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Saturday, February 09, 2008

Commentary: On Public Involvement in the HESC Process

On Thursday, the Davis Enterprise ran a front page story on the Housing Element Steering Committee's weighing of public opinion on how Davis should grow over the course of the next six years until 2013.

Kevin Wolf, the chair of the HESC suggested that two email campaigns could have affected the results.
"Days before the workshop, an e-mail went out to senior citizens on a mailing list advising them to write that a site known as Covell Village should be ranked high on the list.

Another e-mail, sent by a housing committee member, also focused on Covell Village but encouraged people to nudge it down the list of possible sites for development."
First of all, I do not agree that these two efforts were synonymous as Mr. Wolf treats them. The first was sent out by a representative for a developer, it specifically recommended that the Covell Village site be ranked more highly. However, included in there, were specific instructions on just how to do that. It included a step by step form to instruct people how to fill out the form, what items to select in order to maximize the Covell Village site.

The other email simply told people to come to the meeting and vote against Covell Village. If the representatives from Covell Village had done that, no one would have raised a big stink about it. It was only the method that drew the ire of people.

But there is more to what Mr. Wolf said.
"'Our committee talked about the problem a workshop has in that it won't provide us with a representative sample of what the Davis community thinks, but more the activist community,' Wolf wrote in an e-mail to The Davis Enterprise. 'From my perspective, the lobbying to bring people to the workshop dramatically lowers the usefulness of the results.' "
I very strongly disagree with Mr. Wolf here and for one simple reason: who was he expecting to come to the workshop under any conditions?

There is simply no condition under which the activist community--those for slower growth and those representing the developer community would not be the vast majority of individuals who attended the workshop.

Those are the people who pay the most attention. Those are the 10% of the population engaged in the issue. There is no way that this format would have generated attendance commensurate with the rest of the population.

So if that is Mr. Wolf's concern, then this format was never going to produce anything other than that kind of breakdown regardless of attempts by both sides to mobilize their specific group.

Tomorrow, I will talk more about the issue of density that came up at the City Council meetings, at the HESC meetings, and the paper.

Overall my thoughts on the HESC are of two minds. On the one hand, I am appreciative of the HESC for working very hard to achieve some measure of consensus, which is not easy with a diverse group. And also to take seriously the charge they were tasked with.

However at the end of the day, I really do not see the need for this kind of effort. I understand the desire to evaluate each area for potential growth and perhaps this document or report that they produce will have value beyond 2013. But as things stand right now, I'm not sure this effort was needed.

The RHNA guidelines mandate only about 500 additional units between now and 2013. That would be just a small number of projects and fankly if the council is going to approve Lewis, Simmons, and the Horse Ranch, they are essentially done.

That leads to another question as to why, as I have asked several times, they have the HESC process if they are moving on outside of that process.

Finally, the key issue is one that the council will decide and that is the 1% growth now guideline rather than mandate, apparently. The council meeting on Tuesday will see the debate over that issue.

The council's decision on growth rate will determine just how many of these recommendations are actually acted upon.

Getting back to the original point of this piece, I understand the desire to get public input on this process, but it seems clear to me and anyone else that a workshop, is going to bring out the people who are already engaged regardless of the outreach to include others. And, the engaged are much more extreme and polarized in their views on growth than the public as a whole. As the result of that, I do not see a way that we can avoid the type of outcome that Kevin Wolf laments. The attendance is never going to be representative of anything other than the activist community. There is just no avoiding that.

So, if the HESC wanted to get broader public input, they might have considered a different approach.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting