The Planning Commission Explained

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Typically, a City’s Planning Commission is the stepping stone to the City Council, since it is the most high-profile appointed Government body that residents and businesses will have to go through in order to build/invest/create/expand their home or business.  Notwithstanding what’s been going on here lately in Newport Beach, whatever the Planning Commission decides, the City Council typically agrees with.

Before getting appointed to the City Council, Councilmember Leslie Daigle was appointed to the Planning Commission for a few months. Mayor Mike Henn had just been appointed to the Planning Commission for a weather season before announcing his run for City Council.  Even Councilman Ed Selich spent a decade on the Planning Commission before getting called up to the City Council.  Back in 2006, even I was “wink, wink” “talked to” about a spot on the Planning Commission if I dropped out of the City Council race …

It’s essentially the Minor Leagues to the City Council’s Show.

But even with those three making the jump, compared to other cities, Newport Beach’s Planning Commissioners seem happy to just stay Planning Commissioners.  Robert Hawkins has been on since 2004 and Michael Toerge since 2002, with former Commissioners Barry Eaton and Earl McDaniel each putting in almost a decade of service each, all without making that run for elected office.

A couple of years back, former Planning Commissioner Scott Peotter chose not to seek re-appointment and now Planning Commission Chairman Charles Unsworth has resigned.

So why is Newport Beach different?

But before (or even if) I try to answer that question, just the way Planning Commissioners get appointed in Newport Beach is different than other Cities.

In Irvine, each Councilmember chooses their own “Cabinet” and individually appoints their Planning, Finance, and Community Services Commissioners.  That way, they can individually shape their Commissioners, while almost guaranteeing that their decisions will mirror their own.  And if an Irvine Commissioner gets out of line, you’d better believe that Irvine Emperor Larry Agran, and others, will quickly and surgically remove that rogue Commissioner.  And from what I understand, the Irvine Councilmembers even use their Planning Commission appointments to groom future City Council candidates, so much so that if a Planning Commissioner doesn’t want to run for City Council in the future, their Councilmember will replace him/her with someone who will.

Newport Beach?  To be on a Commission in Newport Beach, you first need to apply to the City for that Commission, and then a City Council Ad Hoc Committee goes through all the applications and interviews the cream of that crop, until they are able to select two names for every Commission vacancy.  Then the City Council votes on who they want on that Commission, majority wins.  Simple as that.

Sounds good right?  Less chance for puppets, less chance for people to use the Commission seats as just springboards, and less chance for random hiring and firings of Commissioners.  More independence, more nobility, and more stability is always good when it comes to Government bureaucracy right?

But does that system make the Planning Commissioners feel stronger than they actually are?  As evidenced by the last half of 2011, where Councilmember Rush Hill has been practicing his Veterinary Skills on the Planning Commissioners, the Planning Commission has essentially been … neutered.

Neutered enough for Planning Commission Chairman Unsworth to resign?  Maybe.

So which system would you prefer?  Irvine’s, where you know their Commissioners will do whatever their Councilmembers want?  Or Newport Beach, where whenever their Commissioners rule on something the Councilmembers don’t like, the City Council just slaps them around a bit, and then makes them wear a Pet Cone around their neck?

After all, regardless of which system in place, the elected City Council will always win over their appointed Commissioners.

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