Among the more important parts of the recently enacted city charter reforms are the new area planning commissions, which are intended to bridge the gap between local communities and the city planning process.
The new charter establishes seven area commissions made up of representatives of each commission district plus an expanded city Planning Commission. Previously, the single city Planning Commission and the Board of Zoning Appeals had jurisdiction over all of Los Angeles.
The new structure allows people from different areas of the city to get involved in matters of local concern while retaining a citywide commission to deal with issues that have broader impact.
I've been a strong community advocate for years and have testified at scores of public hearings. One of my standard questions has been, "Have you ever visited the site of the matter before you today?"
Many times, commissioners had never visited the site and had minimal direct knowledge of the community. This contributed to a feeling that people who didn't understand the community were making planning decisions and added to the sense of alienation fueling secession movements throughout the city.
Although only slightly more than a month has passed since the first area planning commission meetings, the process is proving the wisdom of city charter reformers in establishing a planning process that by its very structure encourages broad community participation and promotes economic development that is more community-sensitive.
Here is why:
* With multiple area planning commissions instead of one, fewer cases are handled by each commission, allowing more time for public review and for making changes, if necessary, to improve projects.
* Because commissioners reside in the area they serve, they can ask the right questions.
* Meetings are held in the district and start at 4:30 p.m., a more convenient time for many working people.
* Having cases reviewed by your neighbors is a strong catalyst for community participation. People who have never before attended city meetings find it worthwhile to participate.
* A representative of the city attorney's office is present at each meeting, along with city planning staff. Issues that could lead to problems can be sorted out beforehand. This is invaluable in a city where costly legal settlement payments are a source of major controversy.
City and area planning commissions have never before been implemented. We are the guinea pigs. Los Angeles has an opportunity to be a model for city planning in the United States. We can provide project applicants, appellants and other community members with an opportunity to state their cases to local decision-makers, bringing local government one step closer to the community.