Censoring Smart Growth Planners

By Dom Nozzi

On Tuesday night in the late 1990s, the Gainesville, Florida City Commission held a “workshop” on the draft long-range land use and transportation policies being considered for adoption by the City of Gainesville.

I witnessed something disturbing that I suspect happens rather often.

As the author of the policies that I had put into the draft land use plan (regarding the prohibition of gated subdivisions), I was disappointed to see that the language had been softened and watered down by my supervisors. Now, instead of prohibiting gated subdivisions (which planners know reduces transportation choice and an undesirable isolation from the larger community), the policy before the Commission now proposed that the City would “discourage” it.

This watering down of the policy language was done by my supervisors despite the fact that the City Plan Board, which is a board appointed by the Commission to advise them on community development issues, did not request such a weakening of this language in the meeting they held about the proposed land use policies.

In fact, I believe my supervisors wanted to remove the policy entirely — even in the watered down rendition.

Then, at the City Commission meeting, more than one commissioner wanted to STRENGTHEN the policy to (again) require prohibition (as I had earlier drafted the policy to state).

It took my breath away that our elected decision-makers (the City Commission) almost did not even have a chance to assess the gated subdivision policy option, had I not lobbied my supervisors to at least have even a watered down version of it retained.

One wonders how often local government planners and other staff restrict the options laid out for policy-making elected officials at the staff level — due, apparently, to fear that the official might “mistakenly” approve something staff does not personally like.

Is it legitimate and professional for STAFF to narrow the range of options presented to an elected body?

The fact that the City of Gainesville employs upper level supervisors and other administrators who are hostile to recognized Smart Growth planning principles ensures a bleak future for Gainesville. Not only is such a state of affairs demoralizing to Gainesville planning staff. A number of planners have left Gainesville, at least in part due to the administrative hostility to quality planning tactics.

Another highly detrimental outcome of an administrative staff which opposes Smart Growth planning is that such staff serves a critical “gatekeeper” role with regard to what planning documents and recommendations come from of the planning department, and in the longer run, which planners are hired (with such supervisors, new planners hired tend to share the hostility to Smart Growth ideas).

With such supervisors at the helm, the staff recommendation tend to be dumbed down, trivial, beside the point, irrelevant, counterproductive, unresponsive, and embarrassing.

In such an environment, planners such as myself who are supporters of a better community future through Smart Growth principles are reduced to simply doing what we are told. Which means that we do as little as possible to ensure a weekly paycheck, and never go the extra mile to prepare well-researched planning recommendations.

An important side note to this situation is that it hardly even matters who is on the elected City Commission, because in a “weak mayor” form of government which Gainesville has, the Commission has only very indirect control over what comes from staff. It hardly matters if the entire commission is composed of strong advocates of Smart Growth new urbanism, environmental conservation, or neighborhood protection.

Given this state of affairs back in my time as a planner for Gainesville, an enormous volume of draft plans and recommendations I had researched and prepared for the City never saw the light of day, despite obvious compatibility of nearly all such recommendations by the City long-range plan or by the relatively enlightened City Commission at the time.

The gatekeeper supervisors engaged in this form of staff censorship by deleting the Smart Growth recommendations before they even went to the elected City Commission – despite the majority of Commissioners (at the time) being supportive of Smart Growth.

The situation is stunning, and completely outside of the awareness of elected officials and citizens of the city.


______________________________

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