OPC: The Tragedy of the Shoreline Master Program Deliberation, 2010-2012

The 19th of December was the latest in a long line of the seemingly perpetual meetings about the draft Olympia Shoreline Master Program (SMP). Lately, I have lamented often that I have no comprehensive theory to explain the Olympia Planning Commission’s (OPC) SMP deliberation. This post will attempt to explore the reasons that I believe the deliberation has been a failure; it will hopefully leave the reader persuaded by my conclusions, and it will begin to suggest where I think we could go from here.

When I joined the commission in early 2010, I started attending SMP subcommittee meetings during which we heard briefings from city staff on subjects such as the environmental designations, mitigation sequencing, setbacks, height limits, administration, and various other issues concerning the first 200 feet of shoreline starting from the ordinary high water mark. During the entire summer of 2010, many citizens, staff people, and several other commissioners spent each Wednesday night on these briefings, asking questions, and generally learning about the SMP and its purposes and requirements. It was a collaborative environment that I now recall with some fondness even if at the time I wasn’t happy about missing the ODA’s Music in the Park so I could attend additional OPC meetings.

In the fall of 2010, we had a SMP draft reception with homemade cider, refreshments, and several easels with glossy posters; a throng of people crowded into the council chambers at the old Plum Street City Hall. Smiling faces abounded and classic corporate networking, with card swapping and guffaws, was in full effect. (I didn’t stay a moment longer than necessary.) That was another strange milestone in this SMP saga. The draft SMP was complete, the OPC could now review it in its totality armed with the information gained during the summer briefings, and pass on their recommendations to the City Council. If I recall accurately, we planned only a handful—three or four—meetings for our deliberation. In 2011 after all, the OPC really needed to take on the Comprehensive Plan update and there were some very controversial land use deliberations looming on the work plan’s horizon.

I recall a question one commissioner asked around the time the city staff’s draft was released to the public: “How will the subcommittee unpackage the SMP so those of us who didn’t serve on the subcommittee can access it?” The answer, in two words, has become tragically obvious: “Not well.”

The first meeting during which the OPC actually attempted to deliberate the staff SMP draft was a disaster. Our deliberation process, conceived in the belief that peoples’ ideas naturally flow to consensus after discussing the issues in some kind of mythic dialectical logic was pitifully inadequate for the task it was then called upon to perform. Yet we continued to slog through at least two more meetings, using it to debate some minor points, until it became obvious that that square peg wasn’t going into this round hole.

If it had only been a matter of correcting an in adequate procedure, we might have been able to do so with some expediency, but a majority of commissioners needed a crash course in the SMP, if the questions they asked in that first meeting were any guide. In fact, we used our allotment of initially planned SMP meetings in 2010 to re-conduct some of the meetings that we had during the summer SMP subcommittee meetings, much to the frustration of those who had attended them and were now required to do it again.

By the spring of 2011, after a few more discordant meetings, we resolved to establish a more appropriate deliberation strategy. Essentially, we formulated a process by which the SMP subcommittee takes a look at each and every page of the SMP and should they agree on a change or revisions, it was to be forwarded to the full OPC as a consent calendar item, subject to removal should enough commissioners desire it. That smoothed some troubled waters. At the following regular planning commission meeting, the commissioners would take all non-consent items from the subcommittee and vote, with a simple majority prevailing. In theory, it was relatively clean: let the experts, well versed in months of preparation, tackle the details and when they cannot agree, ask the entire commission weigh in.

While we sort of resolved the complete lack of a deliberation procedure, that caused other major problems to surface which I will summarize below. Looking back, we should have known that this would be the inexorable result. Funny how hindsight is so obvious. What follows is certainly not the official account, which I can only imagine would never be completed even if those who participated in this debacle had the fortitude to reconsider it again in all its grizzly details and surmise conclusions that could be passed on to subsequent generations.  This is certainly not a question of intellectual laziness or lack of desire, as attendance and participation in most meetings was exemplary for any volunteer committee. Questions were always sincere, and even substantive disagreements were rooted in the best interest of each commissioner’s respective constituencies. I certainly cannot see parallels of the congressional gridlock in our own commission.

As I said at the beginning of this post, this is a general lament, not a recipe for improvement. I believe that we have neglected criticism because it’s difficult to dish out and most people take it as destructive even when utmost effort is expended to make it constructive. Nonetheless, without some idea of what went wrong, we cannot hope to improve. Thus, in this post I will not offer solutions because I believe we need to understand the problems first. My conclusions as to what went wrong follow.

No clear limits on OPC discretion. For most of the process, we acted as though our job was that of a compliance committee ensuring that the law was correctly applied to the SMP. Fascinatingly, members of the OPC at times argued from both sides of a position, claiming that the law either did, or did not allow us to do something in a haphazard manner that forced me to conclude that the constant reference to law was nothing more than a rhetorical device. Unfortunately it probably worked more often than not. These kinds of arguments and debates quickly coalesced into a mode of operation that would have led a disinterested observer to conclude that we were acting as a compliance organ. One of the first posts I ever wrote discusses the statutory authority granted to the OPC. Compliance isn’t there.  It is the research and fact-finding agency of the city: the jury, not the judge.

The other problem with the ambiguity about our discretion is that we never tried to define the concept of an OPC Recommendation. This is a serious mistake both in terms of efficiency and clarity. For example, should the entire OPC vote on a typographical error in the same manner as they would vote on an environmental designation? Setback? Or height limitation? What about the phraseology of a particular sentence? Much to my personal chagrin, prolonged discussion by the entire OPC in preparation for voting on trivial details was a constant feature of our deliberation.

No clear objective. Early in the process, we spoke constantly of approving the SMP. Frequently in practice, the OPC treated this process as a quasi-judicial proceeding instead of a legislative one. In the former, an applicant requests a favorable decision from the OPC to proceed with a project, a comprehensive plan revision, or some other kind of permission to act. This is the authority that the municipal code vests in the Planning Commission. It is completely inapplicable to a legislative action, like the revision of the SMP because the OPC serves only as an advisory body to the City Council in that capacity. I believe that enough commissioners viewed this as a quasi-judicial proceeding so that it resulted in an ineffective deliberation. Instead of broad visioning and formulating recommendations (which the city council ultimately has authority to reject and/or implement) we took it upon ourselves to “pass” the SMP. This resulted in an unshakable fixation on compliance issues and/or a desire to adhere to scientific conclusions whichever appeared to suit the rhetorical needs of a proponent at the time, adding significantly to the problem of opaque discretion that I described above.

No viable deliberation procedure. A lack of clear objective, buttressed by a fluid definition of the areas within which we could offer our recommendations, led to our inability to create an adequate procedure for formulating our ultimate recommendations to the City Council. Without a clear idea of where we are going, it stands to reason that it might be difficult to decide where to start and how to get there.

The greatest problem with our deliberation procedure as it was conceived was that there was no provision for disagreement. It assumed that all 11 commissioners would agree most of the time or at least enough of the time so that minority voices would be well enough represented through the deliberation procedure itself. This is a staggering shortcoming. I think the commission has essentially overcome that hesitation to agree to disagree, but it required a panicky re-culturization of the OPC itself which at times took us through several painful meetings full of incomprehensible actions like protest abstentions.

Inconsistent approaches to policy guidelines. Two people see different things in the same object. That is the beauty of individuality, and different points of view are necessary in a representative body. However, without a basic approach to the interpretation and application of the SMP policies and guidelines, those disagreements cannot be contained in their proper place. Instead they seep out into endless discussions about the broader objective. They cloud that objective and once that is opaque, the scope of discretion becomes murky and infests the process itself. These shortcomings are interrelated and unfortunately, the OPC managed to experience each one of them before all of them together resulted in a mass of confusion and frustration.

In more concrete terms, this means that each commissioner appeared to weigh the policies of the SMP in a haphazard manner. In a general interpretation of the statute, the various environmental designations should be examined and those policies which are most applicable to each of them should be applied. Instead, we heard the same pet policies applied over and over again to every designation. So for example, one commissioner might hammer on the ecological concerns or economic concerns regardless of the optimal use applicable in the area. It’s difficult to blame anyone for following this path because the procedure, visioning process, and definition of discretion were so inadequate that most fell back onto their general dispositions anyway.

Inadequate direction and preparation. Especially early in the process, the commission as a whole was unprepared. I take this to mean that we suffered from a lack of familiarity with the SMP itself as well as the guidelines that govern it. I could point a finger at myself, along with every other commissioner, but I don’t think the problem was failure to complete our homework. Instead I think it was never clearly communicated to the OPC as a whole that the SMP deliberations at the full OPC level would require an extraordinary amount of preparation and where that time should be dedicated in particular (i.e. those areas where OPC discretion should be concentrated). We had helpful SMP briefing papers but were also encouraged to read several technical studies that were hundreds of pages long for basic background. (I’m sure the subcommittee read this material, but by the time the SMP was introduced to the full OPC, the latter had thousands of pages of public hearing documents for several unrelated deliberations including Larida Passage as well as the SMP itself.  I doubt that those background documents got more than a passing glance by the time the deliberation began). The OPC also had the focus meetings going on at the same time in addition to the usual work plan. That is an impossible amount of work to do in the schedule set up (unless of course it was never intended that commissioners read the documents).

It wasn’t until a few months of deliberation that the commissioners began to became familiar with the salient issues, and only much later that we were able to competently look at the details. As frustrating as it was, we cannot expect commissioners to vote on issues with which they are unfamiliar, but on the other hand this issue in particular was foreseeable and correctable as far back as the spring of 2010 when the first commissioners serving on the subcommittee started the SMP subcommittee meetings.

Lack of a visioning process. While there was, of course, a public hearing on the SMP, there was no overall visioning process that elicited what Olympians really wanted from their shoreline. A hearing allows people to comment on the documents, but responding to a document does not necessarily provoke aspirational thoughts, comments, and feedback upon which an advisory board serving a function of a legislative adviser could rely.  (That will hopefully become one of the strengths of the Comprehensive Plan Update process.) Most importantly, a visioning process allows the commission to solidify overarching policies and comfortably deliberate within those formulations. As it was, there was constant appeal to shifting policies that seemed to surface primarily from the predilections of the commissioners themselves rather than from a visioning process. Of course the response would have been, “There isn’t time for a visioning process.” This might be one of those few times I employ a much-hated phrase: “There wasn’t time not to do it.”

No conception of a deliverable. It wasn’t until about three months into our final deliberation that we had a discussion of the actual tangible object that the City Council would receive from the OPC. No one had considered that question until we were well into the deliberation! What would this deliverable be? (And more importantly, the OPC has spent more than two years on the SMP. Will the City Council be able to absorb this document on top of everything else they do in a fraction of the time it took the OPC?) Will a letter of explanation and recommendation similar to our annual CFP letter suffice? What does the City Council need from the OPC? It’s unlikely that they will have the time to consider the policy ramifications beyond the public hearing and legal challenges from parties calling themselves aggrieved. The OPC has still not resolved this issue and without an idea of a deliverable, it’s difficult to imagine that the objective could have been clear. Without a clear objective in this deliberation, we could not have properly scoped the deliberation. Without a clearly defined scope of discretion, there was no possibility of formulating a reasonable deliberation procedure. All of these issues are interrelated and once they were triggered, they cascaded through everything else. More than a few times, in fact.

No milestones. OPC’s deliberation schedule shifted constantly, which I think began to give the impression that a deadline (or any milestone for that matter) was unimportant. The first date of completion that I ever heard was August of 2010. The second was December 2010. Then, after we really dug in and learned how long it would take, we agreed on June 6, 2011. Now the plan is to send the document to council in January 2012. Stay tuned. Or don’t.

The major problem with loose scheduling is that the OPC never had intermediate deadlines by which we had to finish for example, the definitions or administration chapters. Intermediate milestones would have allowed us to consider more thoughtfully the dynamic issues that comprise setbacks on the basis of OPC-vetted preliminary issues. That would have allowed us to tackle the more complicated issues later on. (I use dynamic here because while we are undertaking this effort, the City Council is studying sea level rise. The two are inextricably interrelated. To wit, the planning commission is deliberating and recommending regulatory issues that will become guiding policies concerning sea-level rise at the same time the city council is formulating conclusions and management issues on sea-level rise. That makes no sense.)

All of these problems were correctable and most of them were foreseeable. Of course, people don’t think of everything before the fact and most people don’t pay attention to naysayers. Project management is an art, but it’s obvious that it was either not employed on this project or done so inadequately that no one noticed it. As I have repeated numerous times, any one of these problems in isolation would have been surmountable, even as they bobbed along just underneath the surface. However, once any single one of them arose, they had a horrible habit of creating a chain reaction that drew all of them back up in plain view comprising an impasse far too often. Like responsible and dedicated voluntary committee members and staff, we attempted to resolve the most glaring issues as soon as they were articulated. As we did so, we usually exacerbated other problems. For example, we attempted to resolve the visioning process by breaking out the setback tables reach by reach. That singlehandedly broke our deliberation process and revealed the extent to which our preparation and inconsistent approach to the policy guidelines were insufficient for the task at hand. This is one example of many.


I am not trying to criticize the OPC or staff and certainly not any individual. I am lamenting the number of factors that colluded against this planning commission and staff on this particular deliberation. For the last two years, each week required at least two three hour meetings if one includes the Comprehensive Plan, the Shoreline Management Program, the Finance Committee which handles the annual Capital Facilities Plan, coordination with other advisory committees, City Council meetings, and of course, anything that comes before the OPC as a matter of course. In 2011 for example, we had briefings, hearings, and deliberations on the permanent Camp Quixote site, Mobile Food Vendors, and of course, the famous Isthmus/Larida Passage and all of this required considerable time in the form of multiple meetings. Most commissioners have families and other volunteer activities. At least half have full time jobs. Commissioners cannot show up to meetings ready to participate meaningfully without substantial preparation time. I would imagine in most cases we’re talking about at least two preparation hours to one meeting hour. Those in leadership positions require all the more time. The time involved isn’t the problem nor is it here presented to draw any sort of sympathy from those uninvolved. I hope it does however, illustrate the nearly impossible task that any commissioner faces—there simply are not sufficient hours in the day to be involved in the planning commission and live their lives such that they would be able to bring a non-institutional approach to their commission responsibilities.

Do I really want a planning commission that doesn’t have time to interact with their neighbors (not friends), shop at a local business, wonder why traffic is so lousy in this or that intersection, or take a leisurely (dog) walk in their local park? Do I really want one that doesn’t have enough time to approach sea-level rise, the practical and the philosophical distinction between individual and collective rights involved in major land-use planning like the SMP thoughtfully? (Reading Atlas Shrugged in college doesn’t count.) How many people have the time to get involved in the esoteric world of shoreline management regulation, let alone appreciate the inner workings of the city government to such a degree that our actions are explicable? How much of all of this is a deterrent to getting involved for those who are genuinely interested in or concerned about their city government, civic responsibilities, and their community? The path of least resistance is to shrug it all off and embrace one’s cynical side, perhaps limiting one’s civic involvement to anonymous and inflammatory message board comments.

What do we learn from all of this? First, we have a catalog of pitfalls that are staring us in the face as the OPC prepares to take on the Comprehensive Plan update. Every problem, except the public visioning process, that I articulated above is magnified in the Comprehensive Plan update. I hope this experience, and my discussion of it, have helped clarify what not to do. If so, the question becomes, “Will we fall victim to the same problems again, or will we learn from the mistakes we made during the SMP deliberation?” As I mentioned earlier, the Community Planning and Development staff’s solution is conducting another day long retreat apparently to debrief and head off these problems before they arise next time. I think we’ve started to get a basic deliberation procedure together, but whether that will be used during the Comprehensive Plan deliberation remains to be seen. There was considerable resistance to that idea early last year from the subcommittee chair. Further, the Comprehensive Plan is more easily accessible than the SMP, and most of the commissioners are familiar with it (or they would not have had interest in the commission in the first place), so if nothing else getting up to speed on it won’t be as cumbersome. On the other hand, I predict that our personal predilections will be adverse influences on the process just as they have been. I certainly don’t have a problem with competing opinions—I love them in fact, but I don’t think our current commission is at all comfortable with dealing with them.  In fact, candidates for leadership positions in 2012 illustrated their qualifications by their willingness to vote with the opposition from time to time. (I personally believe commission leadership means an ability to get through agenda items timely by ensuring all the work that requires beforehand is completed. That has not been a feature in my experience on the OPC.) Finally, in my observation the OPC implicitly considers success to be consensus or close to it, not presenting viable policy recommendations to the City Council through a process that ensures consideration of all views presented. If we’re not able to overcome that issue, 2012 will be as metaphorically endless for the Planning Commission as was 2011.

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