I am writing to take issue with your editorial published in the Endnote section, December 2018: “Respecting process, committee volunteers.” I beg to differ about many points you made.
Your editorial suggests that the public had ample opportunity to attend the meetings of the Ad Hoc Master Plan Selection Committee. However, I am on the city mailing list and I never received a notice of these hearings. This ad hoc committee was not even listed in any emails I could locate, among the list of boards providing notice of public hearings. Neither are these hearings available for video review on the city website.
It should also be noted that there was almost nil opportunity for public involvement on the ad hoc committee itself: there was only one opening for a resident member of the general public. All the other members were preselected from existing boards/committees, and of course the preference for a former commissioner (for the other “resident” vacancy) was also self-limiting.
The ad hoc committee was created on June 29 and had decided on their final recommendation by August 29.
Only the minutes of the July 30 meeting are available on the city website. These minutes show that the committee was by no means in full agreement, going into applicant interviews, over the superiority of DPZ’s candidacy to that of MKSK. In fact, several of the members, as well as the planning director, expressed concerns that neighborhood engagement, a key component of the 2020 plan, was not in DPZ’s demonstrated skill set compared to MKSK. Similar concerns were the crux of the controversy at the October 8 commission meeting referenced in the EndNote.
I watched the entire discussion of this agenda item on the videotape of the October 8 meeting, parts of it several times over. Never did I hear a commissioner remark, “You may be a big deal, or think you are, but here you are not.” Nor did I hear any commissioner say anything that could be construed as having “chastised [Mr. Duany] personally.”
I think misgivings on the part of the commission were warranted: I certainly was disturbed by certain of Andres Duany’s remarks at the October 8 commission meeting, In speaking of how he would conduct “charrettes” or neighborhood focus groups.
Duany then went on to say that he wanted the focus groups to be based on a random sample, based on a methodology determined by DPZ: he did not want attendees to “self-select.” In other words, he does not want just anyone who is interested in the master plan for the future of Birmingham neighborhoods to have a voice at the meetings. He and DPZ will decide who they want to hear from, even though presumably the plan would affect all residents and taxpayers in the neighborhoods, regardless of age.
Duany was also not responsive to the commissioners’ concerns about the relatively small amount ($30,000) of DPZ’s proposed budget allocated to community engagement, and to the concern that DPZ’s proposal was not what the city’s RFP (Request For Proposal) had asked for. He evaded these questions at length, giving several contradictory answers.
The vote at a subsequent meeting, the question having been postponed until all seven commissioners could be there, was four to three in favor of DPZ. Your editorial stated that the commission had “insult[ed]” Mr. Duany and “disparaged” the findings of its own ad hoc committee by pointing out the defects in DPZ’s proposal. Your editorial, as did a couple of the commissioners on October 8, implied that the commission lacked the discretion to reject the recommendation of the ad hoc committee. This subverts the whole idea of elected representatives and the Open Meetings Act.
The ad hoc committee was appointed and served in an advisory capacity only. Public input there was theoretically possible but effectively limited. The commission had the right and duty to require the candidates to appear again, on the public record, especially since the ad hoc committee was not unanimous in their endorsement of DPZ and also found their proposal incomplete. DPZ was the high bidder and they were not automatically entitled to this $298,000 contract.
The commission is elected and they (as Duany himself pointed out many times) are the deciders. They have the right and the duty to vote their conscience and vote according to what they think is best for the city, and we as their electors expect nothing less. Three of the commissioners exercised their right to prefer DKSK, because DKSK responded to their concerns as voiced in the RFP and had the most detailed plan for community engagement. Having reviewed all of the records available to the public, I agree with the minority.