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Solimar Research

Is This The Right Meeting? Really?

Josh Stephens on
Dec 2, 2015

If NIMBYs are, proverbially, planners' worst enemies, then planners are sometimes their own second-worst enemies.  

Monday morning I attended one of a dozen or so workshops and listening sessions, this one in Los Angeles, put on by the Governor's Office of Planning and Research to publicize and solicit input into the new draft General Plan Guidelines. It's a momentous occasion for planners in California. Legislative, demographic, and cultural forces have forged a different world in the 12 years since OPR last updated the guidelines. 

Cities that update their general plans, usually to the tune of hundreds of pages, need all the help they can get. That's why it's so important for OPR to clearly explain what it has in mind and to hear what planners and citizens need to make the magic happen.  

Some citizens, though, see nothing magical about, well, anything that planners do.  

The meeting in Los Angeles was attended by 40 or so people (compared to the 100-plus that organizers said had RSVP'd). About one-quarter of them were self-described "interested citizens," or something of the sort. The rest came from various public agencies. 

The two OPR representatives who led the meeting � and shall remain nameless -- had their talking points and their slideshow . The agenda called for a presentation in the first half of the session and a "targeted discussion" in the second half. What it didn't include was a way of preventing a small minority of audience members from co-opting the meeting.  

Did these interested citizens attend so they could share their excitement about the use of vehicle miles travelled metrics? Did they have invaluable suggestions for ways cities can articulate the relationship between their mobility elements and their health elements? Not exactly.  

Instead, they came with an earful about woes. They bemoaned offenses like the adulteration of neighborhoods, raucous parties on rooftops, over-bulding in Hollywood, and greedy developers who are turning a sleepy seaside town into, well, a major world city. One audience member railed against the evils of "urban infill," on the premise that homes "filling in" pristine ridgelines in the hills were environmentally destructive. No one had the heart to explain to her that this is the opposite of urban infill.  

Above all else, the citizens lamented the deafness of public officials. They said they have raised these concerns time and again and, according to them, no one has listened.  

Maybe that's because they're going to the wrong meetings.  

You have to sympathize with citizens who are frustrated with government. Then again, you don't have to be James Madison to understand how hierarchical jurisdictions work. No matter how unresponsive, oblivious, or indecisive a local official or bureaucracy might be, shouting at a state agency with zero legislative authority in a meeting about a program that serves a purely advisory function is the epitome of futility. 

Unfortunately, those citizens will probably go home and, seeing no result, will only grow more frustrated.  

Meanwhile, the timidity of the planning profession was on full display. Yes, the public must have a chance to speak, and planners must listen. But, still, there's only so much time and so many ears.  

Time and again, audience members interjected with little resistance. The presenters, looking weary as can be, issued some tepid reminders about jurisdictions. Then citizens went on with their rants. One slide stayed up for over a half-hour, hovering excruciatingly above the lectern, while the discussion went this way and that. 

Any greenhorn planner in the most podunk jurisdiction knows that he needs to keep a few audience-management tricks up his sleeve. Why veterans of the state's most important planning-related agency don't is beyond me. Any number of trinkets � a gavel, a microphone, a conch � would have helped. Even better: stick to the agenda and that "targeted discussion."  

I respect the OPR representatives for their patience. Then again, public meetings involve an unfortunate asymmetry: what's polite and patient to one group is rude to everyone else. I, for one, was there to hear about the General Plan Guidelines, and so was almost everyone else. 

Ultimately, my disappointment here is twofold. The "concerned citizens" were wasting their time by speaking to the wrong people. Meanwhile, OPR wasted its time because they failed to convey much of the information that they were there to convey. I'm sure they didn't get much useful commentary either. Some very smart people in the audience had very little chance to get words in edgewise.  

Thus, in one fell swoop, stakeholders and local officials both grow more frustrated and less informed. If I'd heard anything interesting or coherent at the meeting, I'd be writing about it, and not about this.  

So, I don't know what the final General Plan Guidelines will end up looking like. If we're lucky maybe it'll include a chapter on holding effective public meetings.