GOVERNMENT’S DUTY – CITIZENS’ RIGHTS Part II
The County’s Response to Calls for
Citizens Advisory Committees
by Peter O. Childs
In the last CPR newsletter I discussed the failure of the Planning Department to obey its instructions for maximizing the involvement of the citizenry in the General Plan Update process “beginning at the outset and continuing throughout the process”, as required by Sec. 1500 of the current General Plan. What has happened since then?
Substantial concern about this failure to comply with Section 1500 has arisen throughout the County. At least ten municipal entities, including city councils, service districts, and special districts, have come forward with letters to the Board of Supervisors asking to be included in the process as they were supposed to have been all along.
The Board of Supervisors was obliged to respond to these concerns and has done so by 1) allowing the problematic process of the General Plan Rewrite to continue unabated, and 2) coming up with window-dressing in the form of amorphous proposals for forming a CAC or some CACs, leaving the matter pretty much up to the Planning Department to decide. In so doing they have ignored the fact that the current General Plan requires that multiple committees be formed wherever communities want them. They were supposed to have been formed “at the outset” but the Planning Department simply decided (their word) not to use that approach. They have no right to make such a decision; that is in direct violation of their legally binding instructions. (The Board didn’t care; they didn’t bat an eye.)
Since the GPU rewrite has not been halted or even paused, what will there be for these committees to sink their teeth into? Nothing, that’s what, with the possible exception of a few suggestions regarding the remainder of the rewrite. They’ll have to wait another twenty years to have anything substantial to work on. This is not a solution to the problem; it is simply ignoring it. Which is sadly typical of the Board’s attitude toward planning and regulations.
With regard to the latter: About a month ago the Board took up the Code Enforcement Unit’s annual report (it would take another article to deal with Code Enforcement; remember the Yee Haw stink, the Code Enforcement Task Force that resulted from the ensuing public outrage, and the fact that the Board ignored almost all of the Task Force’s seventeen unanimous recommendations). Three people with extensive experience in code enforcement matters presented the Board with a substantial number of concerns and recommendations regarding the CEU (as much as possible in the three minutes allowed); the Board completely ignored all of them. They didn’t even discuss a single one of the points raised; they just approved the CEU report and drove on.
This is the real problem we face in Humboldt County government; a Board of Supervisors that chooses to ignore important matters before them along with the citizens who try to provide meaningful input regarding these matters. There is a saying “The sergeants run the Army”, meaning that the Board generally (and understandably) relies on staff’s ideas because no individual supervisor can possibly be expert in more than a couple of areas, so they defer to the expertise of staff.
The problem here is that the Board has failed miserably, over and over and over, to fulfill their duty to 1) be sure that they hire department heads who understand that their primary responsibility is to the citizens of the county, and who understand the importance in a democratic society of truly maximizing the involvement of the citizenry in all governmental decisions that affect them. “Of, by, and for the people”, remember? and 2) to supervise their department heads effectively to be sure that their activities help, rather than hurt the citizenry. One of the most expert public watchdogs I know has stated that having dealt with thirty jurisdictions in this state, they have never seen a county government so willing to ignore both the law and the needs of their citizens.
What we have now is a rogue Planning Department, free to do just about whatever it pleases because our Board of Supervisors is absolutely asleep at the wheel regarding these matters. The Planning Department has been willing indeed to take advantage of the license that this dereliction by the Board has provided them, but how much can they be blamed for getting the bit in their teeth when the Board has dropped the reins?
This General Plan rewrite (it’s deceptively misrepresented as an update) has taken twelve years (it should never take more than three). It is so cumbersome and complex that, the Department’s endless claims of having fully involved the citizenry notwithstanding, almost nobody in the county knows what’s in there. There’s a whole lot in there, folks, that will affect you, much of which you won’t be happy to find out about when it comes down on you. You were supposed to be informed about all of it and fully included in deciding all of it. Were you?
Here’s an example that reveals what’s actually been going on: When the Planning Commission took up the 2008 Housing Element I decided to check it out since I’ve worked on four of them (all of which were done with citizens’ committees’ help and all of which were immediately certified by the state, whereas the current Element has been done without a citizens’ advisory committee and has been rejected three times). As I read the draft Element I noticed that they had four Options listed for the General Plan; the form that the Housing Element would finally take would depend upon which Option was chosen for the Plan as a whole. At one point I realized that an astonishing number of current items were being listed as staying in the new Element only under Option D, which referred to keeping the old Plan intact. Since that was impossible (new State mandates alone require some changes) it dawned on me that these items were all being slated for removal, plain and simple. And there were two hundred and twenty-five of them! I recognized most of them, having helped to write them. The vast majority of these policies, goals, etc. should never have been removed since they continue to be appropriate and important.(If you don’t like your instructions, hey presto! Just get rid of them. The Board won’t notice or care.)
The Planning Department claims repeatedly that they have actively reached out to inform and involve the citizenry. Then why didn’t they say “Here are two hundred and twenty-five items that we propose to remove; what do you think?” No, they hid from public view their plan to remove them, in a thoroughly reprehensible maneuver, and they would have succeeded had not a citizen with enough experience to see what was going on raised the alarm (we rescued seventy of them).
We are American citizens. We live in a democracy. Our government is supposed to serve, not control us. This General Plan Update was supposed to be a bottom up process, not a top down one. One Supervisor has stated “…our planning staff did go out to the…special districts and cities and kinda talk about ‘Here’s the Hearing Draft of the General Plan that’s going to go in front of the Planning Commission; this is THE CHOICES WE’VE LAID OUT FOR THEM…’“. Those “choices” were supposed to have been created with the intimate involvement (“from the outset…”) of the city councils, special districts, etc. (as well as the citizenry as a whole), not presented to them as a done deal for after-the fact commentary, by a Planning Department with its own agenda for a massive rewrite of the General Plan.
Why do we have to deal with this stuff? Why can’t the Board notice and deal with these things themselves? Isn’t that what we pay them to do?