02/19/12

Op-Ed in Union Tribune

Planning Group hysteria has broken out across the county. I feel like a broken record, but I’ll say it again: I am not suggesting we eliminate Planning Groups! There has been a lot of misinformation and shameful misquoting, especially when it comes to what I have said and where I stand on the issue. So, let’s go through the history. Last year, I made it my priority to streamline our business operations and eliminate red tape in our county planning department. The Red Tape Reduction Task Force (RTRTF) was created to utilize the knowledge of experts in the field to facilitate that goal. I am stunned there are people who actually want to slow government process. But it’s an old trick; slow growth equals no growth and if you bog down the process, nothing ever changes. This Task Force made a series of recommendations, including a few about Planning Groups. I think we owe it to the taxpayers to analyze their recommendations. One of those recommendations suggests shifting the burden of liability away from the county. That is the issue being considered… separation NOT elimination.

The fact is Planning Groups are a cost to the county. Staff estimates this cost to be roughly $300,000 a year as we manage elections, allocate staff time and purchase materials. Should the Board decide to staff these meetings with planners or counsel that number could balloon to close to $1 million a year. Of course, these are rough estimates and the Board has numerous options it could take, which could significantly alter these numbers. In addition, the county, and therefore the taxpayer, is legally and financially responsible when Planning Groups overstep their boundaries or fail to comply with Brown Act regulations. The Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) recently clarified its position that the county is liable for Brown Act violations committed by these voluntary, advisory bodies. Should the county be sued over a Brown Act violation, the cost to taxpayers could be extraordinary depending on the offense. This is my concern.

If we are to keep Planning Groups within the county’s legal responsibility, I believe we need to make some changes to our policies. The RTRTF made a number of recommendations to that effect, which have received little attention. While I do not support term limits, I do believe there are things we could do to reduce our liability. Options include having county staff present at Planning Group meetings and holding mandatory Brown Act training for the group members. I have heard some concerns that Planning Groups would lose their autonomy if county staff has to manage meetings. I am sympathetic to that and want to listen to the public feedback before making any decisions. 

Moving the planning groups outside of the county’s legal ‘umbrella’ is simply a step toward reducing our liability as a county. I do not believe it “eliminates” Planning Groups. The Planning Groups have a long history in their respective communities and I believe they will still be a voice with or without the county’s legal and financial involvement. The Elfin Forest/Harmony Grove Town Council, the Fallbrook Village Association and the Endangered Habitats League all fall outside of the county’s umbrella and yet all continue to be very involved with county land use proposals. A few years ago, a group of former planning group members set out to create an alternate voice in the community. According to our county policy, only one recognized planning group can exist in a community. This alternate group has often been derided as “not the planning group” and therefore “not the community’s voice” by members of the planning group. I believe in free speech and therefore support any and all points of view when it comes to land use decisions. 

Your thoughts and concerns are very important to me. I appreciate your input as I make decisions that will impact your life. Please take the time to attend our Board meetings and pay close attention to policy. Don’t trust someone else’s interpretation of the issues. Write to me and tell me what you think. I do listen to my constituents and I value your participation in the process.