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City audit finds need for more training, oversight of community planning groups

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The Carmel Valley Community Planning Board during a past meeting.
Karen Billing

San Diego City Council continues to explore community planning group reform. At its June 3 meeting, the council reviewed an audit of community planning groups which resulted in recommendations that the city provide additional oversight, guidance and training to planning groups as well as consider changes to the City Council policy that governs the 42 community planning groups in San Diego.

Council President Georgette Gomez said she understands the value of planning groups, especially from her experience helping to form one in Barrio Logan where they did not have representation for years. However, she also heard from the audit the need to fill the gaps in the process to promote inclusivity and transparency.

“I’m hopeful that staff can create a better process and create a proposal for how we move forward to ensure that we are lifting and training and supporting the process of the community voice. I think that’s very critical,” Gomez said. “It cannot be ignored.”

Chris Kime, the city’s principal performance auditor, performed the audit to determine if community planning groups (CPGs) were in compliance with policy and to determine if they are a contributing factor to delaying permit approvals for developments. The audit recommended that the planning department propose changes to the policy to promote transparency, compliance and diverse community representation as well as provide annual training and expanding annual reports.

According to Kime, the audit found that planning groups lack transparency as they do not consistently submit or retain documents or keep updated rosters with information like years of service, terms and eligibility. It also found that many CPGs keep inadequate minutes and annual reports.

Kime said although CPGs are tasked with being representative of diversified public interests, council policy broadly defines eligibility and there is a risk that renters are not being adequately represented when they make up half of sample community populations.

“From the project review side we found a lack of transparency and oversight of the community planning groups’ development project review process and that has made it difficult to analyze their performance and influence,” Kime said. “Records are insufficient to determine whether community planning groups cause a delay in the project review process.”

Through reviewing city council and planning commission records, Kime said CPGs approved 263 projects in fiscal year 2018. Of the 25 projects that were denied by the local planning group, the city still approved 21.

This is not the first time that the topic of CPG reform has come up.

In 2018, the San Diego County Grand Jury conducted an investigation following a citizen’s complaint alleging that the city’s planning groups “tend to delay hearing certain items as a method of restricting growth in their communities.” The Grand Jury report made recommendations to determine if some consolidation of planning groups could occur, to determine if members of the planning department staff should attend all meetings and that board members complete training each time they are re-elected or re-appointed.

A Circulate San Diego report last year, “Democracy in Planning”, focused on changing the way boards conduct meetings and elect members, particularly to promote diversity. The report stated that length and structure of meetings can be a deterrent to potential participants and that the agendas should prioritize action items that inform city decision-making. The report suggested time limits for meetings, timely production of meeting minutes and encouraged boards to use social media for outreach.

In April, the City Council’s Land Use and Housing Committee recommended the creation of a temporary citizens committee to look at changing City Council policy—a recommendation backed by several speakers during public comment on June 2 including Sean Karafin, vice president of public policy and economic research from the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, and Colin Parent, executive director of Circulate San Diego.

Parent said he supported the effort to improve the community plan process—he said the 2018 Circulate report identified a variety of things that didn’t meet the expectations of making sure everyone can participate in government—such as some CPGs having rules that residents cannot vote in an election unless they have attended a meeting.

“Changes don’t have to be dramatic but they are necessary to ensure that everyone has access to the community planning process,” Parent said.

Wally Wulfeck, chair of the Scripps Ranch CPG and the recently appointed chair of the Community Planners Committee, said the CPC has started a subcommittee to address the recommendations of the audit report as well as the Grand Jury report.

“Everyone on CPGs likes their communities, they’re all volunteers, nobody gets any compensation,” Wulfeck said. “All of us are committed to our communities and are committed to doing our best to comply with the recommendations.”

City Planning Director Mike Hanson said that they have made room in the city’s budget for a position for civic engagement and community outreach that will support planning groups and they will also be looking at the outcome of the proposed citizens committee.

“I think everybody realizes there’s a need for some change,” said Councilmember Scott Sherman. “What that change will look like will come out of some negotiation and we’ll get a better product and better planning groups out of it.”