Friday, August 24, 2012

Is It Possible to Care Too Much?

Earlier this week, the Petaluma Patch ran an article about a Petaluma Planning Commissioner who recused himself from a pending matter.  Bill Wolpert had written a letter to the City Council, expressing his concerns about a proposed project.  When the project returned to the Planning Commission for further consideration, Assistant City Attorney Leslie Thomsen noted that the concerns Wolpert had expressed were outside of the items to be considered by the Commission.  She suggested that he might be considered to have a bias that would preclude him from assessing the matter fairly.  After consideration of her argument, Wolpert recused himself.

From the information provided, it seems that both Thomsen and Wolpert acted appropriately.  (Disclaimer: Wolpert is a friend and neighbor.)  Thomsen correctly pointed out the applicable law and judicial precedent.  Wolpert reviewed the information and made the apparently correct decision to recuse himself.  I have no problem with the way either acted under the law.

And yet the result is absurd.  Wolpert has based his career on a sustainable approach to land use.  It was his career experience that led to his appointment to the Planning Commission.

If writing the letter to the City Council had been the problem, I could just simply say that Wolpert made a mistake in putting fingers to keyboard.  But the email from Thomsen makes it clear that the problem wasn’t the letter, it was Wolpert’s beliefs.  The letter only provided tangible evidence of his beliefs.  He was asked to recuse himself because of the conclusions from a lifetime of study and experience that led to his appointment to the Planning Commission.

To highlight the absurdity of the situation, let me offer a simplified two-sided model of how land-use decisions are often viewed.  The situation on which Wolpert offered his thoughts is typical of proposed projects and can be described as a walkable urban versus drivable suburban perspectives.

Both perspectives value employment opportunities and increased tax revenues.  And both perspectives value good design.  But they differ in how they weigh the factors.

In this simplified model, when presented with a project that is more suburban in nature, urban advocates are likely to argue that the project doesn’t meet acceptable design standards and should be modified or rejected.  And they are likely to quote urban design standards as the basis for their position.  This is the position that Wolpert took and it resulted in the encouragement that he recuse himself.

This doesn’t mean that urbanists don’t care about employment or tax revenues.  On the contrary, they care very much.  But they believe that urbanist projects, with greater walkability and transit-friendliness, and less reliance on private cars, are more likely to thrive over the longer run.  They are willing to trade immediate benefits for more sustainable solutions for the next generation and the one after that.

On the other side, suburban advocates are likely to argue that the immediate jobs and tax revenues outweigh the design aspects.  In many cases, I would disagree with that position, but it’s their right to believe that.

And yet there is a looming dichotomy.  We have this example of a Planning Commissioner recusing himself for having urbanist beliefs.  But when was the last time that a Planning Commissioner was asked to recuse himself or herself because of a belief in immediate jobs or tax revenues?  From my experience, the answer is never.  Think about that.  Sincere urbanist beliefs are grounds for recusal.  Sincere suburbanist beliefs are not.  That’s jaw-dropping.

I’ve earlier argued in this blog that there are numerous institutional biases against urbanism.  Until this issue arose, I hadn’t realized that recusal standards could be one of the biases.  But now it seems clear that urban advocates are more likely to find themselves forced to recuse themselves than are suburban advocates.  And that’s just nuts.

Once again, no criticism is intended of either Wolpert or Thomsen.  Both seem to have followed the law correctly.  Instead, it’s a criticism of all of us, myself included, who allowed the law to evolve to a point where urbanists must recuse themselves for having heartfelt and sincere opinions.  I’m unsure where to start, but it’s a situation that must be changed.

Local note: It has always struck me as odd for a community to put too many of their hopes on the athletic prowess of 12-year-olds.  However, having recently returned from a week-long tour of minor league ballparks where my friends and I were cheering for 18- and 19-year-olds, perhaps I don’t have a leg upon which to stand.  I’ll be watching the Petaluma National Little Leaguers over the weekend and rooting for them with full enthusiasm.

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

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