Late in my career as a city planner for Gainesville, Florida, I tried to blow the whistle on what I believed was a clear violation of adopted protocol for the adoption of local government plans, policies or regulations.
What I experienced was quite remarkable, breathtaking and enraging. And my effort to blow the whistle failed.
It pertained to the draft transportation plan I had authored for the Gainesville Comprehensive Plan.
In a nutshell, what happened was that the City Public Works Department had gutted and emasculated the draft transportation plan.
How much had they gutted it? The department so substantially watered down the plan that I informed my supervisor that the revision would require me to disown the plan. I would no longer want my name associated with it, and would refuse to present it at public meetings — largely because presenting it would give the false impression that I implicitly supported the current version. Essentially, the changes created a blatant internal contradiction in the Comprehensive Plan, since the transportation plan would be aggressively promoting sprawl and a downward spiral in our quality of life – the opposite of what the overall Comprehensive Plan for Gainesville was seeking.
This gutting of the draft plan had been achieved by the Public Works Department despite the fact that at least a strong majority of commissioners (if not all five) would support the language that was removed, revised, or otherwise converted to meaningless pabulum by Public Works staff.
The emasculation of the transportation plan by Public Works were, in effect, done “behind closed doors,” so to speak. It was done secretly because staff had made substantial changes that would be almost impossible for elected officials or citizens to notice. This was because earlier, the version of the plan I had prepared was approved by the Plan Board (an advisory board for the elected officials) a few months ago.
But in a shocking departure from long-standing protocol, the elected officials never saw the version their advisory board had reviewed at a public meeting and recommended to the elected officials for adoption.
The radical, emasculating changes to the plan which were requested by Public Works were hidden from elected officials because the version officials were to see a their next meeting would not show any strike-throughs or underlines to call out the extreme changes demanded by Public Works staff. Changes to the version adopted by the advisory board.
This is never done.
In all my years as a city planner, this kind of underhanded, secretive shenanigans was never engaged in by staff, and for good reason. It is completely unethical and out of line for staff to make major changes to a draft public document without showing the decision-making officials the changes via strike-throughs and underlines.
Again, as I noted above, this veiled tactic to slip changes through the elected officials without their realizing what was happening took my breath away, largely because in my previous conversations with the elected officials, it became clear to me that there was broad support for the language I had placed in the earlier draft of the plan. Elected officials would almost certainly have approved of my language.
But elected officials would never know of my original language because it was removed without showing elected officials the language that was being removed (language that they would have supported).
In my opinion, staff should never hide major policy decisions from the decision-makers.