Long about the 2-hour, 6-minute mark of the city of Half Moon Bay’s “2021 Priority Setting Session” last week, Deborah Penrose unmuted herself, both literally and figuratively. The always amiable, usually amenable, retired physician had made a diagnosis and the prognosis for this meeting wasn’t good.
“I’m probably alone in this,” she started graciously. “A lot of what we’re doing is a lot of talk. … I’d like to see us attack a priority list with actual plans to actually do something.”
And there it was. City staff, elected officials and, most importantly, dozens of local citizens had devoted hours to two “listening sessions” followed by this marathon that had another hour to go, and the doctor had seen enough. She was saying what many observers were thinking. Every city needs priorities but making priorities can’t in and of itself be the government’s priority.
In fact, Penrose wasn’t alone. City Councilman Harvey Rarback said, with respect to this exercise, the council had been “moving piles” rather than accomplishing anything. He went on to say he and his colleagues “talk and talk and talk” and that the priority session was “an exercise in virtue signaling.”
There is certainly truth to the critique. In years past, the city has prioritized traffic mitigation, affordable housing and immigration issues. You would be hard-pressed to suggest the city had made any progress on these difficult problems. It sometimes seems the city’s priorities come from Cleveland or Poughkeepsie rather than the San Mateo County coast. There is nothing particular to our affordable housing woes, in other words.
The March 24 priority meeting itself was overly long, filled with the happy talk and terms of art common to facilitated meetings everywhere. It was not clear when it was all said and done that the people of Half Moon Bay were any closer to seeing their priorities realized.
None of this is meant to disparage the facilitators themselves, who were merely doing the job for which they are paid with your tax dollars. We also don’t mean to suggest that some goal-setting isn’t in order. Obviously, you have to know where you are headed if you are ever going to get there.
City Manager Bob Nisbet promised that an action plan was on his list of action items. He said a punch list of sorts would be fashioned from the City Council’s priority list and it would be tackled in turn.
We trust his sincerity and wish him luck. It won’t be easy given the broad scope of these priorities and the fact that making a difference with something like “economic recovery” or “climate resilience” is really beyond the scope of one small coastal city.
Here is our plea. Perhaps there are lessons to be learned from this year’s elongated priority planning process. Maybe there are more effective, less time-consuming ways to hear from residents. It’s possible we don’t need a facilitator for a process that has been handled in-house before. For now, let’s stop moving columns on the spreadsheet and start moving the needle on the city’s priorities.
— Clay Lambert