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Perhaps every Manteca council member should appoint one planning commissioner
Dennis Wyatt
Dennis Wyatt

Regardless of where you stand the Manteca City Council’s appointment process on Tuesday to fill Manteca Planning Commission positions certainly broke the mold.

You can read almost anything into it you want.

After two of the three four-year terms were filled with those who had planning commission experience — Leonard Smith and Ron Lafranchi — plus the picking of Paraminder Singh Sahi as the alternate, the City Council set about rejecting all of the remaining six candidates. Five were rejected after separate motions were made to appoint them, all died for a lack of a second. The sixth candidate didn’t even have anyone make a motion for him to be considered. (It should be noted it was the largest pool of applicants for commission vacancies in at least 30 years.)

Some contend it was pure politics when Mayor Ben Cantu’s nomination of David Cushman was rejected. The inference was Cantu — who was 100 percent upfront in noting Cushman was his campaign manager before making a motion to appoint him — was a political payoff attempt of some sort by the mayor while the four council members that declined to second the motion were playing hardball politics because Cushman is aligned with Cantu.

Two things need to be made clear. It has been a fairly common practice in the past for Manteca mayors to successfully appoint individuals who had been active in their campaigns to the Planning Commission. That said the 26-year-old Cushman, who has not been shy about his political ambitions, is likely to run again for the City Council (he ran in 2004) could have been perceived as a potential threat to incumbents Debby Moorhead and Gary Singh who are up for re-election in two years as well as Nuño and David Breitenbucher who were just elected. The Manteca Planning Commission is the second highest profile city board after the council meaning it would give Cushman the opportunity to build on his resume. With all due respect to the mayor, Cushman played an instrumental role in pushing Cantu over the top after failing to get elected five times. That makes Cushman a force to be reckoned with in Manteca politics.

The other key point was made by council members Jose Nuño and Singh — both former planning commissioners — as well as Cantu that there is a desire to step up the game, so to speak, when it comes to the board that could play a more assertive role in shaping Manteca’s growth.

All three expressed a desire to have commission members with planning related experience in development, engineering, real estate and such. Two of them also inferred experience with what the commission does is critical given Manteca is entering into what promises to be an accelerated era of growth as the city of 81,450 lurches toward 120,000 by 2030.

The only one of the six remaining candidates that met the “planning commission” experience criteria to any degree was Richard Silverman who just finished a four-year term as a city councilman reading and acting on planning commission recommendations. Silverman, who was rejected, is the first former councilman anyone can recall who has applied for the planning commission.

Based on the commission experience criteria, it would appear Councilman Mike Morowit who finished third behind Nuño and Breitenbucher is likely the only person that could meet that standard to be appointed given he was on the planning commission before getting elected to the council in 2014.

Whether Morowit applies when the council reopens the application process after the holidays to fill the fifth four-year term on the commission is anyone’s guess.

You can see why some might view the dance that the appointment process was on Tuesday that even included a commission hopeful describing Manteca as an “armpit” was somehow a disaster.

But if you look beyond the surface Tuesday’s dialogue and actions should be viewed as a wake-up call.

Instead of immediately looking for a fifth commission member after the first of the year, the council might want to delay the search and instead have a discussion on what role they want the planning commission to play and what steps would be need to make that happen.

Given growth drives almost every concern city residents have whether its traffic, aesthetics, public safety manpower and response times, amenities, affordable housing and more it might be time to encourage a more pro-active commission.

For at last the past 30 years an argument can be made that planning commissions for the most part have made sure the proverbial “i” was dotted and “t” was crossed when it comes to whether a proposed project fit into the general plan that can be viewed as an ambiguous document that has just a small sliver of its stated objectives spelled out in city ordinances that can only be judged by whether “yes” a project compiles or “no” a project doesn’t.

 Staff — the professionals — are the ones that should make sure the definitive development nuances spelled out in municipal codes and ordinances are met. That said there are a lot of things in approving projects that offer a leeway to put the community’s stamp on it. No disrespect to the community development staff that is arguably the most effective and efficient team judged by the past 30 years, but Manteca’s growth should be molded to a larger degree by the community as opposed to a cookie cutter process that could turn the city into a soulless sprawl of sameness as it grows.

With Cantu as mayor and Singh and Nuño on the council (all three have a high degree of familiarity with city planning), Manteca has a unique opportunity to do some soul searching about the role of the planning commission. There are of course state and legal mandates that can’t be ignored.

The first step might be to change how the commission members are picked. Given the only people that make decisions for the city’s growth that answer directly to its 81,450 residents who can vote them in or out of office are council members, perhaps a new procedure needs to be put in place for planning commission appointments. Instead of a majority of the council appointing members, why not have each council member — when they are elected every four years — appoint a commission member? That would assure to a large degree that the points that a successful council candidate made regarding growth and embraced by voters would run deeper in the planning process. 

It would further sharpen the community’s ability to influence growth-related decisions.

Such a proposal or some other way of stepping up the community’s role in growth is worth looking at. Given the council has appointed an alternate there is for all practical purposes a five-member planning commission in place. That gives the council time to find ways to deliver on what each and every one of them — including those that didn’t face re-election Nov. 6 — have said they wanted to do is give the community the greatest voice possible in shaping growth.

Rethinking the planning commission appointment process to maximize the influence of council members who every four years are essentially a referendum on how well the city is executing growth might be what is needed.

It’s worth a try.


This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at dwyatt@mantecabulletin.com or 209.249.3519.