Barrio Logan sign. Photo by Chris Stone
Barrio Logan is one of the dozens of San Diego community planning groups. Photo by Chris Stone

Every March, the 42 community planning groups in the City of San Diego hold public elections for new board members. These unpaid volunteers are required to meet residence or business or property ownership qualification to hold office.

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For over 50 years, they have served as the official advisers to the city on land use, development and project review in our neighborhoods

Every March, that is, until next year.

On Feb. 28, the Community Planners Committee, composed of the chairs of the 42 CPGs, heard more details about what the latest “reforms” approved by the City Council last September will entail.

Roundly criticizing them for introducing burdensome conditions, the chairs’ greatest concerns surrounded the need for CPGs to apply for recognition from scratch.

Starting next year, any group can compete for this recognition, without having held a public election or even having residence or ownership qualification. Worse, the city refused to disallow outside actors or to treat them as less qualified.

Instead, the foremost consideration will be whether a group meets the city’s criteria for “diversity” — the definition of which has yet to be provided.

Here is the link to Zoom recording of the meeting, with the discussion beginning at the 21-minute mark.

State law requires that there be general plans and community plans that govern land use development. And the process of drafting them is coordinated with CPGs.

CPGs are the most local level of democratic government in California. Enshrined in city law and subject to the Brown Act, they are the closest many of us get to direct access to and demanding accountability from elected officials.

But under these new rules, CPGs will be subject to passing purity tests and be less about honest representation than playing along. And volunteers will be unable to meet quotas or do more outreach than expected of paid city staffers, thereby ensuring that only private enterprises with the necessary resources will be able to qualify.

Begun under Mayor Kevin Faulconer and accelerated by Todd Gloria, CPG “reform” has been a wholly bipartisan effort to disenfranchise community input and remove any brakes on runaway development.

Back in 2018, the city auditor and the county Grand Jury were each induced to investigate the claim that “CPGs tend to delay hearing certain items as a method of restricting growth in their communities.” Not only did neither substantiate this, but both also blamed delays on the city itself for not providing CPGs needed staff, education and resources.

Despite this, city leaders refused to implement those recommended changes, and instead called for a raft of restrictions that critics of CPGs cynically claimed were made in response. And in February 2020, the City Council approved them.

And still not satisfied that this sufficiently hobbled CPGs, city leaders came up with the changes approved last year.

But again, since neither the city auditor nor the county Grand Jury determined any discriminatory intent or ulterior motive, and the city isn’t following through on their recommendations anyway, what exactly is being fixed?

To give just one example: CPGs have been cut out from being able to directly refer code and zoning violations and public safety concerns to the city for enforcement. Now the general public has no one to represent their interests and their protests disappear into a phone app. Where’s a reform to reverse that?

Are the current CPGs perfect? Of course not. Like any human endeavor, especially one made up of volunteers, they can make mistakes. But even those mistakes demonstrate that they are people working as fairly and transparently as possible to get things right. And that is more than anyone will be able to say about external organizations favoring their vested interests over assigned constituents.

Winston Churchill famously stated, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Neighbors in San Diego are about to find out how true that is.

Mat Wahlstrom chairs the Uptown Planners Community Planning Group.