There is, according to several elected Manteca leaders, disconnect between the Planning Commission (PC) and the City Council.
Comments made by Mayor Ben Cantu and council members at a Dec. 17 special meeting ran the gamut from portraying the planning commission as a rubber stamp and being out of synch with the City Council to not approving projects in a manner that uplifts the quality of life in Manteca.
Besides being short on specific transgressions, it is clear they don’t view the commission members as a bunch of renegades. Quite the contrary as a bat could read between the lines. Those expressing displeasure with the Planning Commission inferred that the commission members essentially did not think like them and inferred they were in lockstep with staff recommendations.
As the contact city attorney sitting in on the four-hour Zoom meeting would point out, the Council didn’t have the legal luxury of discussing what they thought the exact purpose of the planning commission should be beyond what is in municipal ordinances and is allowed under state law given the topic wasn’t on the agenda.
If the commission is indeed not following the laws of the city and state, they should be reined in.
But as a planning commission member from years ago by the name of Marion Elliott used to point out, the powers of the body are somewhat limited to making sure the projects before them comply with the general plan or whatever measure is appropriate. That may sound old school but it might just be the correct school.
It sounds like at least two, if not three, council members believe the commission is doing somewhat less than a stellar job.
If one reason is Chick-Fil-A, the leading candidate for the Manteca Hell Hole Development of the Year honors, the City Council might want to look in a mirror first.
Chick-Fil-A followed the rules and zoning that only city councils have the power to change. While no one could have envisioned COVID-19, it would seem fairly clear that putting a high traffic volume fast food joint on a corner shared with two other such animals — McDonald’s and In-n-Out Burger — that close to the freeway on a heavily traveled arterial wasn’t an optimum move. It happened for the same reason the won the Yosemite Avenue Starbucks in 2002 planning disaster known as the Worst Drive Thru Window of the Decade did. When city planners told a commission that questioned the design that it was adequate and met city rules, it was because those were the rules put in place by the city council.
In both cases staff — dutifully backed up by consultants the city hired on the developers’ dime — told commissioners that since all the boxes were checked they basically had to approve the projects.
None of this is intended to undermine the points made by Cantu or Councilman Gary Singh that Manteca needs to — and can do — better.
That said the way they proposed addressing the situation is weak.
They want a joint meeting or workshop apparently to discuss in general terms what they want as they certainly can’t say specifics such as if Trader Joe’s wants to build in Manteca they need to homeless proof their property and hire security guards 24/7 to keep homeless from panhandling or sleeping in front of their store.
There was a suggestion the council might create a 2x2 committee with two council members and two planning commissioners as if both were separate government entities and they’d be talking about policy.
Such meetings may sound sensible in principal they look as if there are attempts to stack the deck.
We are assuming right now the concern is with developments that could have been done better as opposed to possibly a major project that could drastically impact the quality of life that city leaders want and the general public doesn’t. Marching orders handed down from the top can cut both ways and certainly run the real risk of undermining fairness in the process whether it is for the applicant or the general public.
You’d have a hard time convincing a number of folks at Del Webb that couldn’t happen after they succeeded in getting the planning commission to jump aboard their quality of life issues with a proposed nearby 458-space truck parking lot only to have the council reverse the commission.
So how can the council go about making the commission more attuned to community quality of life issues to the degree they legally can do so?
They might want to change how they select commission members. They could follow Stockton’s lead with a slight twist and allow every council member to nominate one commission member whose term is concurrent with their own. Then, as long as the council majority concurs, the people they pick are on the commission.
Stockton goes one step further. Given they have district elections for council members, each council member must nominate someone from their district to serve on the commission. The mayor who is elected at large nominates a Commission member at large.
Roseville for years did the same thing without district council elections. Each member got one pick and then two others were chosen by the entire council for the seven-member Planning Commission.
This may sound like it makes the commission a tad political and it does. But in this case the politics are what the local communities want to see happen to the full extent it can legally and not simply politics for the purpose of power.
Of course any reorganizing of the commission is not going to let the council escape the incoming missile better known as affordable housing.
That means smaller homes, smaller lots, higher density housing and half-plexes. Getting developers to pursue such options with rules and incentives is the easy part. Getting neighbors to agree with it is the tough part.
But as any seasoned council member knows, it doesn’t really matter given state laws prevent slowing down housing or killing developments that don’t look like McMansions unless there is a dire health and safety issue. To that extent the hands of everyone will be tied.
Right now the planning commission can be a convenient punching bag when high profile “oops” pop up such as Chick-Fil-A.
Even though there are pitfalls the best move the council can make is step up the politics and have a more of a direct connection between a council member and a planning commissioner. In theory that could lead to less disconnect the council seems to be upset about.
In the end it may be just a horse of a different color. It would, though, create the opportunity for a better collaboration between council members and individual planning commissioners.
Voters elected Gary Singh, Charlie Halford, Ben Cantu, Jose Nuño and Dave Breitenbucher. They did not elect the planning commission.
By having each commission member be agreeable specifically to one council member but still be acceptable to the majority in order to be appointed should make the commission somewhat more reflective of the direction Cantu and Singh alluded to wanting them to head.
This column is the opinion of editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinions of The Bulletin or 209 Multimedia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org