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CITY GROWS AND DIVERSIFIES, THE PLANNING COMMISSION SHOULD TOO
Council subcommittee ignores record applicant pool for Planning Commission. chooses reappointment of two seats over inclusion
An architect, three downtown business owners, a project manager, a short-term rental (STR) manager, a STR owner, a tattoo artist and homeless advocate, a nurse and former Council member — a record 15 applications were received for three seats on the Planning Commission. The applicants truly reflect the diverse backgrounds of Twentynine Palms residents, and we applaud these citizens for stepping up.
From this field, the Council Planning Commission subcommittee of Mayor Pro Tem Steven Bilderain and Council member Octavious Scott are recommending that Eileen Leslie, a restaurant and STR owner living in District 4, be appointed to the empty seat and that current Commissioners Jason Dickson and Max Walker, both from District 5, be reappointed. These recommendations are up for approval by the full Council at the Wednesday, February 15 meeting.
The City Code of Ordinances that establishes the Planning Commission states “The Planning Commission shall represent differing segments of the community.”Yet for the past several years, the Planning Commission lacked the diversity called for in the ordinance. Due in part to a lack of applications, Council has been compelled to appoint whoever applied for empty seats and reappoint existing Commissioners. This resulted in the most recent Planning Commission consisting of four men and one woman, four of whom present as white. The Commissioners resided in Districts 2, 3 and 5, leaving 1 and 4 unrepresented.
One may wonder…why were there so few applications? In the past, the City ran advertisements in the classifieds section of the Hi-Desert Star and the Desert Trail and did little else to promote open seats. In 2021, for instance, the City received just two applications for two seats.
This lack of outreach on City commissions is why California passed the Maddy Act in 2017. The Act is designed to encourage public participation in appointed committees by mandating the public distribution of a “Local Appointments List” containing all appointed committees and commissions, along with when the appointments expire. The City, apparently unaware of this mandate, was out of compliance until the lack of a list was pointed out in late 2022. The City then published an “in progress” list.
While the appointment of Leslie adds needed gender, district and professional diversity, the Commission still falls short. Leslie Pahana, Jason Dickson and Max Walker work on Base and Jim Krushat is a retired intelligence officer who has worked in the defense industry. That’s four out of five Commissioners associated with the defense industry or with the Base. We don’t have an issue with these individual Commissioners, but collectively it is difficult to see how these Commissioners represent “differing segments of the community” as stated in the ordinance.
Although Planning Commissioners are required to reapply every four years, Council members are inclined to reappoint existing Commissioners unless there is cause to remove them. This makes an appointment to Planning Commission effectively a lifetime appointment. In the case of the 2023 reappointments, the City is codifying appointments made in 2019 when poor publicity impacted the candidate pool. The 2021 appointments suffered from a similar lack of candidates, resulting in a Planning Commission lacking diverse representation in gender, ethnicity, location, profession and employer.
With 15 applications, the 2023 round of appointments is an opportunity to finally make a correction and build a Planning Commission reflective of the City. Yet the reappointments of Dickson and Walker guarantee a Commission majority that is white presenting, either employed by the Base or working in the defense industry and concentrated in just two Council Districts. Local professionals not associated with the Base or defense are locked out as are non-white Twentynine Palms community members. Also locked out is representation for Districts 1 and 3. The westside of Twentynine Palms has gone without representation on the Planning Commission for several years.
What are possible solutions to this dilemma?
Residents can call for Walker and / or Dickson to step aside — they probably weren’t aware of the large number of applications when they announced seeking reappointment. The number of applications could be read as a call for change.
Residents can call on Council to reject the recommendations of the Planning Commission subcommittee and consider the other applications.
Residents can sue the City for having the opportunity to correct the situation and failing to do so
Council could instruct the subcommittee to ignore Walker and Dickson’s prior Commission service in their deliberations and reconsider all applications.
Council can enact term limits for Planning Commission
Council can research other models for Planning Commissions and rethink the Commission
It is thrilling to see so many citizens advocate for change by applying and hopefully there will be even more applications for the two seats up in 2025. In the interest of transparency, we are attaching the applications, obtained via a public information request, to this article.
The appointment of Eileen Leslie is a good first step. But we are asking Council to reconsider these automatic reappointments so we can build a Planning Commission that truly reflects the “differing segments” of our City as stated in the ordinance.
Do you agree with the Subcommittee’s decisions? Share your thoughts in the comments below or in our live chat in the Substack app.