Are Planners Public Advocates?
(Oregon Planners' Journal, September 1997)
By Richard Carson
I decided to run this month's cover story on the use of a public advocate in land use because it touched a nerve. However, before you read my commentary you need to read the cover story.
It is interesting to note what this story doesn't say directly. It doesn't say that (1) a municipal planning staff may be too neutral in the processing of land use applications to adequately represent the interests of the municipality, and (2) that the citizens of the municipality may not be able to represent their own opposition adequately.
A public hearing requires many of the trappings of a court case -- notice, a record, a hearing by one's peers, and due process in the form of a hearing and an appeal. However, it is not a judicial exercise and does not require that both sides of the argument state their case. If no "citizens" show up to remonstrate against the proposed development, then it is usually a slam-dunk. The local government planning staff will hold the applicant developer to the local government's standards for development, but they are not charged to question the subjective aspects of such a proposal.
It is an interesting idea -- to hire a public advocate who can ask the philosophical and subjective questions. Oregon's statewide planning system has worked hard to provide both clear and objective standards, and insert some certainty into the planning process. In doing so we have also worked to set aside the more frivolous aspects of citizen complaints (i.e., that a different class of people live on 8,000 square foot lots than those on 10,000 square foot lots). But in the process we also pretend that a comprehensive plan created by any given community and adopted by their representatives can foretell the good and the bad in their future.
The idea of a public advocate would be very controversial in Oregon. However, one of the things that I have come to appreciate from my years of experience is that a meaningful public debate serves all well. It is the cornerstone of American democracy. It is the great counter-weight to the fascism that may corrupt government, the greed that may infect business and the mass hysteria that may plague a citizenry.
Alexis De Tocqueville, my favorite 32-year old French firebrand, said of the American citizenry, "These men possessed, in proportion to their number, a greater mass of intelligence than is to be found in any European nation of our time." I do not believe things have changed that much in the 175 years since he penned this. My experience in city government is that the citizens usually come to public hearings less than informed. But the ones that do care become enlightened in an incredibly short period of time. It is like they find out -- perhaps for the first time -- what democracy means.
I find it a strange and often disconcerting phenomena that some planners cannot see the incredible beauty and justice of what they do. We are the essence of democracy. And if we cannot understand this, then something is very wrong.
Richard Carson is director of Oregon City's Community Development Department.