Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Urbanism and Senior Living: The Case for Having Urban Options

They say that the only way to eat an elephant is one bite a time.  Slowly, steadily, methodically.  Having now written two posts on the overlap between urbanism and senior living, I suspect that my task is much like eating an elephant.  Describing the many aspects of urbanism versus senior life is a multi-faceted and complex undertaking.  And writing 800-word blog posts seems to be only nibbling around the edges.

Furthermore, I didn’t begin to consume the elephant in the best order and now find myself with the need to fill a logical gap.

I began the subject with a suggestion that neither the American approach of institutionalized eldercare, often in non-walkable settings, nor an anecdotal Venetian example of an older gentleman maintaining urban relationships but perhaps without adequate care or socialization seemed to be quite right.  I then continued with an explanation of how market forces are keeping seniors in their drivable suburban homes even when other options, such as urban settings, might better meet their needs.

But that omitted a logical step, the question of whether urban settings are appropriate for seniors.  Having questioned whether the Venetian example was a good model, it was a gap I should have filled.

So, today I’ll backtrack and try to make my case for living one’s later years in an urban setting.  With that missing piece addressed, I’ll then begin to tackle other questions such as how to bring more seniors into urban areas and how to remedy some of the deficiencies of senior life in drivable suburbia.  The slow and steady consumption of the elephant can continue.

Having written this blog for nearly three years, I know that a frequent response to urbanism is “But not everyone wants to live in dense urban areas!”  It’s a classic strawman response, implying that removing barriers to urban residential development will lead inevitably to everyone being marched downtown to reside in Soviet-style concrete boxes and then arguing against that falsely-assumed final result.  The argument is nonsense, but is repeated sufficiently often that I’ve dubbed it the Coercion Myth.

So let’s start there.  Living in urban settings wouldn’t be right for all seniors.  Those who live in a strong suburban family setting where they fill an essential element of family life, those who have a sufficiently robust transit connection that they can meet their daily needs from a suburban location, or those with medical conditions that preclude them from enjoying urban life won’t benefit from urban options.  And therefore no one is suggesting that all seniors must live downtown.

But that still leaves a lot of other folks for whom urban life can be a good fit.  And the predominant reasons are mobility and the possibilities that flow from mobility.  After a long life of enjoying the freedom that the American approach to land use conveys to those with a driver’s license, it can be quickly isolating to lose driving privileges.  Even if family members are willing to act as chauffeurs, it can be limiting to rely on someone else for the mobility that one has taken for granted for a half century or more.

There can also be mental health aspects.  Having the independence to walk to a hardware store for a screw to finish a household repair gives a sense of power which can lead to aging well.  And making new friends, whether over coffee in the morning or at a pub in the afternoon, can also be life-sustaining.

Andrew Price, writing in StrongTowns, makes the case well, noting the value of retained mobility and social connections for seniors.  (The argument that Price makes is slightly different from the argument that I’m making.  He argues that we should quit building places where seniors can become isolated.  I’m arguing that seniors who find themselves in isolating places should have the option of relocating to more sustaining urban locations.  But the arguments are two sides of the same coin.)

I often link other articles within this blog.  Most are optional as they only provide further facts behind an argument I’m making.  But some are so well-written that they truly deserve to be read.  Price’s article is one of the latter.  If your day permits, I encourage you to savor the arguments that he offers, including the tale of the parallel grandmothers.

Once again, urban life isn’t going to be the right fit for all seniors.  But it can be a fine solution for many.  In a world where many are clamoring for more urban life options, seniors can be added to the list, providing yet one more reason why we should quit making suburbia the default land-use paradigm.

With the missing logical step restored, we can now resume dining on the elephant in a logical order.  Next up will be a look at a range of urban senior housing solutions, including the argument that the apartment in which the Venetian gentleman lived might not be the best solution for all.  From there, we’ll look at how to bring touches of urbanism to seniors who are stuck in suburbia.  (The photo above is of a senior living facility within a mixed-use neighborhood in Oregon.)

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Monday, September 29, 2014

Urbanism and Senior Living: Another Downside to Drivable Suburbia

In the spring of 2009, I attended a series of public lectures about urbanism on the University of California, Berkeley campus.  Among the speakers was a representative from Calthorpe Associates, the firm founded by leading edge urbanist Peter Calthorpe.

I’ve forgotten the name of the Calthorpe person, but one of his comments stuck with me.  In looking at the long-range market for American housing, he and his associates had calculated the number of large-lot single-family homes that would be needed in 2037.  It was fewer than the number of large-lot single-family homes that existed in 2009.  We could have immediately stopped building homes in that category and, assuming that we preserved much of the current stock, still met demand thirty years in the future.

Among the professionals with whom I attended the lecture series, several were openly skeptical of the projection, noting the urbanist slant of Calthorpe Associates.  Personally, I found the forecast intriguing and would have appreciated the opportunity to dig into the data and assumptions behind it.  I thought the prediction might well have been accurate.

But I didn’t foresee that the implications of a reduced demand for large single-family homes would begin impacting seniors within only a few years.  Indeed, it is one of the largest stumbling blocks to finding a better solution for senior life in the U.S., a topic that I began considering in my previous post.

Writing for CityLab (the former Atlantic Cities), Kriston Capps outlines the problem that seniors are facing with their suburban homes.  Many are unable to sell their homes in the aftermath of the great recession.  Not only are many potential buyers more interested in urban life, but the tightening of mortgage qualification standards precludes the buyers would may still wish a suburban life from securing the needed financing.

Adding onto the Capps observations, the continued greying of the population means that more and more suburban homes are available at a time when fewer buyers interested in them.  It’s the Calthorpe projection, filtered through supply-and-demand economics.

Also, many seniors had based retirement planning on financial projections that used the home values from before the burst of the housing bubble.  Even if the seniors can find home buyers in 2014, the prices may not support the retirement they had envisioned.

As Capps then notes, in an observation repeated by Rachel Kaufman writing in Urbanful, if seniors are forced to remain in their homes, multiple improvements are required if they are to live safe and comfortable lives.  The changes can include wider doorways, single-level living, lower counters, grab bars, and levers in place of doorknobs.

But the changes have costs, sometimes substantial costs, and the bill may be beyond the reach of seniors already struggling with reduced home values.  (Capps also notes that seniors are increasingly likely to fall behind in mortgage payments.)

The final part of the story is told by Emily Badger, writing in the Washington Post.  She notes that much of suburbia is livable only to those who can drive.  As seniors reach the age when they’re no longer safe behind the wheel, or when family, doctors, or the state has taken away driving privileges, then they become truly isolated.

If we try to tally the number of ways in which senior life has run afoul of urbanism, the result is astonishing.  It’s like a Catch-22 squared, or even cubed.  At a time of life when living in urbanist settings might best fit their daily needs, many seniors find that the desirability of urban life to other demographic segments has reduced the market values of the seniors’ suburban homes, limiting their ability to move to urban retirement destinations or even to afford the modifications necessary to make their homes safe as they age.

Is the problem insolvable?  To a large extent, yes.  But there are always at least a few actions that can be taken.  Over my next posts, I’ll write about remedies to the current dilemma and strategies to keep the next wave of seniors from being trapped by the same constraints.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Friday, September 26, 2014

Urbanism and Senior Life: Defining the Question

In the early days of this blog, when I was still young and naïve, I described three seminal steps in my progress from being someone who accepted drivable suburbia as eternal to someone who would call himself an urbanist.

One of those steps was an observation made during a 2007 trip to Venice.  Below, I quote my younger and more naïve self.

“One evening, I dined in a trattoria on the Piazza San Toma.  (Best gnocchi I’ve ever had.)  As I ate, an elderly gentleman entered.  He was perhaps in his late 70s, tall and fit.  His clothes showed wear, but were in good repair and nicely pressed.   He carried a sparklingly clean pottery bowl.

“My Italian was limited, but I could discern that he wanted a double order of a favorite pasta to take it back to his apartment to share with his wife, who was physically unable to come to the trattoria.   The proprietor of the trattoria knew the gentleman and greeted him with warmth and enthusiasm.   Several friends who were dining in a rear room were advised of his presence.  They came forward to sit with him as he awaited his order.

“The conversation, although far beyond my ability to understand, was voluble and good-natured.  Even the son of the proprietor, who clearly wanted to be elsewhere on the warm spring evening, talked familiarly with the gentleman and smiled for the first time all evening.”

In the three years since I wrote those words, I’ve had many opportunities to observe the American approach to eldercare.  Between my wife and me, we’ve either coordinated or observed as numerous parents, uncles, and aunts made the transition from family homes to senior care facilities.  Not all made the transition directly.  Some spent time in other settings, such as RVs or mountain cabins, enjoying the early years of their retirements.  But all have concluded their journeys in senior care facilities, whether assisted or independent living.

Remarkably, all but one have been pleased by the transition.  And the ones who resisted the move with tenacity now regret their obstinacy.  (The one hold-out continues to buck medical advice and demands to return to his former home.  But every time he gets there, he suffers a relapse and is hauled back to the hospital.  There can be bull-headed geriatrics, especially at the age of 89.)

But as content as my various relatives and in-laws may be in their new settings, I still think back to the Venetian gentleman.  I suspect that none of the Americans seniors I know experience moments as exhilarating as the trattoria reunion I witnessed.

However, I’ve also come to wonder about the remainder of the Venetian gentleman’s daily life.  Living with an invalid wife on a minor Venetian plaza, how does he spend his winter days?  Sitting at a window watching the rain lash the empty pavement?  Compared to that life, bingo in the recreation room of a senior living facility may look attractive.

I suspect that there is a way to combine the comfort and security of the American approach to eldercare with the backslapping moments of greeting the Venetian friends with whom one has lived a life.  The Venn diagram overlap may be small, but I’ll wager that it exists.  And I’m positive that the overlap lies within the area of walkable urbanism.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll explore different aspects of how urbanism can make better lives for senior citizens, from transit to housing options to socialization to walkability.  And I’ll be eager for the input of others.  If we work together, perhaps we can have solutions in place by the time I need them.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

For Good Government, Ideas Must Roam Freely


Many readers have likely had experiences similar to mine when it comes to sharing new concepts.  I’ll think through a thorny problem, find an alternative perspective to the conundrum, and use that perspective to find an unexpected solution.  But when I first share the idea, perhaps in a meeting where other’s thoughts are elsewhere, no one responds favorably.

However, a few days later, someone comes by my desk to acknowledge that there may be something in what I had said.  Over time, other folks grasp my way of thinking and the idea, likely edited and improved by the others, comes to be adopted.

Sometimes new concepts or ways of thinking can’t be transferred instantaneously, but need time to find fertile soil.  When I wrote about the Brown Act a few posts back, most recently here, I may have failed to adequately explain the extent to which the law can impede the flow of new and different ideas.

The obstruction is ironic because the intent of the Brown Act is to prevent secrets, specifically in the form of decisions made by public bodies away from the eyes of the public.  But an unintended side-effect is nonetheless to inhibit the flow of ideas.

The first time that a public official can share a novel idea or creative approach with the entire public body is when the matter is already under discussion in a public session.  The other officials may be focused on their own arguments and fail to recognize the value in the new suggestion.  And a couple of days later, when the penny finally drops, it’s too late to make a difference.  First, because the public body has already made a decision.  And second, because many public officials are unwilling to admit that they’ve changed their minds.

We often elect officials for their ability to bring creativity to the task of government.  But we then subject them to a set of rules that have the effect of putting a lamp shade over that creativity.

I have an anecdote from my long-ago past that can illustrate the problems that can result when the free flow of ideas is restricted.  It wasn’t a Brown Act situation, but provides some parallels.

In one of my Brown Act posts, I mentioned serving on the Design Review Committee for a large residential/recreational community in an Oregon community.  My involvement with the project was long and varied, extending nearly a decade from early concepts through entitlement to construction of many of the phases.

At the entitlement phase, there was a key question about project density.  Under Oregon law, a minimum density must be met.  Developers aren’t allowed to chew up large tracts of land without providing sufficient housing to meet the needs of the community.

Depending on the how the density was calculated, the project may have been short of the minimum density.  (Note: I’m not very proud to have been an integral part of a project that bumped against a minimum density standard.  However, bills must be paid.  Also, it’s possible, with clustered development, to have a relatively low density and still have a moderate level of walkability.  This project had elements of that potential, although the walkability never came to fruition due to later strategic decisions that were taken over my objections.  That’s a story for another time.)

To meet the minimum density standard, the development team constructed the argument that the golf course, which required a separate application, was a different land use and that the area occupied by the course should be excluded from the density calculation.  Part of the argument was that if the golf course were built now and the housing was entitled and built a decade hence, the density calculation wouldn’t include the golf course area, so why should it be included if the applications were simultaneous?  With that argument made, the minimum density was achieved.

Another aspect of the project was the need to modify the Urban Growth Boundary (UGB), which in Oregon is an action subject to review and approval by the state.  The team decided not to try to justify an expansion of the urban growth area.  Instead, we proposed a realignment of the boundary where it crossed the property, maintaining the same enclosed area, but configuring the UGB to accommodate the project configuration that best suited the proposed number of homes.

Another aspect of Oregon land use law that should be noted is the role of the hearings officer.  In California, the initial land use body is often the Planning Commission, with many decisions also requiring City Council concurrence.  But in Oregon, the Planning Commission is reserved for legislative and long-range planning issues.  Land-use applications are heard before a hearings officer, usually a local attorney with a land-use background.  And only appeals go to a City Council or County Commission, so the hearing officer is often the final word.

(I can see benefits to both the Oregon and California systems.  In California, the aesthetic judgment of the public is represented in a Planning Commission, but the logical cohesiveness of the process can be disrupted.  In Oregon, the hearing officer can be a stickler for the law, but project aesthetics are best raised through comments by the public.)

Also, an Oregon hearing officer is off-limits to the development team.  It might be possible in California to chat with a Planning Commissioner in the weeks before a hearing, but that type of contact is strictly prohibited in Oregon.  The opportunity for an effective meeting of minds is reduced.  And we had no opportunity to ensure in advance that he understood the density argument.

Thus, the big residential/recreational project went before a hearing officer.  There was opposition to the project.  Given the nature of the opposition, the team mentioned the density and UGB realignment arguments in passing, but reserved most of our presentation for addressing the concerns of the neighbors.

In the aftermath of the hearing, we thought we had done well, but could only await the decision from the hearing officer.  After a couple of anxious weeks, the decision was received.  The project was approved, but with conditions and modifications.

In particular, the hearing officer hadn’t grasped the argument about the golf course not counting in the density calculation.  In its place, he’d had a done an alternative computation.  (Even after twenty years, I still recall that he bumped the housing count from 529 to 676.)  And yet he’d approved the UGB realignment that had been configured to the smaller number, not giving the option to make adjustments to better accommodate his larger number.

In the subsequent team meeting, I presented the arguments that would support an appeal, first arguing that the original density calculation was correct and then arguing that, even if the hearing officer’s density was upheld, the developer should have been given the opportunity to adjust the proposed UGB.

The developer concurred with both arguments, but also knew that an appeal would take time and would be in front of the County Commission, so would involve educating new decision-makers.  In the end, he sighed and decided not to appeal, instead directing the team to find ways to add the additional housing units.

And so we did, adding a small-lot neighborhood, squeezing in a couple of townhome projects, and reducing the width of a number of larger lots.

The project did well, but the clunkiness of the density fix was occasionally noted.  In particular, potential upper-end buyers complained about the missing lot width, with some citing the lot width as their reason for not buying.

Flashing forward five years, I was continuing to work on the later stages of the project, but also had other projects, including an irrigation district that was pursuing funding for a water conservation project that would return water to the local river.  Among the potential funding sources was the federal government.

A newly-elected U.S. Senator wished to learn more about the project, so asked the district to give a tour to his local field representative.  I was asked to join the tour.  By chance, the field representative was the wife of the hearing officer from years earlier.

As we drove around the district, the field representative asked me about the other projects on which I was working.  I mentioned the residential/recreational project.

She responded. “I like that project, but keep hearing that the lots are too narrow.”

To which I replied, “You should ask your husband about that.”

She was surprised by the connection, so I gave a short explanation and considered the matter closed.  But a few weeks later, she and her husband attended a local minor league ballgame.  As part-owner of the team, I was greeting fans near the main gate, including the couple.  The hearing officer referenced the recent conversation and asked for more information.

And so it was, nearly five years after the hearing, that the hearing officer and I sat in adjoining boxes in a minor league ballpark talking about the fine points of the long-ago hearing.  Once he’d been briefed, he agreed with both of my points, that excluding the golf course from the original density calculation was correct and that, even if the density argument was rejected, the developer should still have been given an opportunity to adjust the UGB.

Of course, the horse was long since out of the barn and far down the road.  Perhaps one can argue that the project would have been more successful, generating more property tax revenue for the community, if the arguments had been understood on a timely basis.  But it’s equally possible that the only impact was that a few affluent home-buyers had a little less elbow-room than they might have wished.

But what happens if a similar communication failure occurs on an urban project, if a key element of walkability or transit access is omitted because the developer isn’t able to correct a misconception of the hearing body or if a public official has an inadequate opportunity to explain a new vision to his fellow officials?

We live in an increasingly complex world, where the accurate and comprehensive flow of information is key to making the world work well.  Whether it’s Oregon putting hearing officers in a bubble or California imposing the Brown Act on public officials, constrictions on the flow of information and ideas increase the possibility of weaker outcomes.  We should be constantly aware of that risk and looking for ways to minimize it.

In my New Year’s resolutions for this blog, I promised to look in depth at the specific issues of parking and senior living during 2014.  With fall upon us, it’s time to begin honoring those resolutions.  In my next post, I’ll begin a multi-post look at combining urbanism with senior housing.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Monday, September 22, 2014

Ending Summer with One More Block Party

While attending a block party yesterday on the west side of Petaluma, I chatted with a young woman who was enthusiastic about her recent move to Petaluma.  As she described it, “I grew up in Hawaii.  Here in the North Bay, I’ve lived in Rohnert Park, Novato, and San Rafael, but always wanted to live in Petaluma because the local friendliness felt most like Hawaii.”

When she noted that the block party was an example of the Petaluma camaraderie for which she had longed, I was hooked.  It was time for another block party post.

As block parties go, yesterday’s party was a relatively modest affair.  No bounce houses or water slides.  No elaborate bars in garages.  No mass of noisy children roaming between attractions.  No crowds of 200 or more.

I departed before yesterday’s party reached full fruition, but I doubt it was going to be more than about forty folks, most of them adults although with a couple of youths on skateboards.  And the principal event was casual chatting, before tucking into a potluck dinner.

In its sedateness, the party had a comfortable neighborly feeling.  Middle-aged adults enjoying a rare opportunity to catch up with busy neighbors and to remind themselves about the multi-faceted neighborhood they shared.  Although I was an outsider, continuing my summer-long past-time of party crashing, I enjoyed talking with several folks and even made tentative plans for a trip to Italy.

Not wishing to tarnish her honeymoon with Petaluma, I didn’t choose to tell my young Hawaiian acquaintance that the block party she found emblematic of her new community was actually forbidden by the Municipal Code, which allows block parties only on cul-de-sacs.  The block party she was enjoying was actually a gathering of scofflaws.  It’s a topic on which I’ve written many times, mostly recently here.

I chatted with one of the party organizers.  Although she hadn’t been the person to approach the Police Department about the party, she was able to relate the story.  It was similar to the stories I’ve heard multiple times this summer.

In response to a call from another of the organizers, a police officer advised her to block off the street with sawhorses that could be easily removed and to place anything in the street near one gutter so that emergency vehicle access could be maintained, but not to expect a formal approval from the Police Department.  The organizers complied fully with the directions and proceeded, in violation of the explicit standard in the Municipal Code.

As I’ve written before, this isn’t a criticism of the Petaluma Police Department.  I find that they’re doing a reasonable job of reconciling the community good of block parties with the unnecessary and inappropriate prohibition in the Municipal Code.

Instead, this is meant to be a continuation of my complaint about the Municipal Code and the seeming lack of enthusiasm to change it.  The support of a few Councilmembers to either change the code or to find a more comfortable workaround hasn’t yet borne fruit.  Nor is change likely in the midst of an election campaign.  But it’s a campaign that I’ll renew after November. 

As a one more thought about block parties, I should mention a recent Petaluma event.

National Night Out is a police-sponsored evening in early August when neighbors are encouraged to spend their evenings on the streets and sidewalks of their neighborhoods, building the neighborly relationships that can deter crime.

The Petaluma Police Department chose to recognize the evening by hosting a community party in the Target parking lot.  Puzzled by how a party in a field of asphalt far away from any homes could build good neighborhoods, I attended the event, expecting to be underwhelmed.

I was wrong, at least partly.  The event was well-attended, with perhaps 200 folks there during my walk through.  Many were children enjoying the bounce house, but there were also adults chatting among themselves and small groups dining on a range of food options.  People seemed to be having a better time than I would have expected.

Nonetheless, I also noted two shortfalls on the path to better neighborhoods.  First, most of the dining groups seemed to be single families, or at most two families sharing a table.  It’s hard to get to know your neighbors when you’re not breaking bread together.  Indeed, it’s likely that most of the attendees came from scattered neighborhoods anyway.

Second, only a few people were engaging with the police officers and fire fighters who were present.  The interchanges seemed friendly, but if the one of the goal was better citizen/emergency services relations, it was being only poorly met.

I know that funding often comes in baskets between which transfers can’t be easily made, but it seemed to me that the goal of National Night Out could be better met, at a similar cost, by revising the Municipal Code to allow block parties in more locations and then having police representatives visit each party.  Not only could they check that the emergency vehicle access requirements were being met, but could also meet with cohesive and involved groups of neighbors.

It would have seemed a more effective strategy than holding a party in the parking lot of a big box.  Plus, the neighbors, not the Police Department, would be paying for the bounce houses.

It would also seem a way for the reality of Petaluma to begin conforming to the perception of my Hawaiian acquaintance.

In my next post, I’ll relate a story about a land use process that went sideways because of a communication failure.  I think the lessons bear on the points I’ve made in recent posts about the Brown Act.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Brown Act: Final Thoughts

Over recent posts, I’ve become ensnared by a daisy chain of subjects.  I argued in favor of the tax measures on November ballots in many communities.  My argument was “We built this stuff, we really should take care of it.”

That stance led me to a proactive argument against those who might argue that government doesn’t deserve more revenue because it’s inefficient.  My grounds for this second argument were that most human activities are inefficient and it’s unrealistic to ask government to exceed our own skills.  Besides, we ask government to do a number of tasks that are particularly prone to inefficiency.

From there, I nominated the Brown Act, California’s open meeting law, as a particular cause of government inefficiency, including an analogy and a handful of anecdotes to support my argument.

Today, I’ll conclude my thoughts on the Brown Act with a case history of open versus closed meetings, a silly result from the literal application of a Brown Act equivalent, and a timid suggestion about an alternative approach to the open meeting law.

Throughout these arguments, I’ve been explaining that, as an urbanist, I care about these issues because it’ll be harder to turn ourselves toward urbanism if we continue to hamstring government with ill-fitting laws and paltry revenue.  When we lack resources, we tend to stay in our rut, even when the rut is what is causing us to lack resources

To begin, I’ll offer a comparison of closed and open meetings.  I’m not suggesting that closed meetings are always the preferred solution.  I don’t believe that.  But closed meetings can sometimes work well.

Many years ago, while living in Oregon, I had a chance to observe two parallel organizations, one working under a closed meeting standard and the other under an open meeting process.

The first organization was the design review committee of a large residential/recreational community for which I was the lead consulting engineer.  In addition to my engineering duties, I also served on the design review committee.  In addition to me, the committee included a pair of architects and two homeowners who had experience in land-use planning and development.

The homeowner association rules called for the committee meetings to be closed.  We took full advantage, closing the doors to the conference room and engaging in two hours of vigorous discussion and debate.  Sometimes we got raucous, at other times we slid into political incorrectness, but I remain convinced that we did a fine job, often finding unexpected consensuses that made the project an architecturally distinguished place.

But, predictably, the homeowners affected by our process often disagreed with my assessment of our performance.  Homeowners proposing new homes believed that they could convince us to reduce the standards if only they could talk with us.  Neighbor adjoining proposed new homes believed that they could convince us to impose stricter standards if only they could talk with us.  Although their beliefs were diametrically opposed, they made common cause and approached the development president, asking for our meetings to become public.

There was an older, well-established destination resort a few miles from town.  It was a successful place, although the architecture was less distinguished than at my project.  Also, their design review meetings were open to the public.  So the president of my project asked a couple of committee members, including me, to attend one of their meetings.

It was an eye-opening experience.

The meeting room was well-filled.  As each home was announced, the homeowner, and perhaps also the architect, would speak in defense of the home design.  And then several neighbors would also speak, usually asking for design changes.

When the speakers were done and without any committee discussion, one of the committee members, the assignment seemed to rotate, would pull out a piece of paper, read off a grammatically concise but bureaucratically bland list of perhaps twenty proposed conditions.  The committee would then vote unanimously to approve the project.

I never learned the source of the list of conditions, whether the committee had met secretly beforehand to reach conclusions or whether staff has prepared the list.  But the effect was more poorly staged than an Eastern European show trial before the parting of the Iron Curtain.  The closed meetings at my project were resulting in more comprehensive design review and the results were evident on the ground.

Some will argue that committee debate could have followed public testimony and they’d be right.  But the closed meetings in which I participated needed two full hours.  The open meeting that I observed took about two-and-a-half hours.  Combining the two and adding an allowance for a more stilted debate in front of observers, a meeting time of more than five hours seemed likely, which is well beyond the endurance of most committee members and the observing public.  Nor do I think it would result in better decisions.  Indeed, I expect the reverse would have been true.

My companion and I reported our observations back to the president of my project and our meetings remained closed, at least for awhile longer.

I know this is only one comparative example, but even one data point is enough to establish that open meetings aren’t always better.

Brown Act-type rules can also lead to farce.

Later during my time in Oregon, I found myself as a participant in an impromptu theatre of the absurd because of the Oregon equivalent of the Brown Act.  (I don’t recall the name of the Oregon law, but it functioned much like California’s Brown Act.)

A good friend was an Oregon legislator.  He and his wife hosted an annual New Year’s Eve party which all the local politicos attended.

Late on New Year’s Eve 1999, I was deep in a conversation with the Oregon Secretary of State about alternative voting rules when my friend tapped me on the shoulder, asking me to babysit a County Commissioner.  Under Oregon law, a majority of any public body can’t simultaneously attend the same social event.  The local County Commission included only three members, so the limit was one Commissioner at a time.

A Commissioner, a particularly talkative and congenial sort, had been at the party since it began.  But a second Commissioner had now arrived.  The first Commissioner was heading toward the door, but might take several minutes to tell final stories and to offer final New Year’s wishes.  My friend wanted me to keep company with the second Commissioner on the front steps until the first Commissioner departed.

The newly-arrived Commissioner was a good friend and I was happy for the opportunity to chat with her.  But this was the high desert of Oregon at the end of December.  After a week of freezing temperatures and hoarfrost, the weather had finally begun to change in the hours before the party and a light snow was falling through the frost-laden trees.

And so I found myself chatting with a County Commissioner on the uncovered steps as the snow swirled around us.  Occasionally, we’d take a break to shake the flakes out of our hair and to brush the snow from each other’s shoulders.

Eventually, the first Commissioner exited the party, exchanging greetings but no political talk on the front steps, and we were allowed to enter the house.  I’ve often wondered if it truly would have been a violation if the second Commissioner and I had instead waited in the heated entry hall, but as is the case with open meeting laws, paranoia is often the governing standard.

Besides, neither of caught a cold and I collected a great anecdote about the absurdities to which open meeting rules can sometimes reduce us.

Before closing, it seems that I have should have an alternative approach to propose to the Brown Act.  But I don’t.  The Brown Act addresses a legitimate concern.  It does so in a heavy-handed fashion by which public officials seem to be presumed guilty immediately upon assuming office, but the concern about misbehavior remains legitimate.  Dismantling the Brown Act shouldn’t be an option.

But I’ll offer one timid and partial suggestion.  Perhaps the restriction on serial meetings can be lifted, with all officials allowed to communicate with all other officials.  However, those communications could be only via email, going through a server on which all communication can be viewed and searched by the public.  To learn the position of Councilmember Smith on a new parking standard, one could search for his emails on the subject.

Perhaps any public communication to the council could go through the same server, so the positions of one’s neighbors on the parking standard could also be checked.

I’m not arguing that this public email server would be a panacea.  Any communication through it would be awkward and stilted.  But it might be a marginal improvement over the current rules, and marginal improvements toward the cause of more efficient and effective government are worth pursuing.

With that, I’ll leave the Brown Act for now.

For my next post, I’ll also leave the upcoming election behind and return to my version of catnip, the subject that I just can’t seem to let alone.  Block parties.  I’ve been invited to one final end-of-the-summer block party in Petaluma and have been promised an interesting story about the organizers’ effort to get their party approved by the local authorities, which I plan to share.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Brown Act: An Analogy and a Couple of Anecdotes

In my last post, I began expounding on my theory that the Brown Act, California’s open meeting law, is a source of government inefficiency.  I wasn’t suggesting that open meetings are a bad idea, but only arguing the Brown Act, as it has come to be written and interpreted, results in a policy-making process that is less than optimal.

I also explained that an effective and efficient government is important to urbanists because government-adopted laws and policies are much of the reason drivable suburbia continues to dominate our landscape.  It will be hard to unwind the current paradigm and to turn toward urbanism if government is ineffectual.  And it will be even harder if government is chronically short of funds because the electorate is unwilling to fully fund a government that they find inefficient.

However, the burden of proof is on me.  I must convince the reader that my perspective on the Brown Act is legitimate.  I understand that I have a difficult task.  Having spent years on the outside looking in, I know that it’s difficult to grasp how being under the restrictions of the Brown Act can feel like being encased in a mummy bag made of fly paper.

And so, to make my case as best I can, I’ll rely on my old tools of analogy and anecdotes.  I know that they’re not the best tools of argument, but they’re probably the ones I wield best, especially on the slippery task before me.

For an analogy, I’ll ask the readers to consider a situation which they’ve likely experienced in their own lives, a family making a decision about a summer vacation.  Based on personal experience, the decision-making would be an extended and multi-tiered process.

Perhaps the idea of selecting a vacation destination would first be broached over a family dinner.  Over the next few weeks, family members would do their own research and pondering.  Perhaps a couple of family dinners would turn toward the topic.  And casual conversations in hallways or during commercial breaks while watching television might include attempts to find compromises or to build coalitions to support a particular destination.

By the time the subject is ripe for decision, probably again over a family dinner, the outlines of an acceptable consensus would be well-known.  After a verbal free-for-all with interjections and interruptions, and perhaps with a few last concessions or tweaks, a vacation plan would adopted that would please almost everyone.

Now, consider the same process if the Brown Act applied to families.  The initial raising of the question of destination could be done only if all family members had adequate advance notice of the topic.

Individual research would still be allowed, but results could be shared with fewer than half of the family members.

Casual conversations on the topic would be permitted, but might be constrained, with family members concerned that conversations might be relayed to enough other family members that a forbidden serial conversation would result.

And chats during commercial breaks while watching television would be inconceivable because group watching would be disallowed as a non-public meeting.

And when the evening of the decision finally arrived, the dinner table would be observed by scores of strangers and rolling cameras.  Any final debate would be subject to the control of the family chair/parent.  Interruptions and interjections would be prohibited.  Family members might make effective arguments, but some members would be paying more attention to the notes on their intended arguments than to the arguments being made.  Some members might be tempted to be swayed, but would be fearful of being accused of “flip-flopping”.

A decision would still be reached and most years it would be a mostly reasonable decision, but without the carefully tuned nuances which a more natural process would have produced.  And every few years the family would be halfway to the Badlands of South Dakota before realizing that everyone in the car would have preferred to go to Disney World.

If you haven’t worked under the Brown Act, you may find this a caricature.  You’d be wrong.  A cousin, the same one who provided an economics explanation of government inefficiency for an earlier post, responded to my last post with her experience of being a school board member in the California foothills.

During her tenure on the board, she pushed for a new school district policy for several months, feeling that it would improve the educational experience.

The policy finally reached the school board for approval.  But a pair of other school board members had objections.  My cousin would have been happy to accommodate the objections within the proposed policy, but was unable to convey that flexibility during the stilted give-and-take of a board meeting.  The policy was defeated.  A couple of brief cloakroom conversations during the run-up to the meeting would have permitted the policy to be approved, but the Brown Act didn’t allow the option.

Closer to the North Bay, I sit on several City of Petaluma committees.  One of them recently adopted a new policy for another type of oversight by committee members.  A short time later, I found an article in a national email newsletter strongly endorsing the type of policy that we had adopted and suggesting guidelines for effective implementation.

In a non-Brown Act world, I would have immediately sent a link to the other committee members, congratulating them on the wisdom of their action and encouraging them to read the suggestions.  But the Brown Act instead forced me to send the link to the staff person who serves as committee liaison.  He forwarded it to the committee, but the impact was lessened.

On another committee, I was recently chatting with another member on the dais before a meeting.  She’d been pushing for a new policy by which resources could be more effectively targeted toward public needs.  I agreed with her suggestion, so we were quietly discussing strategy.  But then another member tried to join the conversation.  As the committee has seven members, a third participant in the conversation didn’t seem to violate the Brown Act.

But that night, we only expected to have five members in attendance, so three became a majority.  It suddenly became a grey area under the Brown Act.  A good general guideline under the Brown Act is to stay away from grey areas, so I called a halt to the conversation.  And a little bit of momentum slipped away.

I’ve likely claimed enough of your attention for one day.  But I’m not yet done.  In my next post, I’ll conclude the Brown Act discussion with an example of open versus non-open meetings, an anecdote about the silly situations which the Brown Act can create, and a thought about how to protect the goals of the Brown Act while also allowing more efficient government.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)