Originally published March 29, 2012 at 9:50 a.m., updated March 29, 2012 at 4:03 p.m.
Alison St John, KPBS Senior Metro Reporter
The San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted to reject a Red Tape Reduction Task Force recommendation that would have eliminated or muzzled community planning groups.
The Supervisors’ Red Tape Reduction Task Force made dozens of recommendations, designed to speed up getting permits for new developments in San Diego's unincorporated areas. Among them were several proposals to severely limit the role of community planning groups.
Jack Phillips of the Valle de Oro planning group was one of more than 30 people who appealed to the all-Republican board of supervisors not to do it.
“The task force attempt to eliminate or muzzle the local planning groups runs completely counter to this country’s historic self image,” he said. “This image was clearly defined 149 years ago by our greatest Republican president Abraham Lincoln. His vision was that government of the people, for the people, by the people shall not perish from the earth.“
Others argued that without planning groups, communities wouldn’t stand a chance of influencing supervisors who, in some cases, know developers on a first name basis.
Sharon Haven of Alpine admitted some planning groups operate in a way that is frustrating for developers, but said that’s no reason to abolish them all.
“I’ve seen good planning groups and bad planning groups,” she told the supervisors, “but they are always reflective of the community. These are people who volunteer and they have passion and they have dedication and by and large they get the job done.”
Long-time activist Patsy Fritz accused Supervisor Bill Horn, who initiated the Red Tape Reduction Task Force, of exaggerating how much the planning groups cost the county in legal support.
“The public is not stupid,“ she said. “We see right through Supervisor Horn’s claim that indemnification will bankrupt the county. For the record - based on county council’s figures obtained through the Public Records Act - legal costs for planning and sponsor group members average $16.37 per year over the past 12 years.”
When it came time for the board to make a decision, Supervisor Dianne Jacob said county planning has four legs, with professional planners, the planning commission, developers and community planning groups.
“If you cut off that forth leg,” she said,”the community planning and sponsor groups, the community participation, it’s like cutting off democracy.”
Supervisor Pam Slater Price speculated that the Red Tape Task Force had gone too far.
“I think it was just getting carried away saying, ‘Gee, what would we like to get rid of? Let’s just go down the list and add it all in and see how far we get.' I think this was not what we intended.“
As a last ditch attempt to control the planning groups, Supervisor Horn suggested the county should pay $230,000 a year to have a senior planner and an attorney at planning group meetings. But he relented even on that after hearing that the new proposal will require all the elected advisory group members to go through mandatory ethics and government training before they are seated, and then every year.
However Roberts and Horn were adamant that after the training, the county would not pay to cover legal costs for volunteer planning group members who violate ethics laws.
“If you use your cell phone to poll your board members before a meeting, that is a Brown Act violation.” Horn said. “I think they need to understand that. If training is thorough, I’ll forgo putting a council in their meeting.“
Board Chair Ron Roberts said he hoped the new training wouldn’t be as meaningless as some he’s been through, but would really equip the elected volunteer planning group members for service on the advisory groups.
Ultimately though, Roberts insisted the goal of the Red Tape Reduction Task Force must still be met. Many of their recommendations add up to a transformation of the way the county processes permit applications for new development.
“It’s taken us decades to get projects up here to the Board of Supervisors for review,” he said. “That is intolerable and we are going to change that.”
The way to do that, said Darren Gretler of the County Department of Planning and Land Use, is to change the culture at the county.
“Changing organizational culture will not be easy,” Gretler told the supervisors. “We are up to the challenge and our staff are ready.“
The planning group members, many of whom had taken the day off work to testify, breathed a sigh of relief and went home.