Olympia Planning Commission: Looking Back. Looking Ahead.

I decided not to reapply for the 2012-2013 term and will, with great relief, let someone else take the seat I occupied for the last two years. I have made no secret of my displeasure and frustration with the Olympia Planning Commission’s inability to complete its work timely or even accomplish its objectives in the first place so I don’t think I need to write more about why I didn’t reapply.

While I was able to participate in some very controversial and interesting deliberations, there is actually only one that I view with particular pride and I want to use that deliberation as a microcosm for my experience on the OPC. It spawned some important questions that I will take with me as close this laborious chapter in my life.

That deliberation considered the amendments to the Mobile Food Cart statute which proposed to extend the permitted time that a food cart can stay in the same place in the city. It was memorable and extremely frustrating for a strange reason: I found myself taking up arguments about the primacy free markets and individual self-interest that I generally don’t espouse in most contexts. I also noticed that those commissioners, who typically do argue in favor of free markets and the imperative of individual action, were arguing in support of some sort of socialized business environment in order to free us of the potential dangers of food carts (e.g. state protected businesses to protect free markets). It was fascinating because I have never been able to understand exactly what provoked such atypical positions during that deliberation. Of course the context was critically important, but that was just one element. It led me to spend many hours considering how much we really believe what we think we do, (if, in the first place, we bother considering what we believe without a specific problem) and how much the groups in which we roam actually influence those beliefs. In essence how and why do we decide? Furthermore, how do we decide when we’re serving in a representative capacity and not necessarily facing the direct consequences of our decisions?

The OPC is interesting application of this question because not only do most of the commissioners not deal directly with the ramifications of its decisions, but it is not even the final decision maker (which of course is the city council). The Mobile Food Vender deliberation took this question to an extreme because it called into question much of what I had taken for granted before that deliberation began. In other, much higher profile deliberative bodies, you can almost always predict the results: there is a long track record of appellate court judges, most notably the Supreme Court of the United States; in the legislative assemblies of almost any state or nation, the political party is the most important consideration followed closely by the donor base; finally, even in local city councils, including our own, one can probably fairly accurately predict which councilmembers would fall on whichever side of the issue in question.

The Olympia Planning Commission however is a little different. Only a handful of people outside the staff and the commissioners themselves pay attention to what happens there. Hearings are very rarely widely attended; but even they are, most people usually devote their attention and efforts at the final decision-maker rather than the group recommending the policy. So the commissioners are able to recommend what they believe is best for their city in a manner uniquely free of special interests.

Thus, I return to my initial question, what makes us decide what we decide? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I don’t think it is to be found in linear causation. That makes explanations difficult because we’re naturally drawn to such simple cause and effect. On the other hand, it makes for a wealth of potential blog posts about different group deliberations in the local government context if we include the City Council, County Commissioners, Intercity Transit Authority, LOTT and Port Boards, and their advisory committees.

Of course, I would not care at all if I didn’t feel that these decisions affect my life and my community—and that means your life and community. For that reason, each of us should care. We all contribute to the whole here in Olympia, and Thurston County. The OPC, just like the other groups I mentioned, does impact our lives, though those impacts aren’t often apparent to the casual and sometimes even dedicated observer. Even when one is interested in the instrumentalities of community governance, there is a huge learning curve. Thus, the job of someone writing about a planning commission as a piece of the larger context is exceedingly difficult, but that is a challenge I intend to undertake. As you’ve seen by now, I’m interested in the theory as well as its applications and I’m not sure exactly where we’ll end up. At least we can take pleasure in the knowledge that interminable deliberations like the SMP have not dissuaded me from moving on to subjects of interest in the meantime.

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2 Responses to Olympia Planning Commission: Looking Back. Looking Ahead.

  1. Larry Leveen says:

    Reapplying for the OPC has been a dilemma for me as well. I have met with the City Manager and talked with (not enough) City Council members about my concerns with how things have been going the past several years (the SMP frustrations are only part of that, though, yes, a large part). In the end, I decided not to just “walk away” (though to be clear, I don’t blame anyone for doing so — there are hundreds of worthwhile endeavors/opportunities in our community). Instead, I decided that I wanted to try to make things better, so I reapplied, but to borrow some planning parlance, it’s a “conditional use application”. It is not _I_ who is being interviewed for reappointment, _it is the City_ that is being interviewed (by me) for its willingness to hear about these problems and give me the signs and signals that they take them seriously and will engage the issues in a meaningful way. If I don’t get a strong sense of that from the City Council, the City Manager and other administrative staff, and the OPC membership itself) that they are “material I can work with”, then I will deem serving another term to be a waste of my precious life. I could spend it elsewhere making a difference in our community AND having a good time doing it!

    I lament that good people, such as yourself, are not reapplying for OPC, though I think I understand the diversity of reasons why. I think that the problems plaguing this body the past several years (again, predating SMP deliberations) are endemic in the Planning Department and the City as a whole, and largely responsible for what I see as a crisis of public confidence in our local government (staff and electeds). I honestly believe that for every Mark Derricott (clones? egads!) there are dozens of other Olympians who don’t ever try to get involved. That’s how frustrated and disenfranchised citizens are feeling. That dynamic is not serving anyone.

    It is too bad that you have not been privy to the retreat planning work that OPC’s “leadership team” has been doing with the facilitator hired to help with that meeting. I have found it cause for a cautious optimism (and am grateful for outside help in dealing with the complexities of problem(s) I am talking about). I encourage you (and anyone interested in the OPC and its work, or concerned about the “crisis” I mentioned) to attend that retreat meeting as a member of the public and see what occurs. I think any who do will appreciate the discussion, resonate with it, and see the seeds of change therein (which starts by talking about the problems — “admitting it is the first step” as the saying goes). That meeting is Saturday, April 14th, 9AM – 3PM at City Hall’s “conference room” (perhaps Room 201, upstairs, where OPC usually meets, but there should be a sign plus the front desk person to help guide folks).

    I will encourage the Council General Government Committee to request “exit interviews” with OPCers not reapplying to get a better handle. I don’t know if they do that, but regardless, I want to encourage you to summarize your thoughts for the City Council on what is wrong and how to fix it. We really need a brain trust on this if we are going to make meaningful change — and after all, that’s what we all want for this community we love.

    Stay involved and be well!

  2. Rob Richards says:

    “I found myself taking up arguments about the primacy free markets and individual self-interest that I generally don’t espouse in most contexts. I also noticed that those commissioners, who typically do argue in favor of free markets and the imperative of individual action, were arguing in support of some sort of socialized business environment in order to free us of the potential dangers of food carts (e.g. state protected businesses to protect free markets).”

    The Mobile Food Vendor debate was one of my favorites over the last two years also. Not just because the recommendation I made a motion for won the day, but because, like Mark says here, it really challenged my beliefs.

    When presented with an argument by a fellow Commissioner that the City establish a program to curtail the potential negative impact of more competition by these new and smaller businesses on the established brick and mortar businesses – I found myself arguing that the City (government) has no role regulating the market to that extent. Even in hindsight, I don’t regret it, and I don’t think that I lapsed in my healthy skepticism of all capitalistic.

    We can’t view the world in absolutes. An economy on the scale of what exists downtown is not the same as state, national, or world economies and can’t be compared. Also, the intent of my fellow commissioner was essentially to protect the longstanding, established businesses by limiting the ability of a young entrepreneur to compete. It makes no sense, in such an economy as the one we’re in, that we would stunt any growth, be it jobs, small business creation, etc.

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