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