One of the big questions during the middle of the COVID-19 crisis is to what extent can and should the city continue to conduct business as usual, and conduct a public process for the consideration of major projects—the most heavily controversial of which is the Aggie Research Campus.
Some opponents have argued that, during these times of crisis, it is unreasonable to ask community members to review and comment on the lengthy documents of such a project—even as they submit articles and writings, and make multiple comments during a council evening focusing on exactly that.
The council on Tuesday was pushed both to postpone what are deemed to be non-essential and non-emergency items, or at the very least extend the deadline to accept official comments on the record for the ARC EIR, which has its 45-day comment period deadline on April 27.
This week, two commissions, the Open Space and Habitat Commission, as well as the Bicycling, Transportation and Street Safety Commission (BTSSC) take up the issue.
On Tuesday, the council would not go so far as to extend the comment period; instead, they offered to allow commissions to meet an extra time for additional opportunities to discuss and weigh in on the proposal process.
Todd Edelman, speaking during public comment, noted that the BTSSC “has it on the agenda this Thursday for one hour and this is the first time we have seen it.” He pointed out that other commissions have seen it before.
“It’s completely inappropriate to have so little time and only one meeting for the BTSSC to review the project.”
Mr. Edelman called for the council to extend the comment period and modify the process “so that we have certainly longer time to comment on this significant project during our city emergency and nationwide and global crisis.”
In response to a question in the comments portions of the Vanguard, Todd Edelman fleshed out his points. He noted that other commissions, like Open Space, at least participated in a baseline features discussion last year, while it is their commission’s first time having seen it.
He noted, “We’ve been given one hour, so there’s pressure on those of who tend to have a lot of things to say.”
It is not clear from the agenda item whether they are simply estimating an hour with the option to go longer or whether that it is a hard deadline—often in commission as well as council meetings, items go far longer than scheduled.
It was only a few months ago, in response to some concerns by some members of the public about lack of public process, that the BTSSC, which is not required to hear this item, had a hearing on the Aggie Research Campus added to its calendar.
Mr. Edelman also noted that for four of the seven voting members of the commission this would be their first meeting.
“There’s a huge amount of material to go through, and it’s confusing… even for experienced Commissioners,” he wrote.
Furthermore, he added, “[t]he bandwidth in the community is low or at least quite uncertain.”
He pointed out that the public participation was not very high, “with a great share of the comments taking issue with the solar farm or ARC, in addition to those about citations for camping which Chief Pytel said were all based on a misunderstanding.”
Much of the scheduled portion of Tuesday’s meeting was taken up with informational items by the Public Health Official as well as an update on the city’s response to the crisis.
Most of the comments, as Mr. Edelman noted, were related to three issues not formally on the agenda.
The council on Tuesday acknowledged these issues, but their solution clearly did not satisfy the critics. Dan Carson simply proposed that the council allow commissions to schedule an additional meeting as needed to discuss the issue.
He declined to extend the public comment period for the ARC’s EIR. Instead, he offered that, while the comments which are officially a part of the public record need to be submitted by the April 27 deadline, nothing is to stop either the commission or individual citizens from making additional comments that the council and perhaps the Planning Commission would consider at a later point in time.
While the council was agreeable to this arrangement, it clearly did not sit well with Colin Walsh—who has consistently been a critic of both the project and the public process here.
From his standpoint, speaking during the long range calendar discussion, he saw this as the council “forcing” members of the commission to endure additional hardship and hold other meetings during this time of hardship.
This was unacceptable to him and he continued to argue for the council to postpone non-essential work until after the crisis.
While many of the people pushing for a postponement of the public process here are also critics if not outright opponents of the project, not all are.
In a comment on the Vanguard, Bob Schneider, a frequent supporter of at least some projects in town, noted that public participation on community issues “requires communication on many levels,” including the ability to meet in small groups.
He wrote, “While meeting places like zoom can help they are not a replacement for face to face. Groups actively working on an issue need to meet. This often occurs in kitchens or living room and again zoom is not a replacement.”
He wrote, “I would recommend a 6-month moratorium on non-essential issues. Let’s deal with our personal essential matters of safety and health with all of our attention and we can learn about and get used to the issues involved with on-line meetings.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting