Foes of Oxnard's Land Use Advisors panel applauded the City Council's decision Tuesday to abolish the widely criticized planning body, but called for more changes to increase the public's role in the development process.
"It is a step in the right direction," former Oxnard Mayor Jane Tolmach said. "They are finding out that people in the community were really mad."
The council voted unanimously to replace the five-member panel with a five-member planning commission after more than a year of heavy protest from residents, who argued that the advisors panel was set up to rubber-stamp projects for developers.
The council dismantled its former planning commission in January 1995 and appointed the panel and a hearing officer after developers had long complained that the commission was dragging out approval of projects.
Led by Tolmach, residents launched a petition drive last year to reinstate the original commission, but fell 471 signatures short of the 5,219 required.
Residents objected to the appointment of a nonelected city official as hearing officer. The move gave one person, city planning official Richard Maggio, the power to single-handedly approve environmental reports and make other land-use decisions.
"I don't think it is right for one person to have the say," said Ethel Dale, a former Oxnard city clerk who participated in the petition drive.
The new Planning Commission will take over the review of environmental impact reports--key documents that allow development projects to advance. But the hearing officer will retain some duties, including the approval of alcoholic beverage permits and parcel maps, which can determine the location of property lines and in--some cases--roads, sewer lines and water pipes.
This still worries Tolmach, Dale and other critics of the advisors panel who said they want the hearing officer position eliminated.
"Nobody wants one person to hear what a five-member board normally hears," Tolmach said. "It is a bad structure of government to have one person making those major decisions."
Oxnard Mayor Manuel Lopez, the only council member to vote against creating the Land Use Advisors panel last year, urged the council Tuesday to get rid of the hearing officer to allay public concerns.
"You would gain a tremendous amount of goodwill if you did that," Lopez said.
But city leaders countered that the hearing officer will only carry out administrative, and not policy, duties to help out planning commissioners, who are private citizens.
Several City Council members conceded before the meeting Tuesday that the Land Use Advisors panel has had a bad rap since its inception and that changing its name might boost its credibility.
"I don't think it is more than a name change," Councilman Bedford Pinkard said.
"We need to make sure that the public has an important role to play in the planning process," Councilman Dean Maulhardt said. "Though I believe the [Land Use Advisors panel] provided for that, there was still an ongoing perception that it wasn't."
City leaders say the faces on the new commission are not likely to change immediately. Three of the panel's five advisors served on Oxnard's former planning commission.
And although the City Council must appoint the new planning commissioners to two-year terms, the city leaders can choose from among members of the advisors panel.
"I think that the people who are serving [on the advisors panel] are doing a good job," Pinkard said. "I don't think that they should change in midstream."
But Tolmach wants the new commission expanded to seven members--the number that sat on Oxnard's former planning commission in 1994. Both Tolmach and Mayor Lopez also would like the new commissioners' terms increased to four years, which Tolmach said would increase their independence from the City Council members who appoint them.
"It seems like the council has an opportunity to not reappoint someone they don't agree with," Lopez said.
Albert Duff, chairman of the Land Use Advisors panel and a former planning commissioner, said he approved of the change. The restored planning commission, he said, would allow more public input in the planning process.
"I didn't think that there was anything wrong with the Planning Commission with its seven members in the first place," Duff said. "If it isn't broken, don't fix it. What they have done is a step in the right direction.