Pleasanton City Manager Gerry Beaudin continues to put his stamp on the city administration in his first year in the head office.
Last week, he received unanimous support from the City Council – who admittedly tread carefully that night – to completely revamp the city's longstanding process for identifying and prioritizing public projects, programs and policy initiatives.
Gone will be the biennial council work plan, a familiar system for the past 17 years under prior city manager Nelson Fialho, in favor of developing a Citywide Strategic Plan over the next year that is more forward-looking and high-level in its goals and implementation, likely in five-year increments.
"I would say that what we're doing now is maybe creating a bit of false hope for people who are passionate about those projects because we don't link existing resources to an intended outcome as part of this process," Beaudin said while responding to Councilmember Jack Balch at the Nov. 15 meeting.
I, like many, recall the previous planning process well – long lines, long lists, long nights.
The old process would occur every two years, aligned with the city's two-year budgeting cycle, and involve soliciting input from city department heads, commission and committee members, the City Council, and residents and other stakeholders to create a catalog of new recommendations (combined with select carryover projects).
That draft plan would be released ahead of a final public meeting before the council that would often draw more than a hundred people in the audience to have their say about which projects to prioritize, add or cut.
The items that often generated the biggest headlines were development-related projects, like whether to complete an East Pleasanton Specific Plan, or to respond to residents' desire for a new amenity such as pickleball courts or lighted sand volleyball courts. The meeting would usually last well past midnight, with the council voting on each line item.
The current work plan includes 78 individual items, prioritized as completion or major milestone by the first year, by the second year or as time allows. Of course, not all projects or policy initiatives are achieved in the allotted timeframe.
Council members last week expressed hesitant support for Beaudin's proposed strategy, though most acknowledged something needed to change about the prior process – "too many projects" and "it had become an intense lobbying effect" were council comments that stood out.
Beaudin, who was involved in the two-year work plan process during his prior stint with the city as community development director, said something about the old way that grabbed my attention too.
He described the process as "really issue-specific to groups of individuals who know how to connect with the city and plug into our process … It's not a process that lends itself to an inclusive, participatory priority-setting process in our community."
Beaudin acknowledged his goal was "not to diminish the process … a lot of really great things have happened because of the two-year work planning process over the years. Major accomplishments. Recycled water was once on the list; things like that."
But in his view, a change clearly is needed to level-set expectations and transparency for the community within the city's financial and staffing realities.
In his most direct pitch, Beaudin said his new concept would focus on "helping us to identify the things that are important to the community – bigger picture, not just come up to the podium and say what your project is with a whole host of folks who support your project. The idea here is we want to best position ourselves for five to 10 years from now and to do that, we need to know what's important to the community and we need to know how we're going to do those things."
The Citywide Strategic Plan is a top-down approach to priority planning. And it all starts with creating the guiding document, a first of its kind for Pleasanton.
(Meanwhile, the existing council priorities work plan will remain in place and staff will move through the current list until the end of the 2023-24 fiscal year, creating a third, "gap" year in the prioritization process.)
With the help of a yet-unidentified consultant, to the tune of $85,000 to $100,000, city officials will start in 2023 to develop a new strategic planning process over the ensuing nine months, including seeking input on the high-level vision from residents, commissioners, council members and other key stakeholders.
"You're going to get a document that says: This is what the community values, here's how those values translate into actionable items and projects, and here's what the city can realistically accomplish in that period of time. And then we'll have some aspirational things as well, because that's important," Beaudin said.
The themes and goals will attempt to capture the community's interests for today and into the future, more on the range of five years, 10 years and 20 years rather than just two years.
Key questions during that prioritization process, according to Beaudin, will be angles such as: Do we want to accomplish a project in five years instead of 10? Why is this project important for the community to support the city's values and mission? What specific benchmarks could be tracked toward achieving goals?
"A lot of it is above the water, if you think about the iceberg analogy – and so these are really high-value-add projects, but they also are in addition to the (day-to-day) work that gets done in the community," Beaudin said.
I commend Beaudin for trying to make his mark early in a splashy way. I have to imagine that's part of why he stood out to this council in the city manager hiring process last winter – as a leader who would not just sit on the sidelines managing the status quo, but actually mold the city administration in a positive way.
Change can be good, but it also can be tough to navigate and come with reputational risk if it goes awry, especially in a place like Pleasanton where many residents feel entrenched against certain types of change.
"I know a lot of people who really like our community just the way it is," Mayor Karla Brown said with a bit of a wry chuckle during last week's discussion.
I almost couldn't have said it better myself.
Editor's note: Jeremy Walsh is the editorial director for the Embarcadero Media East Bay Division. His "What a Week" column publishes on the second and fourth Fridays of the month.