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Around the Valley: Questionable actions

Questionable actions at recent municipal meetings might have gone unnoticed if not for astute and curious readers.

The first example involves the San Ramon Planning Department staff and the city's planning commission.

City staff sent a letter on Oct. 17 to the applicant of the proposed Marketplace development, Southern California-based TRC Retail, concerning the development of 40 single-family condos and four junior accessory dwelling units (ADUs). The letter stated "there are no identified inconsistencies with objective standards or criteria..."

According to Planning Commissioner Eric Wallis, the staff did not follow the planning commission's direction and did not have the authority to send a letter that, under state's Housing Accountability law, basically waived the rights of the city to deny the project and ask for revisions.

"At the (Oct. 4) hearing, it was discussed that this project did not comply with our city General Plan for the issue of dwelling units per acre density or, because the way it was set up, it was not a mixed use project as described in our zoning ordinance," Wallis said.

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"Staff was given really clear directions that a letter was to be written to the applicant identifying these deficiencies in the project to allow the applicant to respond about those deficiencies but retain our city's rights to consider the project in light of those deficiencies," he continued. "That was specifically said at the meeting."

"You can get further information," a city attorney's office staff member said, "but you can't use (those issues) as a basis for denying the project."

In other words, the letter sent by staff, with the blessing of staff city attorney Martin Lysons, has waived the city's rights to deny the Marketplace project and ask for revisions.

"At its Oct. 4 meeting, the commission raised concerns with aspects of the project design as well as potential consistency with certain General Plan policies," Debbie Chamberlain, the city's Community Development Director, told me. "The commission's General Plan comments were not objective under the SB 330 definition, and as such did not form a proper basis for an inconsistency determination."

"Our intent was to preserve our right to raise these issues and potentially deny the application based on what we all felt were objective (standards)," said Gary Alpert, chair of the Planning Commission. "And now that the letter was written the way it was ... we've lost that right."

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When it comes down to it, in my opinion, San Ramon city staff "kneecapped" the planning commission and waived the city's rights to deny the project or even ask for revisions.

It doesn't seem fair to residents and disrespectful to the Planning Commissioners. But I'd bet the owners and managers of Marketplace Center and Bishop Ranch are happy.

Second, the Pleasanton City Council had a salary and health benefits increase as part of a "consent calendar."

The council's agenda says, "Items listed on the consent calendar are considered routine in nature and may be enacted by one motion." In other words, there might be a dozen items and all are voted on at once. Items that often fall in consent calendars are authorization to pay vendors and personnel changes -- things we rely on staff to make happen but still require council approval.

Vice mayor Valerie Arkin wanted to continue two items concerning council pay and health benefits from the Oct. 18 consent agenda to a meeting after the Nov. 8 election "so we don't politicize that more than we need to," she said.

Mayor Karla Brown and councilmember Julie Testa didn't have any concern about postponing a vote. Councilmembers Kathy Narum and Jack Balch questioned waiting.

It turns out that voting that night, waiting until after the election or even January was a moot point, though. Arkin apparently thought anything done before January would be effective in January.

However, as city attorney Dan Sodergren told Arkin, "The sitting council can't set their own salaries" and nothing concerning pay for councilmembers would take effect until December 2024.

The item was continued to the Nov. 1 meeting, and the discussion was extremely tense. I won't rehash the pompous statements made by Brown about why she deserves a raise, nor will I delve into the rude, demeaning way she spoke to Balch (not the first time).

To me, putting a pay raise on a consent calendar, which doesn't get much -- if any -- public scrutiny, isn't appropriate and smacks of, well, sneakiness.

Editor's note: Gina Channell Wilcox has been the president and publisher of Embarcadero Media Group's East Bay division since 2006. Her "Around the Valley" column, which is her opinion and observations, runs the first and third Fridays of the month.

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Gina Channell Wilcox
Gina Channell Wilcox is the president and publisher of Embarcadero Media's East Bay division. She previously worked as the executive editor/associate publisher at a division of the Chicago Sun-Times and has earned several state and national journalism awards, including for investigative journalism and in-depth reporting. Read more >>

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Around the Valley: Questionable actions

by / Danville San Ramon

Uploaded: Thu, Dec 1, 2022, 6:59 pm

Questionable actions at recent municipal meetings might have gone unnoticed if not for astute and curious readers.

The first example involves the San Ramon Planning Department staff and the city's planning commission.

City staff sent a letter on Oct. 17 to the applicant of the proposed Marketplace development, Southern California-based TRC Retail, concerning the development of 40 single-family condos and four junior accessory dwelling units (ADUs). The letter stated "there are no identified inconsistencies with objective standards or criteria..."

According to Planning Commissioner Eric Wallis, the staff did not follow the planning commission's direction and did not have the authority to send a letter that, under state's Housing Accountability law, basically waived the rights of the city to deny the project and ask for revisions.

"At the (Oct. 4) hearing, it was discussed that this project did not comply with our city General Plan for the issue of dwelling units per acre density or, because the way it was set up, it was not a mixed use project as described in our zoning ordinance," Wallis said.

"Staff was given really clear directions that a letter was to be written to the applicant identifying these deficiencies in the project to allow the applicant to respond about those deficiencies but retain our city's rights to consider the project in light of those deficiencies," he continued. "That was specifically said at the meeting."

"You can get further information," a city attorney's office staff member said, "but you can't use (those issues) as a basis for denying the project."

In other words, the letter sent by staff, with the blessing of staff city attorney Martin Lysons, has waived the city's rights to deny the Marketplace project and ask for revisions.

"At its Oct. 4 meeting, the commission raised concerns with aspects of the project design as well as potential consistency with certain General Plan policies," Debbie Chamberlain, the city's Community Development Director, told me. "The commission's General Plan comments were not objective under the SB 330 definition, and as such did not form a proper basis for an inconsistency determination."

"Our intent was to preserve our right to raise these issues and potentially deny the application based on what we all felt were objective (standards)," said Gary Alpert, chair of the Planning Commission. "And now that the letter was written the way it was ... we've lost that right."

When it comes down to it, in my opinion, San Ramon city staff "kneecapped" the planning commission and waived the city's rights to deny the project or even ask for revisions.

It doesn't seem fair to residents and disrespectful to the Planning Commissioners. But I'd bet the owners and managers of Marketplace Center and Bishop Ranch are happy.

Second, the Pleasanton City Council had a salary and health benefits increase as part of a "consent calendar."

The council's agenda says, "Items listed on the consent calendar are considered routine in nature and may be enacted by one motion." In other words, there might be a dozen items and all are voted on at once. Items that often fall in consent calendars are authorization to pay vendors and personnel changes -- things we rely on staff to make happen but still require council approval.

Vice mayor Valerie Arkin wanted to continue two items concerning council pay and health benefits from the Oct. 18 consent agenda to a meeting after the Nov. 8 election "so we don't politicize that more than we need to," she said.

Mayor Karla Brown and councilmember Julie Testa didn't have any concern about postponing a vote. Councilmembers Kathy Narum and Jack Balch questioned waiting.

It turns out that voting that night, waiting until after the election or even January was a moot point, though. Arkin apparently thought anything done before January would be effective in January.

However, as city attorney Dan Sodergren told Arkin, "The sitting council can't set their own salaries" and nothing concerning pay for councilmembers would take effect until December 2024.

The item was continued to the Nov. 1 meeting, and the discussion was extremely tense. I won't rehash the pompous statements made by Brown about why she deserves a raise, nor will I delve into the rude, demeaning way she spoke to Balch (not the first time).

To me, putting a pay raise on a consent calendar, which doesn't get much -- if any -- public scrutiny, isn't appropriate and smacks of, well, sneakiness.

Editor's note: Gina Channell Wilcox has been the president and publisher of Embarcadero Media Group's East Bay division since 2006. Her "Around the Valley" column, which is her opinion and observations, runs the first and third Fridays of the month.

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