COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | CAROLYN CHASE

Incompetence or corruption?

Incompetence or corruption seem to be the only possible explanations for the problems that unfolded before me at the Planning Commission hearing for a project called the "Central Police Facility." What a shame. This potential demonstration of the city as a "model developer" is instead a world-class embarrassment.

The city located the new downtown library at the current location of the police's fleet Vehicle Maintenance Facility. This led to the proposal for a replacement facility, including 24-hour fueling stations, a huge office building, an auto-body shop, and tire and junked car storage -- all in designated, as well as dedicated, parklands, next to an urban creek, in park-deficient City Heights.

At the first Planning Commission hearing, the information provided by city staff was incomplete and incorrect. The item was continued. A workshop was held. Staff was requested to address issues identified as problematic by the commission and the public.

The final hearing before the commission was a grueling six hours. Throughout the hearing, I was repeatedly drawn back: Did they answer the public's questions? Does the record reflect those answers? And over and over again, staff's failure to honestly address substantive issues revealed a persistent pattern of mismanagement, including:

  • Lack of basic project integration

  • Using "red herring" arguments, designed to distract

  • Not answering questions

  • Selective presentation of relevant information

  • Making assertions without sufficient backup (checks have proven many assertions incorrect)

  • Not providing a complete record, and not clearly presenting sources and explanations of items

  • Taking information out of context to prove their points, while ignoring others

    Their refusal to answer the Sierra Club comments dated May 16 in a timely fashion, even after being requested to do so by the commission in a public hearing, is inexplicable. The letter stated that the project description was inadequate with respect to the fuel storage and maintenance issues. At the hearing, when asked about the gasoline storage, staff reported that they first heard about it on July 23. Hardly a minor omission. Further, it left the project open to a credible legal (the California Environmental Quality Act) challenge.

    Then there was the Bad Biology Report. The CEQA document already had been recirculated once because the original report "missed" a few things. What they "missed" was not small stuff. Local, independent volunteers say this is typical of what you get with a "drive-by" survey, where project proponents really don't want to find everything that's out there.

    The California Native Plant Society comment letter states, "The Biological Survey from 2002 was obviously done very hastily. Recently, a member of our Chapter who is a professional botanist found, in less than two hours, more than 30 species of plants that were not recorded in the Biological Survey ... Several of these plants are sensitive species." They go on to report other "missed" aspects: "active coyote den on site," "gnatcatchers nesting nearby," "high quality habitat for coastal cactus wren," and "The site may be one link in a wildlife corridor, connecting various canyon areas in the Mid-City area, ranging from Florida and Switzer at the west, to Chollas, Zena and Baja east of I-805."

    Chances are, the city paid for the full-priced survey, even when getting a drive-by style report convenient for the project managers.

    My personal nomination for the most depressing event in the hearing was the battle over the setback from Chollas Creek. The Creek Enhancement Plan includes "20-foot minimum setbacks from the edge of an urban creek." With this project running new asphalt to within 10 feet of the creek, I was being asked to vote that the project was consistent with the Creek Enhancement Plan! It's one thing to propose putting an auto-body shop in designated parklands, next to an urban creek in a park-deficient community. But why are decision makers asked to say that it's consistent with a "Creek Enhancement Plan"?

    The day after the hearing I was informed that, yes, I was right, and they would be doing a 20-foot buffer. Hallelujah! Bruce Herring later referred to this as "No Big Deal." This attitude suggests that the city's standard is ... whatever they can get away with.

    What concerns me most is that staff is apparently ordered to defend certain positions in a public hearing, no matter what. I'm left wondering: Would staff ever be able to render an independent professional opinion that conflicts with the party line?

    I also believe that the analysis of alternatives -- both environmental and financial -- was a sham from the beginning.

    For $8 million and rising, independent developers have told me that the city could almost certainly purchase an auto body facility for less within the target area. Maybe not the Taj Mahal of cop auto garages, but my point is that there have been no real alternatives presented for review, even though they claimed there was. We got a one-page table, and even that had incorrect information in it. The way they did the minimum comparisons cooked the conclusion that any city-owned designated parklands would have to be the preferred site.

    My characterization of gross mismanagement of this project is no exaggeration. The City Council needs to seek corrections, beginning with how the city manager intends to deal with the management failures that precluded the correct approaches from coming forward, and understand how these problems are showing up in other projects.

    District representative Toni Atkins declared there had been "a crisis of faith," and "what I'm hearing (from the public) mostly is that they don't trust the city -- even people who spoke in support but are saying negative things has to do with people wanting to see what they've been promised."

    I have also learned much about this council's resigned attitude toward bad processes. One quipped to me, "We don't want to let a bad process get in the way of a good project." But a bad process doesn't get you a good project. Over and over it gets you more costly, less accountable projects, and it especially gets you the wrong things in the wrong places.

    But decision makers -- like the communities around this project -- are put in the position of feeling they have to take what they can get, even if what they get is terribly flawed. But when confronting poor work quality on a range of city projects and negotiations, it's difficult to defend why denial is the preferred, costly course. Corruption or not, gross incompetence is enough to demand change.

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