County backs down after lawsuit over alleged Brown Act violations
Credit: By Miriam Raftery, East County Magazine, eastcountymagazine.org 27 January 2012 ~~
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A lawsuit filed by Californians Aware has succeeded in persuading the San Diego County Board of Supervisors to vacate votes that approved key changes made by a developer-stacked Red Tape Reduction Task Force without public input. The lawsuit alleged that the Board violated the Brown Act by voting on items not listed as action items on the agenda. Now, the County has announced it will hold a public hearing on February 29.
Following a closed-door meeting of Supervisors on the matter, County spokesman Michael Workman issued this statement yesterday: “There was no Brown Act violation. However, the Board understands that members of the public felt they had not had the chance to provide input at the December 7, 2011 Board meeting. The Board believes it is not worthwhile for the county or for the public to spend time and money on litigation. Therefore, on February 7, 2012, the Board will vacate the prior action. At a subsequent public meeting on February 29, 2012, the public will be invited to provide their comments.”
Lael Montgomery, former member of the Valley Center Planning Group and current chair of the Valley Center Design Review Board, was at the meeting on December 7, Pearl Harbor Day, but arrived too late to speak, believing that no vote would be taken on the task force’s recommendations. She called the surprise vote on several recommendations “a stunning blow to the public trust.”
She added, “The shock to me was that no one else was consulted; the community groups were never even informed of the RTRTF meetings, notices of these meetings were posted downtown, the minutes were bare bones…and all of this was done on the public dime.” Many people who have participated in or observed the discretionary planning process through the years would no doubt have suggestions for improving it, Montgomery noted, adding that notification could easily have been done through the County’s existing notification procedures established during the General Plan Update process.
The task force was pushed forward by Supervisors Bill Horn and Ron Roberts. It approved many, though not all, of the task force’s recommendations. (See “Green sheet” with the Task Force recommendations; approved items are marked in green, but will be reconsidered on Feb. 29.)
One of the most controversial proposals of the task force was to eliminate community planning groups. That provision was not yet voted on and has been strongly opposed by Supervisors Dianne Jacob and Pam Slater-Price.
In an editorial published in the North County Times, Montgomery warned that “the halls of county government are crawling right now with pressure peddlers whose mission is to turn just one vote.” A third vote on Feb. 29 would eliminate Community planning groups in unincorporated area of the county and the process for residents to be informed and discuss developments proposed in their neighborhoods.
A third vote would also eliminate the County Resource Protection Ordinance, eliminate new community character guidelines for clustered subdivisions, allow developer-paid consultants to certify their own studies, and let developers decide what to include in Environmental Impact Reports, Montgomery warned.
East County planners have also voiced grave concerns.
“People will never hear about projects until after they’re done if this goes through,” said Mark Ostrander, chair of the Jacumba sponsor group. “We are at ground zero out here for projects,” he said, noting that multiple solar farms and wind farms are proposed for unincorporated rural areas in East County.
Josan Feathers, a member of the Valle de Oro Planning Group, said that “elimination of the Resource Protection Ordinance would be devastating.” So would wiping out planning groups, she believes. Noting that the task force members are “predominantly developers”, Feathers urged concerned citizens to show up and speak out at the February 29 supervisors meeting, slated for 9 a.m. at the County Building at 1600 Pacific Coast Highway in San Diego, where developers are expected to turn out in full force.
“This will not just affect the unincorporated areas of the County, but will have a negative impact on everyone who lives in or visits San Diego County, she said.
Already some major changes have been slipped through without full public knowledge, Feathers suggested. Ron Roberts added last minute language to the final General Plan Update which did away with Single Family Residence Zoning for the entire county, she said. Supervisor Jacob cast the lone vote against that provision. “He [Roberts] also subverted the Community Plans to the General Plan,” Feathers added. “The Community Plans are specific to each of the 26 communities in the unincorporated areas of the County…They are now basically toothless.”
She urged concerned residents to contact their Supervisors, environmental groups and the media, but voiced no surprise that the San Diego U-T has failed to educate the public on this issue. “I cancelled my subscription when developer Doug Manchester purchased the rag,” she stated.
Alpine Community Planning Group Member George Barnett recently weathered allegations of a Brown Act violation himself for voicing an opinion in an e-mail to fellow subcommittee members about an agenda item. [Calaware has stated that Barnett did not violate the Brown Act; the County declined to prosecute.] He offered a mixed view of the community planning process.
“Part of what’s missing is an adequate process to get all the information before members and the public before meetings,” he noted. “Time and again important issues are thrust unexpectedly forward to the total ignorance of stakeholders.”
On the other hand, Barnett said he’s seen problems arise when planning groups rushed to approve a project before the County had finished its review. On one occasion, he recalled, “the planning provided such an endorsement to a project to build and operate a para-military complex in Japatul Valley, a project the County would not support. It would be Alpine’s `Blackwater.’” he said, adding that the project ultimately failed because it did not conform to county-wide fire protection ordinances approved following major wildfires.
While acknowledging that the planning process is “messy and could be improved,” Barnett, like all community planners who we interviewed, believes that community planning groups should be preserved. He voiced fears over what could happen if even a single vote should shift, either through the process of persuasion, term limits or reapportionment in Slater Price’s district.
Should planning groups be eliminated, Barnett concluded, “It removes a fundamental democratic right of ‘check’ by voters over-seeing government.”
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