After a few months of relative order, the Merced City Council went off the rails again Tuesday night. The rhetoric of desperate sleaze prevailed as councilmen tried to explain to us that now that a closed door, ad hoc committee not subject to the state rules of public meetings had chosen a consultant to plan the new high speed railroad station downtown, to the tune of $664,150 in public funds, now great plans will be made for public outreach and education.
The $664,150 comes from a $600,000 planning grant from the High Speed Rail Authority and $200,000 in matching funds from the City of Merced's general fund.
You actually cannot translate the hogwash the Merced City Council can get into when, with alternating connivance and passive aggression of staff, they find themselves caught in the muddy wallow of untruth.
The idea, apparently, if idea is the word to dignify it, was to circumvent the Brown Act, governing public access to public meetings, in order to have a committee of the "right sort of people" aka usual suspects do something -- the word "planning" was generally associated with their task -- without the meddlesome difficulties of a transparent public process governed by the Brown Act.
Whoever was the author of this idea was one of a number of secrets being carefully guarded last night as it was orphaned and cast out of the meeting until early October.
The ad hoc committee had chosen a firm of UC credentialed architects and urban planners, represented by a slim, 40-ish fellow who claimed at one point that in his 15-year career he had authored "2,000 plans." He was also a professor at UC Berkeley (aka the Real UC). His hands fluttered helplessly as he failed to answer direct questions one after another, to the point that one wondered how or why the ad hoc committee had considered his firm. Muttering darkly about the need for engineers, trusted locals, collecting their fees to represent a competitor to the aesthetic favorite, made their pitches. Two other firms did not appear, possibly because they had the good taste to avoid more exposure to the ad hoc kangaroos.
It was an absurd, chaotic performance, representatives of bidders mixed in with members of the public and local advocates. Even Lee Boese Jr., the developer/orthodontist, showed up and was duly called out by Mayor Stan Thurston for collecting $80,000 by one of the contending firms for "public outreach." About the time Boese mentioned Elaine Trevino, those familiar with the recent history of Merced groaned as the specter of a new real estate boom shimmered before us.
In fact, public outreach was never a cliche away from the lips of staff, council members or advocates for one firm or another. Everyone was outreaching like crazy for the big ring of $664,150.
Notwithstanding the mayor's pleas that the council is a policy body, not staff, we think what was decided was for the council to hold a public hearing in October. Then, perhaps, 67the competing firms would present their arguments for the loot and then the council would decide. That would mean that council members would have to read the proposals and staff would have to be able to answer all questions, all singing in choral harmony for their $600,000 plus of public funds.
In other words, the council did not accept the recommendation of its ad hoc committee and decided to do the whole process over again, in a manner less subject to legal challenge. The exact reasons are unknown and in guarding that great secret, the council members and staff wandered around in swirls and eddies of rhetoric about public outreach that passed all human understanding. But two-thirds of a million bucks of public funds is a large pile and perhaps the council or wise advisors not present at the meeting last night had cautioned that it might be best to obey the legal niceties.
On the other hand, that could be completely the opposite of the case. The High Speed Rail Authority is no friend of public participation in its decisions and its idea of public outreach is propaganda under its strict control.
The ad hoc committee seemed in retrospect just like it seemed when it was initiated: a way to get around public participation, transparency, and, more specifically, a way to lock out the group most clearly affected by the proposed station: downtown businesses. However, one must distinguish clearly between downtown businesses and the owners of downtown real estate. Existing businesses will be driven out of their businesses; owners of the real estate will make huge profits. Presumably, downtown landlords on the ad hoc committee did not wish to listen to the bleats of their shorn tenants on the way to small business oblivion.
Meanwhile, South Merced residents' access to most of the city's goods and services will be effectively blocked or channeled into one or two overpasses. And what will that mean to ambulance response time and especially the time during heavy traffic periods it will take to get patients to the new hospital built on the northern outskirts of North Merced?