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Sunday, February 01, 2009

Vanguard Analysis: Enterprise Obscures Where It Should Shine A Light

The vote on Tuesday night on the B Street project was admittedly a bit confusing in its conception. However, the Davis Enterprise article made it more so, not less so.

The title of the article was "Project will get another chance."

In a technical sense, that may be true. Council by a 3-1 vote passed a motion that would allow the applicant Marie Ogrydziak to bring her project back without having to pay additional fees. However, the motion directed her to work with the neighbors (who were overwhelmingly against the current project) and change her plans. Under those conditions, she would have to bring the project back through the HMRC (Historic Resources Management Commission) and Planning Commission. If they approved the design changes, the project would actually never come before council. The only reason the project came before council to begin with was that the Planning Commission by a 5-2 vote rejected the project as not meeting project guidelines.

The Enterprise continues:
"On Tuesday night, the City Council decided that Ogrydziak could resubmit her proposal and the council will consider it again, without Greenwald's participation."
Here again, it is more than a bit misleading. First, technically speaking, the project does not have to go back to council. But let us suppose it does, is Councilmember Greenwald conflicted out?

That is far from clear. She did not participate on Tuesday night. That much we know. But there are two possibilities for her participating. First, council at somepoint is going to revisit the issue of conflict of interest. Staff will look at the current rules. Second, Sue Greenwald could be ruled not to have a conflict by virtue of the fact that her property value would not be impacted by the project.

The applicant tried to argue that everyone in that neighborhood would be impacted one way or another by the project. But realistically speaking, given the distance which is 470 from property line to property line and an excess of 500 from house to house, given the fact that there is no direct sight line, given the fact that they are not on the street, or as Councilmember Greenwald put it, it's a design review rather than a project review, it is difficult to sustain the applicants point.

Nonetheless, none of this has been determined at this point.

The Enterprise's synopsis of the motion comes about halfway through the article:
"The council could have upheld its November decision if it so chose, but instead it said it would consider a resubmittal of the project if Ogrydziak worked with the neighbors and changed her plans."
The council basically did uphold their November decision. However, in the spirit of Former Mayor Maynard Skinner's olive branch, they worked it a bit more positively, rather than outright rejecting the project, they asked that it come back again. But functionally it is really the same effect. Under the November ruling it would be delayed a year and she would have to come back with a new proposal. Under this ruling, she has to come back with a new proposal. It may not exactly take a year, but realistically she is not going to redesign the project and get community buy-in all that much faster than she would have. So the only real victory she wins is a fee waiver.

All of this is of course clear as mud. What is interesting as well is that Councilmember Souza's motion "directs" the applicant to work with the neighborhood for changes within the design. However, as we know from City Attorney Harriet Steiner's legal interpretation, direct doesn't mean required by law.

As Ms. Steiner told Mayor Pro Tem Saylor in response to a question about giving direction, Ms. Steiner informed the council they cannot give "enforceable direction, but you can state your thought on the matter."

On that point the council was clear as was Councilmember Souza:
"I'm going to be straight out, I'm going to vote against the project if it comes back to us exactly as it was. So we're putting her through the process without any change in the outcome. So what I'm saying in my motion is that if you want to see me vote in the affirmative, you have to change the project. The project has to meet the guidelines as I see them in order for me to affirmatively vote for it. I think it is the best thing for this process to go through a process of neighborhood discussion."
He continued:
"I'll vote against bringing it back for a rehearing because I think it's a waste of time. I don't want our time to be wasted and I would prefer we give direction that's positive."
And that is really the final complaint with the Enterprise article, it did not capture adequately the tone of the decision by the council. The suggestion in the headline and parts of the article is that the applicant was successful. I am going to go out on a limb and suggest that the applicant did not leave Council Chambers with the belief that she had prevailed. If she believed she was going to be able to put forward the project as currently designed she was sorely mistaken.

However, that is not the impression that the article gives.

Part of the problem is that the Enterprise only gives the matter 415 words--which is itself a problem. A breakdown of word usage shows us why the tone is misleading however.

The first 121 words deals with background and Councilmember Greenwald's participation which was suggested to be inappropriate but not definitively determined as such during this meeting.

The next 57 words suggests that the council will reconsider it without Greenwald's participation and then that they could have upheld November's decision but chose not to.

It's only the next 105 words with actually deal with what Councilmember Souza, the drafter of the motion, said. This is the only portion that casts a negative light on the decision from the applicant's perspective.

Mayor Pro Tem Saylor's procedural manuevering, which was rejected, gets almost as many words, 100, as Souza's motion which was adopted.

14 words go to:
"Ogrydziak's project is expected to be before the council again after she resubmits plans."
Which is actually not true as we've discussed.

And finally 18 words to:
"The council also agreed to discuss at a future meeting how other cities and organizations handle conflict-of-interest matters. "
Which is actually an important aspect of this in its own right because that's in part how Councilmember Greenwald's participation will be determines, IF the matter even comes back to council.

There are really two problems here. One is that this story is only assigned 415 words. You just cannot do an adequate job with that short a story on this complex an issue. That is certainly not the reporter's fault. One of the big advantages the Vanguard has is that there is no word limitation.

The second problem is that you need to adequately reflect the tone and functional outcome of the decision. In that sense this article fails. First with the headline which is technically accurate but completely misleading in tone. Second, with the construction of the article that buries in the middle and underrepresents the outcome. Basically 105 of the 415 words reflect the tone and tenor of the decision and it is placed in the middle and off the front page of the newspaper. That needs to go up front and needs to also be longer.

The bottom line is that a person reading only that article on this issue would not come away with an accurate sense of what actually happened on Tuesday night.

---David M. Greenwald reporting