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Green Party Grows in Local Government

Who says urban planning isn't partisan? It has certainly been many a planner's working assumption that local land use decisions in California are not affiliated with any political perspective, but are merely "good planning." In fact, since the days of 1910s reform Governor Hiram Johnson, local government has been legally devoid of party-affiliated elections. But with the assertive emergence of the Green Party in Election 2000, the fact can no longer be ignored: national political party platforms can and do correlate to local planning issues. Although small in number, the Greens are beginning to change the political landscape of local government in several regions of the Golden State. Though the Green Party's controversial run for the presidency with Ralph Nader ended with a bit of a setback when the party fell short of its goal of 5% of the national vote, Greens continue to make inroads on the planning and development stage in California through their diligent insistence on thinking globally and acting locally. Greens won 10 local government seats here this fall -- 60% of the 18 seats the party won nationwide. The biggest news comes from the pleasant Sonoma County town of Sebastopol. In a council race there, Greens Craig Litwin and Sam Spooner joined seated councilman Larry Robinson to form a Green majority on the five-member body. This is the second time this has happened nationally. The first was when the Greens formed the majority of the Arcata City Council from 1996 through 1998. The Greens also took an important swing seat on the San Luis Obispo City Council. And in Santa Monica, statewide Green Party spokesman Michael Feinstein reclaimed a City Council seat he held earlier. Feinstein is one of two Greens on Santa Monica's seven-member panel. The election raises the Greens' number of local government seats statewide to 29, barely even mist in the bucket considering the thousands of local elected positions in California. But there is something about the Green ascendancy that compounds its impact. First, it is the only group to promote party affiliations as part of a campaign strategy. In so doing, members correctly recognize that the Green Party holds cache when it comes to land use and a few other local government matters. Second, using the party organizational network, Greens in local government use one another as resources. Larry Robinson tells of how his city drew on expertise from Green council members in Arcata 200 miles to the north to develop Sebastopol's pesticide-free ordinance last year. Arcata had adopted a similar regulation under Green guidance there. "We plan to stay connected across the state to develop a tighter network among Greens," Robinson said. The importance of the Green arrival in local politics should be exciting to planners, even though the Greens are sometimes dismissed as idealists with roots in European socialism. In fact, the Green agenda correlates directly with the "smart growth" and "sustainability" themes popular in urban planning today. Greens are widely identified with environmental protection, making them influential allies with many of the state's most effective local advocacy groups. Greens are also in the lead on public transit and alternative transportation, responsible fiscal policy, and community empowerment. And Green leadership in the living wage movement is clearly reminiscent of 1960s-era sociology-oriented planning. Even on the process side, Greens appear exemplary in their pro-planning perspective. New Sebastopol Councilman Spooner, for example, is calling for a more people-friendly City Council meeting format. "I think we should convene more like a community meeting and less like a congressional hearing," he said. Greens typically have risen in jurisdictions with traditions of progressive politics, such as Santa Cruz, Berkeley, and Santa Monica. But Greens show up in other places too, such as the cities of Modesto, Morro Bay, and even in the San Bernardino County town of Yucaipa. Though Green-seated jurisdictions are small in number among the thousands of counties, municipalities and special districts in the state, their influence should not be dismissed by planners or development professionals. After all, liberal-minded municipalities are where many planning theories are tested on the ground. Take Arcata's alternative to a series of expensive and inefficient traffic signals: a series of landscaped roundabouts. And then there is Santa Cruz's recent living wage ordinance, widely considered the most progressive in the nation. The reemergence of partisan politics through the Greens' agenda will clearly influence local government in several subregions of California. In these places, we can expect Greens to raise the level of discussion beyond business-as-usual. To what should be the delight of many planners, we can expect planning issues to be framed in a sustainability context. This perspective suggests that the Greens are in it for the long haul, rather than just to react to the latest batch of development projects. Stephen Svete, AICP, is president of Rincon Consultants, Inc., a Ventura-based consulting firm.
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