Upset At Call For Open Hearings On Project Proposals, Mayor Nixes Sarathy Nomination

Upland Mayor Debbie Stone this week abruptly rescinded her appointment of Brinda Sarathy to the planning commission.
Stone said she had done so because she disagreed with sentiments that Sarathy had expressed suggesting it was inadvisable for Upland and local government in general to rush toward approving development projects in the midst of the coronavirus crisis while members of the public are precluded from fully participating in the meetings where those proposals are considered and voted upon. Stone said she had not known about Sarathy’s views when she made the appointment. Sarathy’s tractate on the matter had appeared in the May 8, 2020 edition of the Sentinel.
Sarathy had not been Stone’s first choice for the planning commission. She had originally tapped Thomas Grahn, who currently works in the planning department with the City of Ontario, and Lorraine Kindred, the vice president for public affairs with National CORE, a development company, for the panel which considers land use issues in the city and makes recommendations on them to the city council. Grahn’s selection was ratified by the remainder of the council, but Kindred’s professional relationship to Jeff Burum and James Previti, Jr., who both have interest in property and development projects in Upland, was deemed a potential conflict. Her nomination was not confirmed.
Stone then chose Sarathy, a professor of environmental analysis at Pitzer College and the director of the Robert Redford Conservancy for Southern California Sustainability, to fill the post, the term for which begins next month and will last four years.
Sarathy was widely considered to be the most qualified of the dozen applicants for the position. It was anticipated her confirmation would be made without complication at the Monday, June 22 meeting. Instead, as the meeting was getting underway, Stone called for the removal of the agenda item relating to Sarathy’s appointment.
“I want to give a little bit of a brief background on why my decision was to remove it,” the mayor said. “Because I’m withdrawing my appointment of Brinda Sarathy, I know this will disappoint some people, and it appears to come at the last minute, so I want to explain how and why I plan to move forward. When the city council failed to approve my last nominee, I thought the most transparent and quickest way to fill the seat would be to go back to the results from the interview process from December and pick someone from the applications that has already been vetted. When I did that, Brinda’s application was ranked at the top, and I hoped that she would get the support from the council. So we contacted Brinda and confirmed she was still interested, and when she said yes, staff put the appointment on the agenda.”
Stone continued, “Only after the agenda was published was I made aware of an op-ed that Brinda had published and circulated on social media. And in that op-ed, Brinda accused the city of polarizing the city and the pandemic and trampling on people’s rights. Brinda is certainly entitled to her opinion, and free to express her views however she likes, but I don’t have to agree with them. As the mayor, I believe the views she expressed in the article are incompatible with being a planning commissioner. If I had known this is how she felt before the agenda last week, I would never have proposed her appointment. I want to be clear that my decision to pull the appointment is based solely on my policy differences with Brinda. It’s not personal. I feel badly for her. That’s why I contacted her over the weekend to tell her what I was thinking and to apologize. I want to do the same right now and apologize to her publicly. Brinda, I still respect your intelligence and commitment to the city. I just don’t think the planning commission is the right place, and I’m sorry that I have put you in this awkward position. I also want to apologize to my colleagues on the council. I know we all want to see the vacancy filled, so what I plan to do is reopen the application for the interview process as soon as possible.”
In the piece published by the Sentinel on May 8, Sarathy wrote, “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,” Sarathy asserted. “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.”
Sarathy continued, “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.”
-Mark Gutglueck

Leave a Reply