Concern That Upland Solons Will Use Emergency To Stifle Dissent

Next week, eyes throughout the State of California will be focused on Upland, as its city council is perched on the verge of testing the limits of how far the normal standards of open government can be suspended under the state of emergency declared by Governor Gavin Newsom in the face of the coronavirus outbreak. At issue is whether the council will be able to exploit the exclusion of the public from direct participation in the forum of a public hearing to minimize the flack its members anticipate they will sustain by granting approval to a project proposal that has garnered substantial controversy and opposition.
Bridge Development Partners is seeking go-ahead for a 201,096-square foot distribution center that is to be leased to on-line retail giant Amazon for 50 years.
The distribution center is to receive merchandise delivered by 18-wheeler semi-trucks as well as airplanes from nearby Cable Airport, and then serve as the platform from which hundreds of vans carrying that merchandise to Amazon customers will be dispatched, entailing upward of 4,000 vehicle trips daily.
The project garnered intense scrutiny from Upland’s residents which evolved into widespread opposition after the city permitted Bridge to use a so-called mitigated negative declaration process rather than a full-blown environmental impact report in completing the environmental certification for the project. Bridge, by offering the city what was originally quantified as a $10 million deal sweetener, garnered the support of city staff for the project. When resident opposition intensified, Bridge upped the $10 million offer, consisting of what was termed an in-lieu of tax fee, to $16 million.
Residents opposing the project see what they consider to be unmistakable signs that an imperative to see the project approved is gripping City Hall, such that a complete and comprehensive evaluation of the project taking into consideration the various perspectives on, and full range of the objections to, the project will be overlooked by the city council. The vast majority of those residents have come to consider the council’s approval of the project as being inevitable.
One such indicator, project opponents point out, consisted of the planning commission’s advisory vote on the project, one that is not binding but which the city council can use as political cover to divert any criticism leveled at it over its decision-making. The commission’s original vote on the project, taken on February 12, with Commissioner Alexander Novikov absent, was recorded as a 3-to-2 decision to reject the site plan for the project, with members Gary Schwary, Linden Brouse and Yvette Walker declining to approve the architectural and landscape documents and engineering drawings for the proposal, and commissioners Robin Aspinall and Carolyn Anderson endorsing them. Over the next two weeks, the members of the commission were subjected to pressure from project proponents inside and outside City Hall, as well as lobbyists for Bridge Development Partners. On February 26, the commission reconsidered the project, and then took a follow-on vote, unprecedented in Upland history, to undo the February 12 decision. With Novikov present, the commission reconsidered the matter, at which point Novikov joined with Walker in registering opposition to the site plan, while Schwary and Brouse reversed themselves, resulting in a 4-to-2 vote recommending that the city council approve the project’s site plan.
With the advent of the coronavirus crisis and Governor Newsom’s mandate that standards of social distancing and individual and family isolation be enforced such that public gatherings are to be prohibited, city councils up and down the state have instituted protocols whereby the traditional meetings in which members of the public are provided access into municipal meeting chambers and are indulged in participating in the meetings by means of being able to address their respective council as part of the deliberative process and prior to a vote on any issues or items under consideration have been curtailed. For practical purposes, this means that the public is not allowed into any particular chamber collectively nor for the most part individually, and input is provided remotely by video/audio hook-up or by phone.
The City of Upland has scheduled a special meeting to be devoted to the city council’s consideration of the Amazon project on April 1. Substantial numbers of city residents have petitioned the city to postpone that hearing until such time as the public meeting restrictions are no longer in place, their contention being that the myriad of issues involved in the Bridge/Amazon project will be given short shrift by the council if the public is not permitted to make its case against the project in a way in which it can engage with the council directly.
At this Monday’s council meeting, Councilman Bill Velto said there was “an important issue I have to bring up now. I want to make sure this council makes the right conscious decisions going forward with regard to future council meetings and planning commission meetings, as strong consideration need be made to hear only agenda items that are required due to legal consequences or health and safety, and that those items that are extremely controversial within the community be placed in suspense or on hold until this pandemic is no longer an issue, and the city is able to have council meetings or planning commission meetings whereby the entire public has access to speak freely and without necessary use of telecommunications. This action by the council would not impact these controversial projects. If the pandemic is as bad as we’re being told, no construction or any further activity will begin for quite a long time.”
Councilwoman Janice Elliott thereafter at the meeting proposed that “we have a special meeting prior to April 1 with the purpose to discuss temporary emergency policies pertaining to the coronavirus.” Elliott said that at the meeting she was proposing, “We could discuss postponing the April 1 meeting at which we will be discussing the Bridge development.”
Velto seconded that motion, but it failed 2-to-3, garnering only Elliott’s and Velto’s support, with Mayor Debbie Stone and councilmen Ricky Felix and Rudy Zuniga rejecting the idea.
While the April 1 meeting is yet scheduled to convene, yesterday the city clerk’s office posted notice of a meeting to take place on March 31 which in all respects appears to correspond with the one proposed by the Councilwoman Elliott on Monday, replete with an item that would allow for the discussion of the suspension of council and planning commission meetings relating to controversial issues or projects until conventional hearings accommodating the full range of public input can be held. The agenda for the March 31 meeting lists as one of its items to “discuss the actions taken by the city to date regarding the coronavirus emergency and give direction to the city manager regarding future actions.” Another item bears the heading “City Meetings During Covid-19 Emergency” and calls for the council to “discuss and provide direction to the city manager.”
Meanwhile, the Sentinel was told by one city resident that he and another resident had put up $5,000 each and another city resident had thrown $1,000 toward retaining an attorney who is to work on filing a request for an injunction to prevent the city from proceeding with the April 1 meeting relating to the Bridge/Amazon project on the grounds that allowing the council to consider the project under current public meeting restrictions would abridge the public’s Constitutional rights to be properly heard on issues of public import. The matter has a larger implication, he said, in that the Upland City Council appears to be moving toward using the state mandates to conduct the public’s business in a way that is calculated to benefit development interests by shielding the council from public scrutiny and accountability for its actions, which he said could set a precedent that might then be replicated anywhere in the Golden State where a governmental entity is purposed to render favorable treatment to an applicant seeking approval for a project or undertaking that is at odds with the general public’s preferences, and is seeking to use the emergency mandates to mute opposition and avoid accountability.
-Mark Gutglueck

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