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How San Diego’s Planning Groups Can Jump-Start Community Involvement

Above: Planning Director Bill Fulton tells a crowd in Logan Heights Aug. 21, 2013, he's impressed by the city's efforts to include diverse voices in the planning process.

Planning Director Bill Fulton called San Diego's process for bringing neighborhood voices into budget talks "a truly extraordinary one" last week.

He was talking with a diverse group of residents, mostly from neighborhoods south of Interstate 8, at a Community Budget Alliance training designed to stoke community engagement in city planning.

Special Feature Speak City Heights

Speak City Heights is a media collaborative aimed at amplifying the voices of residents in one of San Diego’s most diverse neighborhoods. (Read more)

The process that's charmed Fulton relies on 45 volunteer planning groups to relay resident input to the city's professional planners. The groups have an advisory role in land-use decisions all year long – like, say, when a fast-food chain wants to open a new restaurant – but they also play a big part in crafting the mayor's budget each fall. They tell his staff what capital investments – parks, facilities and infrastructure – should be prioritized.

"Both of those things are very unusual and very innovative," Fulton said. "San Diego has a deserved reputation for engaging people in the neighborhoods aggressively, in a different way, and in a more meaningful way than is the case in almost any other city."

Despite the high praise, however, veterans in San Diego's planning world say the system isn't perfect.

Joe LaCava, who chairs an umbrella committee for all of San Diego's planning groups, said he'd like to bring a proposal to City Council next year to amend the policy that governs the groups. It was last amended in 2007 to bring the planning groups into compliance with the Brown Act, an open meetings law that requires legislative bodies to notify the public about their meetings and votes.

Here are three new fixes LaCava and his colleagues are considering.

Interpret Meetings

Georgette Gomez, an associate program director at the Environmental Health Coalition, spoke alongside LaCava at the CBA meeting. An interpreter there relayed her words to Spanish speakers in the audience through a separate audio system and headphones

That kind of service isn't offered at planning group meetings.

Gomez said the lack of interpretation is a major hurdle in making the planning process more inclusive, especially in immigrant communities beginning to rise up from San Diego's civic fringe.

"Hearing the voices of the community, the impacts on their everyday lives, is extremely important," Gomez said. "But if the planning groups don't have the residents' voices, then they're making their decisions based on their own experiences and that could be limited."

Gomez said the discussion about adding interpreters is "still in the what-are-we-going-to-do-if-anything stage." Doing so would require money and planning groups don't get any from the city to cover administration costs. They run on donations and volunteerism.

Encourage Turnover

Even with professional interpreters, La Cava and Gomez admit the meetings would still be hard to understand – for every newcomer.

"It's not an easy group to engage in, meaning that some of the members have been very engaged for a very long time and they know the language, they know the projects that are being discussed," Gomez said. "When you don't have that history, you don't have any idea what they're talking and it's very easy to get lost. That happens a lot."

Panelist descriptions of these long-time planning group members ranged from "land-use geniuses" to "ornery," with both ends of the spectrum circling around the same idea: From the outside, these groups can look unfriendly, even impenetrable.

LaCava has a couple ideas to fix that. He said changes to the rules on term limits could encourage turnover and infuse new blood into the committees. Currently, members can serve a maximum of nine consecutive years, but can run for their seat again after a yearlong break or if nobody else wants it.

Second, the city could establish a better standard for diversity in the groups. In addition to the requirement that there be resident and business seats, there could also be requirements to include renters, nonprofit representatives, seniors and youth. This is something the City Heights Area Planning Committee already does, though it had to get a special exception from City Council to let minors sit on the board.

Hire More Planners

City planners used to sit in on every planning group meeting. They were there to answer technical questions, provide insight and bring community concerns back to their department head.

But budget cutbacks put the number of planners at 15 – not enough to attend each of the 45 monthly meetings, Fulton said. He said his staff members are well versed in the needs and nuances of the communities they're assigned to, but agreed increasing access is a good thing.

But any shifts in how planning groups do business are a long way off. LaCava said he's still in the exploratory phase of pushing for amendments. Gomez said it feels like the city has hit the pause button on efforts to divvy planning power out among the neighborhoods. To hit play once more, it'll need another neighborhoods mayor.

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