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August 25, 2004

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Publication Date: Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Menlo Park: Big changes likely for Planning Commission Menlo Park: Big changes likely for Planning Commission (August 25, 2004)

** Council set to fill four of seven seats on the Planning Commission.

By Rebecca Wallace
Almanac Staff Writer

Menlo Park's most prominent city commission, the Planning Commission, could be revamped in one night, as the City Council is expected to appoint four residents to the seven-member body on August 24.

One member, Bill Halleck, resigned because he was moving out of town. The terms of three other commissioners -- Patti Fry, Stuart Soffer and Harry Bims -- are expiring. All three are seeking reappointment.

Five other residents are also contenders: Vincent Bressler and Louis Deziel, both consultants; Matt Henry, who is retired from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power; attorney Kirsten Keith; and Richard Stevens, who sits on the city's Environmental Quality Commission.

This is an opportunity for the council, which is widely seen as being dominated by a majority of Mayor Lee Duboc and council members Mickie Winkler and Nicholas Jellins, to put its own majority on the Planning Commission.

But there could be even more changes ahead for the commission, which plays the key role of granting permits needed for many types of construction and renovation in the city. Those decisions can be appealed to the council.

Two other planning commissioners, Lorie Sinnott and Kelly Fergusson, are running for the council this fall and would leave the commission if they win.

That could mean six new members by the end of the year. It's a prospect that worries commission chair Melody Pagee, the only current commissioner who would remain under this scenario.

"The learning curve could be a hindrance if six new people are selected. It would take at least two years before they're effective, if they're going to do their job correctly," she said. "What we end up with is a Planning Commission that could take longer to make a decision because they don't understand (the issues commissioners face)."

The commission's workload also includes advising the council on sweeping land-use issues, such as whether to alter the zoning in a district or change Menlo Park's general plan.

Some, though, see the prospect as positive, a chance to bring in new ideas.

Although Mayor Lee Duboc said Monday that she hadn't yet made up her mind on whom to appoint, she said, "Sometimes it is good to get new vision on our city commissions."

The idea of overhauling the Planning Commission is not new to Ms. Duboc. Last year, two months after being elected, she proposed having all the commissioners resign and reapply for their seats. She said it was "vital" to have a board that reflects the philosophies of the council; the commission was and is dominated by residents who have opposed the council majority.

Although that idea was dropped, Ms. Duboc said Monday that she still thinks it's crucial to have commissioners whose views reflect those of the council.

"We want to have various opinions, but we also don't want to have a commission that is, if you will, hostile to the council. Quite honestly, I feel at times the Planning Commission has been," she said.

Ms. Duboc particularly took issue with the way members of the commission campaigned against a proposed new set of home-building rules that the council passed but later repealed in the wake of a successful referendum petition.

In making appointments, Ms. Duboc said she is also interested in having different neighborhoods represented. She said she is pleased that two of the applicants, Mr. Bims and Mr. Henry, are from Belle Haven, an area that hasn't been as well-represented.

Ms. Fry, who opposed the home-building rules, said she hopes partisan politics won't play a role in appointments to the non-partisan commission.

Mr. Soffer said he was also concerned about the process being politicized: "I think that'd be the only reason that the incumbents are not reappointed. Everyone attends the meetings, they do a good job, they're diligent."

At least 15 e-mails from residents arrived in the council's in-box by the Almanac's Monday deadline urging the council to reappoint the incumbents.

Meanwhile, Mr. Deziel said he wasn't sure about his chances but was hoping to be appointed. He has spoken in favor of the home-building rules supported by the council majority but says he is mostly interested in ways to make the city's downtown "a thriving environment for local community-serving businesses."

"I don't think people understand to what extent we rely on our sales-tax revenues to balance the budget," he said.

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