Let’em Play with the Big Kids
By Ann Christoph
Is there a little kids playground at City Hall? Are some of the players puttering around in the sandbox while the rest are in the big leagues, getting respect and being on television?
I think yes, the city committees may be in the sandbox category, if the Heritage Committee is any indication. They don’t get paid, and they are asked to take turns writing their own minutes. Their names and contact information are not available to the public. Any questions are to be submitted to staff. They meet at the Senior Center not at City Hall in a room they must vacate at 9 p.m. even if their business is not completed. Would Design Review or Planning Commission stand for this?
Last week at the Heritage Committee, in the style of Rodney Dangerfield, the chair Jon Madison said it all, “We get no respect.”
On the other hand, neither does the public who tries to work with the committee. The committee is a mystery to most, and their agendas are not on the big kids’ section of the city’s web site. If you know where to scroll and click you can eventually find it on the calendar, but the information on each item on the agenda is not available online. When the item comes up at the committee meeting, it’s not posted on the board or explained. Copies of the agenda and project information are not even available for the public at the meetings.
Public communication, which is supposed to be allowed at all public meetings, is the opportunity for the public to raise topics that are not on the agenda. At the City Council, public communication comes at the beginning of the meeting.
Well, at the Heritage Committee public communication is relegated to the end and the public is told the committee can’t talk about anything not on the agenda. Not only do public commentators have to wait through the entire meeting to speak, but when they do speak, they have to compete with the packing up of the name plates and people wanting to make a fast exit.
The committee members say their role is only advisory, yet they are deciding very important matters. They are leading the city in historic preservation, a critical component of maintaining Laguna’s village character and uniqueness. Our environment, with evidence of history all around, is what we love about our city. We have not been ground into bland uniformity. The Heritage Committee members, bit by bit, building by building, should be making decisions and policy that will not only keep the bland uniformity from taking over, but will preserve the real evidence that tells the story of our town for the coming generations.
Despite the critical nature of their work, the committee operates under handicaps that make them less effective than they could be.
Decisions they make are passed on to Design Review, Planning Commission, and City Council months or longer after the committee makes them. Changes are made to the project that the committee never sees. Historic reports are changed, environmental reports and historical mitigation measures are proposed, but the project is not re-routed to the Heritage Committee. Yet the Heritage Committee’s now-stale recommendations are cited and sometimes misinterpreted by the next reviewing body.
Applicants for changing historic buildings have been hiring their own historical consultants even though city guidelines say such consultants should be chosen and managed by the city. Historians paid by the applicants can become representatives for the applicant, not objective researchers and evaluators. Key evidence, such as a historical photograph, is not found. Research on local history is not included. Unless committee members do the research themselves, they are making decisions based on incomplete and possibly biased presentations.
What would it take to get the Heritage Committee out of the sandbox and onto a respectable playing field?
Value their service and pay them. Provide a staff person to take their minutes. Give them a regular hearing room where the projects can be posted on the wall and where they can stay as long as they need to. Post their contact information. Route projects so that the committee can weigh in on changes as projects go through the approval pipeline. Require objective, complete historical reports.
Our history is too important to be handled by people who are not taken seriously.
Landscape architect Ann Christoph is a former mayor.