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Time to change how Manteca selects planning commissioners
Dennis Wyatt

Manteca, whether you like it, is a city of 81,450 people on track to having 125,000 residents in 22 years.

That is based on growth trends, infrastructure capacity in terms of water and wastewater, and entitlements that have or are in the process of being secured by developers as well as location, location, location.

You could try and slow down the current rate of growth or even restrict it but the only clear cut winners that would produce are lawyers at the expense of taxpayers and the private sector alike. 

It would be more productive and effective to direct our collective energies into working to make sure growth is done right and the community that unfolds as we increase 50 percent in size is what Manteca wants and not a cookie cutter creation by a formula cobbled together by consultants and bureaucrats.

One of the best ways to do that is strengthen the policy making ability of the five people we elect to lead Manteca – the City Council.

One step toward that would be to have each City Council member appoint a Planning Commission member to serve a four-year term that mirrors their own.

The Planning Commission is the nuts and bolts body when it comes to growth. While certain things are a given in terms of standards, there are aspects — call it the “gingerbread” component — that Manteca needs to stamp on growth so what is created reflects the sensibilities and desire of the community as much as possible and not simply a textbook template.

While the authority of the Planning Commission is limited other communities have successfully enhanced their scope to make sure the community’s values and concerns are addressed from the outset. 

It’s assumed the Planning Commission is the community’s input at the table. In reality they function more of an arbitrator in disputes between staff and a project proponent. And when they are no disputed points they come across at times as simply providing the rubber stamp of approval.

To a large degree that is what state law implies planning commissions in general law cities such as Manteca do. 

It assumes that staff best represents the community. It does with the nitty gritty stuff such as building standards, infrastructure needs, and such.

But the model relies on public input to press what might best be described as quality of life issues.

Many of the things that matter can’t be framed as a crossing the “T” or dotting an “I” concern. They are more nebulous in nature given they are more gingerbread issues or may involve tweaking a particular element in terms of how a new piece to the puzzle fits into what is already in place. The best way to address those concerns is to have a planning commission that is more responsive to the community. 

Right now a bunch of names are essentially dropped into a blender, the mayor selects them and with council’s concurrence you have a blended commission that is a mesh-mash of whatever can get three votes. 

Manteca may elect a mayor in such a scenario who may not be able to put their imprint to a degree on the planning commission even if that is what people voting for them assumed they would be able to do.

The Planning Commission in many ways is more important to the “little picture” of growth than the council. It was made that way several years ago when more authority was invested into the commission as well as staff on what are perceived as relatively minor issues. The idea was to have elected officials concentrate their energy on the big picture when it came to growth and development. It also helped to stop the council from becoming bogged down. The only drawback is the little things often have a bigger impact of the quality of life in a neighborhood.

In doing so we may have a Neapolitan array of ideas on the council shaping major growth issues but because how commission members are picked they become more often than not one flavor.

One might argue it is not wise to have commission members “beholden” to a specific council member.

But why should the general community be the only one at the table without continuity?

The project proponent is there from start to finish as well as the staff.

The staff really doesn’t represent the fluid community perspective rooted in value judgments but rather the basic community standards put in place via codes and ordinances.

You can’t argue those who feel they are gored by a particular development proposal provide that community perspective. They have a narrow perspective. While that doesn’t make it less important, it may not coincide with the overall community perspective.

Tying commission members directly to council members will “politicize” the process to a degree.

But unless the echo chamber is sending the wrong message, growth and development related issues get a lot of people riled. So why not make the Planning Commission more accountable to the voters by tying their fate to council members voters elect?

Before you know it 2040 will be here. And if nothing about the planning process changes Manteca will get bigger but not necessarily better.