Some Friendly Suggestions for the Ocean Beach Planning Board

by on April 15, 2016 · 0 comments

in Civil Rights, Culture, Environment, History, Media, Ocean Beach, Organizing, Politics, San Diego

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OBceans applaud ruling by the California Coastal Commission in approving the OB Community Plan. August 13, 2015.

The Ocean Beach Planning Board, like other neighborhood planning groups around San Diego, is often plagued by low turnouts at its annual Board elections. It’s not uncommon for candidates to receive votes that total in the single digits. This year was no different. A grand total of 25 ballots were cast, and one member was re-elected with only 2 votes. A measly turnout for a community with a total population of 13,600. (This is the OB Planning Area – not the 92107 area.)

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OBceans celebrate at City Council chambers for the final City Council approval, Nov. 19, 2015

Contrast that with the turnout at the neighborhood community of Point Loma. In its most recent election on March 17th, the Peninsula Community Board election had an estimated 250 to 300 people casting over 1,500 votes (one voter can vote for up to 5 candidates – and the top 5 take seats on the Board). Sure, it’s true that the Peninsula community is larger than OB, by three times. The Peninsula has close to 40,000 in population. Still, OB had a very low turnout even ratio-wise compared to Point Loma.

In a sign that there is hope for Ocean Beach, it’s true also that there are fluctuations in balloting in the Peninsula community. One active observer cites that the turnout at the Peninsula board election last year only drew about 30 voters. Yet the year before, in 2014, the election saw over 700 people vote, and the top vote-getter received nearly 360 votes in the final tally.

OB Plan Holiday Parade 12-4-14

Supporters of the OB Community Plan whoop it up during 2014 Holiday Parade on Newport Avenue.

Back in OB, there are other things that reflect the fact that the Ocean Beach neighborhood is just not that much into it – into the planning committee and issues related to it. The low audience numbers at the Board’s monthly meetings say something. Plus the fact that the OB Board currently has a 36% vacancy rate – there’s 5 seats vacant on a 14-member Board. (Truthfully, the Board is expected to fill at least one of those vacancies at its April meeting.)

We also have to recall that less than 2 years ago, there was a tremendous outpouring of support for the OB Plan and its Board, during the very public campaign to have the community’s popular development blueprints approved by different levels of government. 4,000 signatures were gathered in the Spring and Summer of 2014 in support of the new draft of the Plan. Hundreds of locals turned up at the late June City Council hearing, and dozens attended the hearing where the Coastal Commission approved it. The OB Town Council even rented a small bus to take folks to the Chula Vista site of the hearing.

Still, these low turnouts at the annual planning board elections are troubling. It’s been like that for a while now. Yet, this hasn’t always been the case.

So, I have a few friendly suggestions to make for the OB Planning Board – a good chunk of them aimed at increasing the community’s participation at and with the Board. In addition, I have a few procedural or PR related suggestions. My background quickly: 3 years on the OB Board, one year as Chair.

First, however, I must acknowledge that these suggestions are given with the highest respect possible towards the Planning Board for OB and all its members, as we also understand that sitting on the Planning Board – although a unique and invaluable experience – is a totally thankless job – and those that serve the neighborhood by taking a stint on a committee involved in modern, urban grassroots planning and development are the quiet heroes of OB’s 40 year history of having such a Planning Board. You join the hundreds that have sat on the Board over those 4 decades.

Second, these suggestions are made in the context of understanding and appreciating that the local planning committees – such as the OB Board – are often the closest thing we have on a neighborhood level to grassroots democracy. Officially sanctioned by the City of San Diego to offer recommendations, yea’s or nay’s to the various proposed projects, recommendations – yes, but recommendations based on the full weight of a Community Plan just recently passed unanimously by both the San Diego City Council and the Coastal Commission.

It is true that sometimes it’s difficult to remember that the Planning Board acts as the truest form of direct democracy here in OB, what with low levels of community participation, low voting and compared to what goes on at the OB Town Council meetings.  Some of those OBTC meetings have over a hundred people in the audience, it is also true that more representatives of the public-serving departments like the Fire and Rescue departments show up and give reports than at Planning Board meetings, and more issues are discussed by audience members.

OB Plan Area Map goodBut one must remember that the decisions made by the Planning Board are made out in the open – as their meetings are subject to the Brown Act – as are their discussions of the issues and various projects. Contrast this with the procedures employed by our good friends at the OB Town Council. All their discussion and debate of issues occurs during their non-public monthly meeting, and as the OBTC is afterall, a private non-profit, their meetings are not subject to the Brown Act. Plus, only town council members in good-standing can vote for their board members, whereas any resident, property owner or business owner can vote in the Planning Board elections.

Suggestions (not in any particular order of importance :

Procedural / PR

  • Buy or make individual Board member cardboard name placards; it’s the least that the Board and community can do, spend some of that $360 in your treasury.
  • Tape a map of the 7 OB Planning Districts on the wall during each meeting.
  • During votes on projects or issues, there ought not to be any “abstentions” unless they are for cause.  The community deserves district representatives who are knowledgeable and can take stands on the issues. Board members should not be allowed to vote as an abstention just because they don’t know the project or don’t feel like voting on it.
  • If there are any vacancies by time the annual election rolls around, allow those seats to be filled by the election. This has been done in the past, where if necessary, candidates would run for a seat with only 1 year left in its term – and that was known upfront. This could avoid situations such as occurred during the March election, where there was a tie between two candidates, and the Board had to vote on whether to “give” the contested seat to the incumbent, one of the candidates, and appoint the other candidate involved in the tie to a open and vacant seat. The more candidates, the more voters, one could think.

Presentation of Projects

  • Have each project be presented by a member of the Board who represents the district in which the project is proposed; this would occur twice necessarily, once at the Project Review Committee hearing and then at the full Board meeting. Other Board members could step in and give assistance if certain districts were receiving the vast majority of new projects. Then allow the developer to add information, especially under questioning.
  • Allow the Board chair to maintain control of the process, and not the developer or private party making the presentation of the project, especially during any Q and A session.
  • It is also good for vibes if the chair would summarize the different positions or sides on the issue or project.
  • Keep non-project presentations to a minimum and not allow any private commercial parties to appear to be pushing their services or wares.

Outreach / Increase Community Participation

There is an obvious need to help educate the community around planning issues, projects and history. A recent spate of graffiti aimed at a construction site illustrated some real ignorance of how projects move through the development stages and pass by the OB planners.

  • Board members flier the surrounding neighborhoods in which new projects are proposed; this can be accomplished via “windshield fliers” within a certain yardage from the site, like 100 yards. This instantly increases interest and turnout at meetings, especially those being held to make recommendations on designs, etc. This method of outreach was done for years by Board members, having been perfected since the early Seventies by activists.  There is a certain irony, that in the “old days”, Board members were more in touch with their constituents than Board members are today despite all the forms of social media.
  • Hold or co-sponsor forums on community issues, even if only tangentially related to strict interpretations of “urban planning” like the Board did this past year on short-term vacation rentals. More forums such as these will make the Board more visible within the community, and allow it to be seen as more of a presence.
  • Establish sub-committees involving non-Board members on key issues to investigate and research issues, such as the sub-committee that helped write up the draft community plan.
  • Insist that City departments that plan to enter OB to make “improvements” in the parks, the right-of-way, or to the infrastructure notify the Planning Board with written notices and presentations of those improvements. This will stifle the troubling trend in city-OB relations where city departments routinely avoid or ignore the Board even while dealing with areas under the Board’s authority to monitor. Once residents understand that future improvements proposed by city departments will be formally presented at the Board meetings, this will increase interest and participation.  There must be some kind of community vetting and approval process involving such public projects.
  • Come up with methods or ways to increase neighborhood involvement in the planning process, such as “educational sessions” or “teach-in’s” on controversial or important issues, such as FARs, green building programs, etc. Take the new logo, f0r example. That was a lost opportunity to get more people involved in the Board, as adesign contest for a new logo could have been held, roping in local artists and historians.
  • One method that former Planning Boards used to increase participation in the annual elections was the utilization of the initiative process, where citizens could submit initiatives that after meeting certain requirements would appear on the annual ballot to be voted upon by every participant. One example of a past initiative that was on a Planning Board ballot was a proposal for restrictions on corporate imagery and public signage for future franchises coming to OB. It lost, but upwards of 200 people voted.

Role in the Community

  • The Board and its members could be more pro-active within the community, and not just react to proposed projects by individual developers or by city planners or by pleas for help by residents. Don’t allow the city to dominate the planning process nor allow it to restrict the meanings of community urban planning. District reps ought to be familiar with the issues within their areas and if controversy around them arises, be able to bring them forward as agenda items. For example, why didn’t the OB Planning Board initiate inquiries into suspected encroachments by restaurants on Newport Avenue? Or why haven’t past Boards been more active in lobbying for infrastructure improvements or against restrictions on public facilities?

So, that’s it, a bunch of suggestions made, all friendly, some lighthearted, all serious, with some time-tested by former Boards.

 

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