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MAY 28, 2004


What the Dormouse said

Auditing the Planning Department
By Betsey Culp

That mythical land known as the San Francisco City Hall is a very sociable place. On the first Friday of every month, the halls fill to the ignition point with alcohol fumes emanating from a roisterous art opening in one of the supervisor’s offices. But other events also enliven the space under the Big Dome.

Last Friday morning, for example, there was the Board of Supervisors City Planning Audit Select Committee Tea-Party. Were you there? The Supervisor from District 12 dropped by and filed this report:

I walked into Room 263, where a couple of Bosses were turning cartwheels, flipping their way through an audit of the Planning Department that the Budget Analyst compiled nearly two years ago. In June 2002, the news hadn’t been good. In May 2004, it still isn’t. But now people are willing to talk about it.

What’s wrong? If you read the report, it turns out that nothing is quite right. Not morale or communication. Not finances. And certainly not results. In a nutshell, there’s not much planning in Planning. Even Acting Planning Director Terrence Goodenough agreed.

The two Bosses were sitting at the tea-table in the front of the room, where they could keep their eyes on the guests. No. 3, Rod Weston, played mother, pouring imaginary tea from a large watering-can as he asked the others whether they preferred lemon or honey. (Misunderstanding his East Bay accent, they usually said they’d like money.) Next to him sat No. 6, Joe Weekly, his long legs stretched way out under the table.. Obviously the intellectual in the room, Weekly chimed in every so often with challenging riddles, such as why is a neighborhood like a donkey? (I knew the answer to that one: Because its neighs — nays — produce a lot of noise but little action.) Asking if anyone ultimately bears the responsibility for interdepartmental coordination, he answered the question himself, in a phrase worthy of Joseph Heller: The mayor may or may not.

A small furry creature sat on the table between the Bosses, dozing through most of the party. The Dormouse, for it was he, occupied a miniature director’s chair, emblazoned on the back with the initials “GG.” Once in a while he muttered something like  “Delay today. Deliver tomorrow. Or next Tuesday. Or a week after neverday.” When he did, the Bosses and the guests all rushed forward and shoved him into a sugar-bowl which had the word “Harvard” painted on its side.

As honored guest, Terry Goodenough got to do most of the talking. I thought for a while he was going to act out the old joke, you know the one, where the marriage counselor says, “You’re right, Mr. Dumpling… You’re right, Mrs. Dumpling… They can’t both be right, Ms. Meñudo? Oh, you are so right!” He nodded in acquiescence at every accusation, only begging for a little time to get the department’s internal affairs in order before tackling its behavioral problems in dealing with the outside world. But even though he swayed back and forth in apparent accommodation to every passing breeze, I can attest that the man has a backbone. He dug in his heels & reared up on his hind legs to defend his own when Squire Weston suggested trimming the top echelon of departmental managers and replacing them with two or three senior staffers who would serve at the will of the director. (I don’t know if you read the report of the Society to Prevent Urban Disasters, but this was exactly what SPUD recommended as well.) No, Goodenough said firmly, that idea is “not overly acceptable.” I don’t recall if he wanted lemon or honey.

The party went on for quite a while. Some of the guests got into a food fight, throwing hot-buttered opinions and cold comments at each other. The Dormouse climbed out of the sugar-bowl and wandered up and down the table, sucking the seriousness from every suggestion. No one seemed to know how to get him out of there.

In other words, it was just your usual run-of-the-mill City Hall tea-party.

Except for one of the guests.

The first speaker who approached the microphone stood there looking slightly out of place, a Don Quixote in the world of Lewis Carroll. No, he wasn’t a planning expert. No, he wasn’t even a Big Dome denizen. Marco Pignetti was there to tell the Bosses how to hunt the elusive snark called “Communication,” and how, once captured, it could be used to lure other critters into making genuine changes in the way a system works.

Joe Weekly pricked up his long ears. In the 1990s, Weekly said, one of the big problems was a “clear disconnect between Planning decision-makers and the neighborhoods.” Beginning in 2000, district-elected supervisors had occasionally managed to grab hold of a few snark’s feathers, but the creature itself would never let them near. Were there better ways to pursue it, he asked.

Of course, replied Don Marco. But you have to be willing to leave the Big Dome to find them. It’s a matter of opening up the tea-party and inviting more guests. Even more, it’s a matter of sitting down beforehand and figuring out who all the guests should be.

He actually said “stakeholder,” a word that for me always conjures up images of a vampire slayer. But I think he meant that a party is pretty same-old same-old unless there’s a good mix of guests.

Pignetti talked about a couple of specific programs that had worked elsewhere — Future Search and the World Cafe. Ikea had used Future Search, he said, and the FAA called the program “a minor miracle.” Joe Weekly’s pink fuzzy ears began to twitch with excitement, and I saw Terrence Goodenough furiously scribble down a note to himself. Inside the sugar-bowl, the Dormouse squirmed, as though he was having a bad dream.

In the end, I guess this was one of those parties where nothing really happened. No one actually poured any tea. No one punched anyone out; no one hugged anyone. It was all pretty much of a muchness.

But I left thinking that all this madness might have a method after all.

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San Franciscans will have a chance to  put World Café principles  into practice in conjunction with the Biotechnology Industry Organization’s annual international meeting in early June:

The Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA)

The SF Department of Public Health

Reclaim the Commons

and a growing list of co-sponsors

invite you to a groundbreaking, participatory democracy forum ...


Biotech in San Francisco

A Whole-Community Dialogue

Some voices in government, community and industry are advocating biotech as an engine for economic growth in San Francisco

A City ordinance passed last year calls for use of the “precautionary principle,” requiring a holistic and participatory approach in all City decision-making

A City-initiated Bioscience Task Force is preparing a report on how to implement a biotech industry expansion appropriately

▪ You have a unique opportunity to shape the community voice in an innovative, inclusive participatory forum using the World Café process

Monday, June 7, 6 –10 pm
California College of the Arts
1111 Eighth Street (near 16th and Wisconsin),  San Francisco, CA
for directions, see http://www.cca.edu/cgi-bin/dad?dbase=reach&record=directions
Event facilitated by the
Neighborhood Assemblies Network (NAN)

Between June 3 and 9 international biotech industry leaders will hold their annual “BIO” meeting at Moscone Center, while thousands of activists stage “Reclaim the Commons,” a series of events promoting the vision of a world driven by public good rather than private profit.

In the midst of this divide, hundreds of ordinary San Franciscans from highly diverse perspectives, including notable city officials, will engage as equals in genuine conversation. They will consider the biotech industry’s potential presence in S.F. neighborhoods such as Bayview/Hunters Point, Potrero Hill, Dogpatch, Mission Bay, and South of Market. Using World Café, a large-group dialogue process, this popular assembly will have a unique opportunity to frame the discussion themselves and make a holistic inquiry:

What are the potential impacts — good or bad — on the economy, local jobs, the environment, housing, public safety, traffic, cultural diversity, healthcare, social justice, neighborhood feel, public perception, community bonds, and city politics? How do we avoid the worst-case scenarios and help create the best? What questions, concerns, and hopes are foremost in the community’s mind?

Space is limited. Early advance sign-up is strongly recommended.

No expert knowledge required. The event is free.

For more information, or to sign up, please contact Karen Heisler or Marc Tognotti at (415) 643-3434 or sfbiotech@hotmail.com