Zelda Bronstein’s “Planner’s Alchemy” column opinion correctly pointed to a problem that’s salient in our own Planning Department—staff’s interest in having greater independence and authority even while staying professionally committed to objective service and communication. But it would be helpful to separate that from the speculation about an embedded political agenda in favor of growth at any price—what she might deplore as “dumb growth.” The two dynamics are probably not connected.
Putting the private-agenda question aside for a few paragraphs, let me apply a different theory to the process of “aggrandizement of staff authority and power.” Grabbing more authority and power is what almost any political or bureaucratic entity will do if given the opportunity—it’s the nature of the beast. Let me illustrate with two examples from the ongoing attempt to revise the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance (LPO), which I’ve observed quite closely:
The Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) set out at the beginning of 2004 to produce a revised LPO draft in response to a City Council request and advice from the mayor’s permit streamlining task force. They originally intended to write a “technical only” revision that narrowly met new requirements of the Permit Streamlining Act and CEQA, leaving more consequential changes to a hypothetical second round. But they simply couldn’t resist the temptation to also make policy changes (thereby opening Pandora’s box for all subsequent interest in making big changes). To no one’s surprise, every policy-level change they proposed would have had the result of increasing the LPC’s scope and authority: including every permit-subject building over 50 years old to landmark review, gaining authority over demolitions of historic resources and CEQA-level determinations, and several more.
That self-aggrandizing draft, however, need not be attributed to evil political motives—rather to an excess of zeal. Of course a commission will believe that if given more authority and less oversight it could do a better job. That enthusiasm is commendable, and even desirable in a vigorous democracy—but it needs to be vetted and constrained by the city as a whole to avoid potential abuses of power. That’s exactly what the subsequent year of work on the LPO revision has been about—trying to balance narrow commission enthusiasm with big-picture civic needs.
The LPC was hardly alone in following this path. The same dynamic applied to the subsequent production of the Planning Commission’s LPO draft. At several problematic points—such as when there was difficulty in deciding how to make the every-building provision practical for ordinary homeowners desiring ordinary additions—the Planning Commission asked staff to “come up with language” that would provide alternatives. Lo and behold: all the “alternatives,” through multiple drafts, involved giving Planning Department staff and the zoning officer more authority to make independent decisions of consequence, based on criteria that would not actually be specified in the proposed ordinance.
Once again we can best attribute this to “excess of zeal” rather than “devious plot.” Of course staff will believe that if given more authority and less oversight they could do a better job, and could then certainly work more efficiently than via a process requiring more messy public involvement. And once again our civic need is to balance narrow bureaucratic enthusiasm with what’s actually better for the city as a whole.
So, Zelda, I hope we can keep these two important concerns separate in the future. Enthusiasm for power-grabbing happens not just among the bureaucrats but also among the commissions, and needs to be checked by very careful attention to the details of the legislation we approve. Private political agendas, however, originate among elected officials and their appointed senior managers and are—for better or worse—in the politicians’ hands to wield or check.
The solution to organizational power-grabbing is continued vigilance in the legislative process, as the city council is now attempting with the LPO. But the solution to political agendas comes only via the ballot box. And even political change at the top wouldn’t eliminate those political agendas, it would only substitute new ones for the ones we have now learned to recognize. Be careful what you ask for there.
Berkeley resident Alan Tobey is a retired technologist.