leaders are losing sight that governance lies with the people and elected representatives. At least a well-reasoned dissent to Novato's planned city administrative offices is on the record now.

The Novato Planning Commission met April 16 and April 30, successfully affirming its role in city governance and deeming the city administrative offices consistent with the city's general plan. It also concluded that the general plan includes the downtown specific plan, added as an amendment not just by mention in the specific plan document but by formal action of the council, attested to in the amendments list of the general plan.

Why is this important?

In the increasing complexity of our regulatory and planning environment, our city planners and managers are taking huge amounts of responsibility and initiative and in the process are losing sight that governance lies with the people and their elected representatives.

On the 16th, Assistant City Attorney Veronica Nebb said repeatedly that the Planning Commissioners were not allowed to consider the downtown specific plan in their ruling, citing California codes, sounding very knowledgeable, and, in the end, de facto, she precluded the commissioners from giving their views at this publicly noticed meeting. Presumably Ms. Nebb was simply doing her job, doing what she was instructed to do after a huddle with some of the senior staff and/or from informal council signaling.  

We are not told whether City Manager Michael Frank, City Attorney Jeffrey Walters or Bob Brown, the interim Community Development Director, or someone else gave the order.  We, the people, hardly ever know exactly who gives what direction.

This is, by and large, a good thing so that the staff is not harried by critics and so that they can do their jobs impartially.

What happens, however, when the use of staff exceeds the boundaries laid down by past custom in models of good governance?  What happens when the army of staffers salutes a bigger ideal of governing besides the local one?  What happens when the perception of the righteousness of a cause or the drive to get things done causes regular channels to be short-circuited?

The Planning Commission was told last June that the matter of determining the consistency of the proposed city administrative offices would be returned to them and then staff told them that it wouldn't be, that it wasn't necessary.  If you back the Novato City Council and the city manager's plans for the financing and the building of the city offices, having the Planning Commission take this up can be viewed as a mere impediment to the process, a waste of time where the opposition would take the floor to point out the disadvantages of the plan.

If you don't back it, the Planning Commission's deliberation gives a vital opportunity for everyone to stop and think about what the council is doing, whether it is prudent or not, and if they are proceeding lawfully or not. If you are on the fence, you can want the moves.

Commissioner Jay Strauss, an attorney, did the defining legal research tailored specifically to the point.  He presented it well. His findings contradicted Nebb's. The Planning Commission was able to making their ruling in spite of the absence of legal counsel at the meeting.  Perhaps the entire law firm was out of town.  Perhaps when they get back, Strauss will be assailed with argument and will be taken to task for acting independently according to his conscience and his expertise.  

At any rate, the well-reasoned dissent of Dennis Cooper and Robert Jordon is on the record and the majority got its finding of consistency.  Hopefully the city staff will internalize the civics involved in drawing the line between intervention in governance and facilitating good governance.

— Pam Drew, Chair, Novato Community Alliance

Bob Ratto May 02, 2012 at 02:04 AM
Well written piece. From the actions of the contracted Assistant City Attorney, it is quite clear that the intentions of the Council/City Manager were to so narrowly focus the work of the Planning Commission so as to render any findings either meaningless or essentially a "rubber stamp" of the Council's hell bent approach to seeing this through. The Planning Commission is to commended for their thoughtfulness and thoroughness in looking at the issues raised. I applaud their courage in taking a stand to do what is right, rather than what is expedient; there are many, many issues (some discussed ad nauseum) with regard to this project, including the exorbitant costs, parking impacts, Measure D (I think), community benefit, etc. It is instructive to consider that 70% of Novato's General fund budget is spent on salaries and benefits, and the current "newly rosy" pro forma budgets do not take into account that the debt service on this project will be approximately 10% of the budget. Fiscally, the City is building something it can ill afford at the present time, which should be a challenge for all who have to live within a budget. But hats off to the Planning Commission for taking a stand here!
Worry May 02, 2012 at 02:46 AM
pam, thank you for this piece. one question however.. i was under the impression the planning commission voted 2-2 in weighing in on whether the city offices were consistent with the downtown specific plan? i had heard there was a fifth person that was not present... and did not vote. you mention "the well-reasoned dissent of Dennis Cooper and Robert Jordon is on the record and the majority got its finding of consistency". i am assuming i missed something that transpired after the 2-2 vote. did a fifth member of the planning commission weigh in? thank you for clarifying!
Bill May 02, 2012 at 03:18 AM
Yes, I do not understand this either. I thought the April 30 planning commission meeting had been canceled and the previous 2-2 vote was left in limbo.
Maria Escobar May 02, 2012 at 04:20 AM
Hooray for Dennis Cooper and Robert Jordon! Cooper and Jordon for Novato City Council! Vote out Kellner who doesn't salute the flag (doesn't she care about all of the Americans who died for it?), MacCleamy the architect who "didn't think Millworks would be that big" and never got a model or had story poles put into place and Athas who voted with the others to have a high density affordable senior project (Warner Creek) across from the best drugs and guns in town.
janna nikkola May 02, 2012 at 01:52 PM
Good governance also includes LISTENING TO THE VOICES OF THE PEOPLE WHO ELECTED YOU INTO OFFICE! This new city hall administrative building is not situated correctly on the lot. The police department building has a much better street presence. The city administrative building looks more like an out building. It should be where the recently refurnished city hall now stands -- that would be the old red wooden city hall where $6.7 million of the TAXPAYER'S MONEY was spent and now it stands vacant and serving no useful purpose, other than for twice monthly city council meetings. The old city hall building and the old community center which is rat-infested should have been torn down, along with the old wooden residence that I believe is used for Parks & Rec. Once these old impractical buildings are torn down, they can make way for a decent-sized city hall and city administrative building and also allow for sufficient parking. The city hall and administrative building should be facing Machine, Sherman or Delong avenues and NOT squeezed into the back of a parking lot. The much overused term "iconic" has frequently been used to described the old city hall, but there's nothing iconic about it. Granted, it is kind of cute, but the city of Novato needed a NEW practical city hall building and what has been done and what is planned is unsufficient, impractical and simply will not do.
Pam Drew May 02, 2012 at 02:45 PM
In response to Worry and Bill's question, the first meeting on the 16th was the one where the assistant city attorney weighed in so often. The commission voted to continue the meeting until the 30th and to do research on the questions in the two week interim. The meeting of the 30th was the one with the excellent outcome from the point of view of encouraging good governance. The meeting of 5/7 is the one which has been cancelled.
Trish Boorstein May 02, 2012 at 08:46 PM
Excellent op-ed Pam! Is expediency of ANY project worth it if it means having less transparency and further erosion of public trust? It may be that "Local Control" is equated with "Good Governance". Thank you Dennis, Robert, and all the others who have stood their ground with conviction and integrity.
Eleanor Sluis May 03, 2012 at 02:12 AM
Pam,Thank you for your concerns. If readers want to see the Planning Commission discuss the issue of City Hall- please see the video: http://novato.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=4&clip_id=614 The next meeting in which there will be a fast forward is May 8th ,when the Council gives an okay to move forward. There are still alternatives for the 12 million dollars being spent on this project such as costs and location. Thanks to Jay Strauss for his questioning and analyzing, also to Dennis and Robert Jordan for their integrity in bringing up the public’s concerns.
Eleanor Sluis May 03, 2012 at 02:42 AM
In the video of the planning commission’s discussion about the proposed, new city hall: http://novato.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=4&clip_id=614 at :30 minutes, please listen to the speakers Don Mosher, and Harry Lehman for their concerns. They both speak about values, and the logic of costs for building the new city hall. They question the costs of paying $$$15million for a 20,000 square feet building at $$$600-700 dollars per square foot. Especially, they note that the county is saving tax dollars by spending $ 300 approximately per square and Novato's new city hall is way above going costs. Lastly, they both say the process is not conducive for the public input. Thanks to both speakers for their courage to question the logic and values of our city council.
Tina McMillan May 03, 2012 at 05:40 AM
I was impressed with the character and conduct of each member of the planning commission having watched the April 16 meeting and then attended the April 30 meeting. The only city council member present was Pat Ecklund who has made a concerted effort to listen to the concerns of residents regarding this project. Eric Lucan was nowhere in sight making me question his pre election comments on this issue. This special meeting was able to address the compatibility of both the Novato general and specific plans because planning commission head, Jay Strauss, had the courage to stand up to city attorney Veronica Nebb and say, wait a minute, we do matter, and you can't arbitrarily decide when we matter or how we function. Planning commission members Cooper and Jordan went further and said the current city office plan is not in step with the city specific plan and should not be approved. The remaining commission members seemed unconcerned with issues brought up by the public or by Jordan and Cooper and stated that the compatibility issue was irrelevant because the council had the ultimate right to make this decision. I was disappointed but not shocked as the attitude of "this ship has sailed" has pervaded city meetings since last year. The fact that the planning commission was put off in June and told that they were not needed is disheartening. It shows how little the city council respects checks and balances between themselves and the committees they appoint.
Tina McMillan May 03, 2012 at 05:41 AM
continued My plea to Pat Ecklund is that she understand how duplicitous it was/is of the council not to put this project to a vote. Downtown offices have been a source of conflict for decades. At the very least a vote would have allowed residents to have input. Measure D was another attempt to reign in council spending on projects of this kind. The spirit of measure D was to try and stop the council from building offices without allowing residents to vote on the kind and the cost. The city attorney said measure D did not apply because the money funneled from the RDA did not involve a "city" loan but an RDA loan. Now we have so little for so much that it is unlikely we will be able to fund the rehabilitation of the community house or any sort of parking structure for Old Town. What a shame that the council couldn't trust the residents to make this decision as a group. Representative government has its failings. In this instance the lack of checks and balances has failed the people of Novato.
SHROYER FOR SUPERVISOR 2014 May 03, 2012 at 05:48 AM
Thank you Pam for another great article and for all you do for the good people of Novato. Good Job Jay! :)
Trish Boorstein May 03, 2012 at 04:44 PM
How great would it be if the only constituents who could vote on city matters were the ones who show up to City meetings- folks from home would send in their votes. With so much at stake, something has to be done or changed.
Bill May 03, 2012 at 05:22 PM
Veronica Ann Franz Nebb works for the Sonoma law firm of Walter & Pistole. Yes, that is Jeffrey Walter our esteemed City Attorney. Why are we not using a Novato based attorney??
Kevin May 04, 2012 at 04:01 PM
Can anyone confirm that Kellner really doesn't salute the flag???
Mckinley May 04, 2012 at 04:40 PM
Kevin, I attended most city council meetings during the housing upset and Kellner did not participate in the pledge or salute the flag.
Don Reihl May 05, 2012 at 05:03 PM
Kevin I have attended 3 city council meetings and all 3 meetings Kellner DID NOT participate in the peldge or salute the flag.
Eleanor Sluis May 05, 2012 at 05:46 PM
During the pledge of allegiance, in schools and in government, it is only required that you stand, it is not mandated that one salutes due to personal preference, physical health, or religion. In other countries, diplomatically minded people adhere to the cultural standards, out of respect for that country, city, village or tribe. Our strength - the USA- is built on individuals having the right to choose to salute or not, but at least to stand at attention. Madeline Kellner does that. Furthermore, she has volunteered to be a council member and to act on policies in the best interest of Novato. Please accentuate her strengths as a well-rounded individual and as an exemplary citizen, instead of concentrating on her personal viewpoint, which you may not agree with. This has not disabled her from serving our community in the best way that she can. Thank you.
Eleanor Sluis May 05, 2012 at 06:32 PM
Regarding affordable housing and transportation planning and funding, California Senator from Contra Costa County, Senator Mark De Saulnier, is proposing new regulations and an elected 15-member commission instead of the current JPC -Joint Powers Commission of appointed elected officials for overseeing ABAG, MTC, BAAQMD, BCDC, (Affordable Housing, Transportation and Air quality boards) The now appointed commission for overseeing the Bay Area would be disbanded..Please review: http://sd07.senate.ca.gov/ http://sd07.senate.ca.gov/news/2012-05-02-desaulnier-seeks-accountability-regional-governance Thank you.

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