Upland’s Use Of Crisis To Exclude Public From Its Deliberative Process Decried

By Brinda Sarathy
This past week, “freedom” protesters rallied in parts of Southern California and elsewhere, in defiance of state and county social distancing measures to prevent the rapid spread of COVID-19.  Many protesters were tired of staying at home and asserted that the economic and social impacts of sheltering in place posed greater harms than the risk of infection, illness, and death by coronavirus.
There is no question that individual rights of free assembly are in tension with requirements to restrict our movement and mass gathering in public spaces. Medical experts rightly note that physical distancing serves as a bulwark to protect public health and, as a scientist and academic, I fully agree.
Yet, if the public is being asked to radically alter individual behaviors for the greater good, then we should commensurately expect our elected officials to not abuse the COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity to ram through development projects that many believe will harm other arenas of the public welfare over the long run. Unfortunately, some municipalities are doing just this: they are using the COVID-19 emergency as cover to fast track highly contested projects, skirt environmental regulations, and further benefit those already in positions of power and influence, and all without being fully accountable to their actual constituents.
Over the past month, in my own town of Upland (ostensibly the “City of Gracious Living”), I have witnessed COVID-19 restrictions being weaponized by a majority of elected officials and city staff to disallow in-person city council and planning commission meetings.  While it is imperative to disallow in-person attendance on the grounds of protecting public health, our elected officials should similarly pause decision-making around highly controversial developments, on the grounds of protecting democracy.
Instead, participation at Upland City Council and planning commission sessions are now mediated through Zoom calls and phone-in access for public comment. These remote sessions drastically blunt public participation and further diminish the accountability of our elected officials to their constituents.  Recently, via Zoom, the city council voted through the highly contested Bridge Development Project on Foothill Boulevard (the rumored tenant for which is Amazon). This project has seen major public outcry as residents have expressed legitimate concerns about its long-term negative impacts to quality of life, and increased levels of air pollution and traffic. Similarly, in another remote session, the majority of Upland City Council green-lit the Villa Serena development of 65 homes on a flood control channel, despite every single member of the public who called into the meeting opposing the proposal, and despite Upland’s own planning commission having voted down the project at an earlier, in-person pre-COVID-19 session.
Today, many members of our community are dealing with added child-care responsibilities, lost incomes, and heightened anxieties. How is it possible for concerned citizens and residents to stay on top of local government decision-making and to have a meaningful public voice, in these precarious times?  City officials should exercise prudence and place a moratorium on decision-making around highly controversial projects that have the potential to significantly impact the public good over the long-term. The COVID-19 crisis will eventually pass, and hopefully our individual actions and limitations on personal freedoms will have saved lives. In a similar spirit, our elected officials should look to protect democracy and preserve meaningful public engagement, rather than using this crisis to fast-track projects that may not benefit the greater good.
Brinda Sarathy, Ph.D. is a professor of environmental analysis and director of the Robert Redford Conservancy for Southern California Sustainability at Pitzer College and an Upland Resident

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