48hillsabagmeeting
The ABAG Admin Committee meets with less than 45 minutes to review a complex (and ever-changing ) merger agreement with MTC, whose chair, Dave Cortese, controlled the whole process

NOVEMBER 12, 2015 — An overture by SEIU Local 1021, which represents the workers at the Association of Bay Area Governments, averted a showdown over the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s proposed hostile takeover of ABAG planning staff and opened the way to a last-minute agreement on merging the two agencies that was unanimously approved on October 28 by MTC and the ABAG Administrative Committee.

The takeover proposal, however, is not dead. According to the agreement, it will be “pre-empted” if the two agencies approve a yet-to-be-devised merger plan before July 1, 2016. If they fail to meet that deadline, apparently MTC’s unilateral bid for “consolidation” would, vampire-like, revive, and ABAG would once again be stalked by its partner agency.

The union action that precipitated this turn of events was driven by two considerations: MTC workers have no union representation, and MTC’s plans to withdraw $4 million from ABAG would bleed the monies that fund the pensions of current and retired ABAG employees. Concerned about the potential loss of membership and threats to retirement security, SEIU asked MTC Commissioner and San Francisco Supervisor David Campos to reach out to the MTC Chair, Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese. Cortese was the sponsor of the proposal for MTC to absorb ABAG’s planning staff. Campos set up an October 22 meeting at the MetroCenter with Cortese, four ABAG employees and himself.

On Oct. 28 I spoke with James Muller, one of the four employees who attended the meeting. Cortese’s “big concern,” said Muller, was to protect the compensation and benefits of the 13 ABAG planners coveted by MTC. Neither the commission nor the MTC Executive Director had realized that morale was low in the ABAG workforce, and that people were angry and afraid—an obliviousness that speaks volumes about labor relations at MTC. Muller described Campos as “a great facilitator” whose mediating skills enabled an initially contentious exchange to morph into a productive conversation.

“The concerns of the union were raised,” Campos told me, “and out of those concerns….the idea of a resolution started to take shape,” crucially expedited by the ABAG employees’ support for a full merger, albeit one that protects the unionized employees’ benefits. SEIU agreed to play a key role in connecting ABAG and MTC.

That must have been a huge relief to Cortese, given the aggressive letters that the union and its law firm had sent to MTC in September, stating among other things, that they would oppose any state legislation authorizing the transportation agency to take over land use planning for the Bay Area.

The MTC chair went to work amending the resolution that had been posted online on Friday, October 23, with the rest of MTC’s October 28 agenda. The resolution, No. 4210, had MTC calling all the shots:

Principles for Functional Consolidation of MTC-ABAG Planning Departments

  1. MTC shall provide the remaining six months of FY 2015-16 planning funds at current levels, unless the functional consolidation and transition is accomplished sooner, as detailed in Amendment #2 to the MTC/ABAG Interagency Agreement (Attachment C).
  2. MTC shall offer positions at equal or better compensation to 13 ABAG planners through a right of first refusal retention process, and together with MTC’s planning department, shall create an integrated regional planning department (regional planning department).
  3. The regional planning department shall be employed and receive performance reviews through MTC. The regional planning department shall serve both the MTC Commission and the ABAG Executive Board.
  4. Creation of the regional planning department shall respect and maintain the existing statutory authority of MTC Commission and ABAG Executive Board. Further, the respective agency roles in preparing/approving the Regional Housing Needs Analysis [sic] (RHNA) and Plan Bay Area will be unchanged.
  5. After consultation with ABAG, MTC shall annually adopt a resolution identifying the scope of staffing services to support the work of the ABAG Executive Board, including the ability of the ABAG Executive Board to commission additional studies and other activities.
  6. ABAG will retain two planners to perform RHNA and five employees for Bay Trail and resiliency work (based on FY 2015-16 staffing levels).
  7. BATA [Bay Area Toll Authority] shall continue to fund Bay Trail activities at current funding levels and the function will remain the responsibility of ABAG.
  8. MTC shall provide $1.2 million in transition funding to ABAG through at least FY 2020-21, as detailed in Attachment B. The funding will be directed to ABAG’s pension liability or other specific expense to improve the financial stability of the agency, and will be subject to an annual fiscal audit.
  9. With the exception of principle #8 above, MTC shall retain the remaining planning funds (that were subject to the MTC/ABAG Interagency Agreement prior to Amendment #2) beginning in FY 2016-17, consistent with the revised MTC/ABAG Funding Framework (Attachment B).
  10. In the event that question concerning representation of MTC employees arises, MTC will adhere to its adopted MTC employer-employee organization relations resolution and current Memorandum of Understanding with the Committee for Staff Representation while maintaining neutrality.
  11. MTC shall retain a consultant to conduct a merger study of MTC and ABAG in FY 2016-17. The study shall examine the policy, management, financial and legal issues associated with further integration, up to and including institutional merger between MTC and ABAG.

 

In seeking an agreement that both ABAG and MTC would approve, Cortese was operating under heavy constraints. Along with widespread resentment over MTC’s brazen power play, there were the limitations imposed by California’s sunshine law, the Brown Act. The law forbids a quorum of a legislative body from communicating outside of a public meeting. That meant that a majority of the voting members of MTC and the ABAG Administrative Committee would not know about his proposed amendments until the meetings on October 28.

 

Cortese had another motive for brokering a deal besides solicitude for ABAG’s unionized staff: the wish to avoid a deadlock on the 28th. Rumor has it that the commissioners would have split 9-9 on his and MTC Executive Director Heminger’s takeover proposal. Because the unamended proposal didn’t come up for a vote, we’ll never know which way the commission would have gone.

What we do know is that since MTC’s prior meeting on September 23, concern about, not to say opposition to, the transportation agency’s unilateral consolidation of the regional planning staffs continued to grow beyond the already-substantial roster detailed in 48 hills on October 11. By October 28, letters asking for a more deliberative and inclusive approach had also arrived from the towns of Moraga, Tiburon, and Fairfax; the cities of Larkspur, Dublin, Novato, Oakland, and American Canyon; the Contra Costa Mayors Conference and the Alameda County Mayors’ Conference; the Santa Clara City Managers Association; Local 21, AFL-CIO, Professional & Technical Engineers; the Bay Area Planning Directors Steering Committee; the League of Women Voters of the Bay Area; Greenbelt Alliance; the San Jose Mercury News; and 14th District Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla of Concord.

The MTC proposal was endorsed by SPUR, the Bay Area Council, SFBARF, Joint Venture-Silicon Valley Network, the North Bay Leadership Council and [email protected] Home, a non-profit advocating affordable housing in Silicon Valley, and former State Senator Darrell Steinberg, the author of SB 375.

On October 28 MTC was scheduled to meet at 9:45 a.m. A special meeting of the ABAG Administrative Committee was scheduled to start an hour earlier. The Admin Committee, as it’s familiarly known, is the executive board of the ABAG Executive Board, authorized to act in a timely manner when the larger body is unable to do so. This was such a moment.

One of the many peculiarities of the governance of ABAG and MTC is that four members of the ten-member ABAG Administrative Committee—Cortese, ABAG President and Clayton Councilmember Julie Pierce, Solano County Supervisor Jim Spering, Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty, and Napa County Supervisor Mark Luce—are also MTC commissioners. This is the committee that will represent ABAG in the merger planning process. It’s perplexing, then, that three of these officials—Pierce, Spering, and Haggerty—also sit on the nine-member MTC Planning Committee, which will represent MTC in the merger planning process; Spering is the committee’s chair. The problem of divided loyalties is blatant.

Posted online on October 26, the agenda for the Admin Committee’s special meeting contained only one action/information item: “Report on ABAG-MTC Strategy.” No actual report was posted before the meeting.

My BART train arrived at the Lake Merritt station at 8:50am. On the escalator up to the street, I noticed Cortese standing beside me. We greeted each other, crossed the street, and walked into the MetroCenter. I went straight to the Admin Committee meeting on the right side of the MetroCenter; he headed off to the left. When I entered the downstairs conference room, the meeting had yet to start, because everyone was waiting for him.

Another Admin Committee meeting could have started without Cortese, but not this one. After people wondered out loud where he was, I said that he and I had gotten out of the BART station together, and that once inside the MetroCenter, he’d gone elsewhere.

A handout lay on the conference table, and I took a copy. Entitled “Association of Bay Area Governments Administrative Committee Resolution No. 12-15,” it read as follows:

WHEREAS, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) is considering Resolution 4210, a functional consolidation of the planning departments of MTC and ABAG; and

WHEREAS, MTC Resolution 4210 would directly impact ABAG and its personnel,

 

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that

  1. ABAG requests that MTC approve the full FY 2015-16 funding for ABAG; and
  2. MTC and ABAG shall expedite the retention of a mutually acceptable consultant to conduct a jointly-funded merger study and a merger implementation plan of MTC and ABAG to be completed by June 1, 2016. The study shall examine the policy, management, financial and legal issues associated with further integration, up to and including institutional merger between MTC and ABAG, and shall set forth the specific plans, benchmarks, and milestones for implementation. The plan shall be referred to as the proposed ABAG/MTC Merger Implementation Plan (MIP). The study and the plan shall be governed by the joint MTC Planning and ABAG Administrative committees and be informed by the full participation of designated ABAG and MTC representatives through public meetings governed by the Brown Act, and
  3. In the event ABAG and MTC approve the MIP prior to July 1, 2016, each in its sole discretion, and by formal resolution, the MTC proposal for functional consolidation of planning departments shall be pre-empted and voided.

 

The foregoing was adopted by the Administrative Committee this 28th day of October, 2015.

 

At the bottom were spaces for the signatures of Pierce, ABAG Executive Director and Administrative Committee Secretary-Treasurer Ezra Rapport, and ABAG Legal Counsel Kenneth Moy.

In one key respect, this seemed like an improvement on MTC Resolution 4210. Now a merger consultant would be jointly chosen by both agencies. But the time frame for devising a merger plan—a mere eight months—was much shorter than the one specified in 4210, which gave MTC until the end of FY 2016-17 to complete a merger study—never mind devising and adopting an actual plan. And then there was Paragraph C, which indicated that if the agencies hadn’t agreed to consolidate their planning functions by the beginning of FY 2016, MTC would again pursue its takeover.

Cortese finally arrived—the time must have been a little after 9am, which meant that the committee had less than 45 minutes to deliberate and act before adjourning to the main auditorium where MTC would be held.

 

As it turned out, the Admin Committee meeting was the main event of the day, not only because of the decision taken but also because of how that decision was taken. For the first time, the power relations of the two board were on full display. For the small and medium-sized cities of the region, and anyone who cares about democratic governance, local control of land use, and social justice in the Bay Area, the sight was sobering.

The proceedings showcased the disparate tactical and rhetorical skills of the electeds who preside over each agency, to Pierce’s disadavantage. Cortese is in the first year of a two-year term as MTC chair. In January Pierce will begin her second two-year term as ABAG president. This bodes poorly for the protection of ABAG’s interests during the merger planning process, an operation that’s going to be fraught with major disagreements.

The meeting also offered a disquieting illustration of the legislative style and capability of the Administrative Committee. I’ve written that their unfamiliarity with regional issues and lack of personal aides render the elected officials who sit on the of the ABAG Executive Board and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission unduly dependent on and deferential toward agency staff. At every meeting I’ve attended at the MetroCenter—and I’ve attended a lot of them—there’s been a lengthy staff report followed by desultory deliberation by the electeds.

The October 28 meeting of the Admin Committee was different. The senior staff who attended the meeting—ABAG Executive Director Ezra Rapport, Deputy Director Brad Paul, Planning Director Miriam Chion, Legal Counsel Kenneth Moy, and Interim Finance Director Charlie Adams—remained silent and poker-faced throughout the intense discussion about policy. Only Moy spoke at all, and that was to remind Pierce to do a roll call vote. The bulk of deliberation comprised dialogue between Pierce and Cortese, with a few interjections from their colleagues. Throughout the meeting, those colleagues deferred to Pierce, who in turn deferred to Cortese, allowing him to take over the meeting.

As soon as the MTC chair showed up, Pierce invited him to present “what you are requesting now.”

Referring to ABAG Resolution 1215, Cortese suggested that his request was a simple one: “Obviously, a resolution presented to this committee or any committee in writing speaks for itself—there’s not too much mystery to it.” He referred to the “breakthrough” that had occurred at the October 22 meeting with SEIU and Campos and had revealed a way “to go forward in a different sequence without abandoning any of the work that’s been done to date.”

At that point, a red flag should have gone up in the mind of every Admin Committee member.

Cortese continued: “The language in ABAG Resolution 1215 would reflect identically the modified language in MTC Resolution 4210 that MTC commissioners will see today.” Pierce interrupted him: ” So you’re going to append this language to 4210?”

Cortese: “Yes. I brought a copy of 4210 with the changes red-lined. I only have one [copy].”

Pierce: “Would you let us make copies of that so people can see it, or do you want to hang onto that?”

That question encapsulates Pierce’s weakness as a legislative tactician: her inclination to acquiesce to power. She’s the chair of the committee. She shouldn’t have asked Cortese’s permission for ABAG staff to make copies of 4210 or, worse yet, invited him not to do so. Instead, she should have insisted that before deliberation went forward, copies be made for the committee and members of the public.

Cortese finessed the issue. “It’s fine—we can make copies [shrugs]—and there’ll be copies outside well before anybody’s asked to vote [flips through the pages of 4210].”

“Copies outside”? Whatever that meant, Cortese didn’t make copies either before or after anyone at the Admin Committee meeting was asked to vote. The discussion proceeded with him in sole possession of the red-lined version of 4210. As far as I can tell from the video, the only other person in the room who had even the original version was Pierce. So much for his reference to mystery-free resolutions presented in writing.

The MTC chair continued: “If there’s any concern or nervousness as to whether or not the red here [taps 4210] and the black-and-white here (taps 1215) match up—absolutely, this is why I have this [the red-lined 4210] here.”

An axiom of legislative practice is not to act on something you haven’t read, especially when, as in this case, the matters at hand are complex, and the stakes are high. The members of the Admin Committee are all seasoned legislators—longtime members of their respective city councils and county boards of supervisors. None of them demurred.

Instead, Pierce conceded more ground: “Or maybe you could just summarize.”

Which is what Cortese proceeded to do, running through the proposed modifications of 4210 and pointing to places in his text. Principles 1, 2, and 11 had been amended, and a new, twelfth principle had been added, as follows:

48hillsmtcresolution

 

He concluded:  “That language is identical—please let me know if it’s not—we’ll try to correct it immediately, if there’s a typo or something.”

The offer was ludicrous: Cortese was the only one with a copy of red-lined 4210, so there was no way for any of the others to know whether the language was identical, much less whether there were any typos.

Cortese proceeded to outline the events at the upcoming MTC meeting. A “cursory presentation of what was in the packet,” i.e., his and Heminger’s proposal for consolidation of the planning departments, would be followed by his introduction of modified 4210.

Then, amazingly, with the clock ticking down, Pierce allowed him to introduce a request from Greenbelt Alliance to add a sentence to Resolution 1510 about taking “a holistic approach” to regional planning that addresses housing, transportation, conservation of natural and agricultural lands, social equity and economic development. The committee had no legal obligation to honor that request, and given the time constraints, Pierce should have said something to that effect and asked the group to focus on the resolutions before them. Instead, she and her colleagues spent ten minutes discussing whether to add that sentence. At least they decided that it would be imprudent to “add one more ornament to the Christmas tree,” and that doing so might invite accusations of favoritism.

In the course of that discussion, Cortese voiced the call for collaboration that he and his fellow commissioners would repeatedly echo at the MTC meeting:

 

If there’s any hope of us coming up with an agreed-upon merger plan between now and the end of the fiscal year, the electeds, the commissioners, the Executive Board members of ABAG—all of us who are in these positions are going to have to set a collaborative tone…as the most important principle. We’re going to disagree at times, and if we’re not able to come back in a collaborative spirit and work out those disagreements, as you well know, President Pierce, there could be opportunity lost.

 

This high-minded commitment to collaboration was immediately tested by Novato Mayor Pro Tem Pat Eklund, the only member of the Administrative Committee who routinely raises hard questions. She thanked Cortese for getting them to this point and then noted:

In the reach-out I’ve done to a lot of cities in the Bay Area, there’s not a lot of unanimity or consensus…which leads me to the question I have. If this merger study comes back saying that one agency may not make a lot of sense for the Bay Area—do you see that as a possibility…?

Cortese’s reply encapsulated his own tactical style: first he deflected the question, and then he rebuffed the challenge.

Unfortunately, there’s no off-the-shelf merger 3.0 app for ABAG and MTC that we can just go buy and install the software….Given two different agencies that have separate balance sheets and fiscal issues and so forth, what we might call a full merger here might look like a hybrid or something in some other jurisdictions….We have no pre-conceived notion about what’s going to come out of this process The idea of having the ABAG Administrative Committee and the MTC Planning Committee do the oversight of this process came from ABAG, not from MTC….It’s all the more reason that things need to move along in lockstep….Disagreement is fine. Impasse and emotional angst, I think, we’re going to have to try to avoid, or we’ll lose precious time in trying to invent a model here that will really work for the region.

Perhaps it was a coincidence that Cortese was speaking to a female colleague. In any case, telling a woman that she’s “emotional” is a time-honored way of discrediting her as irrational. It’s also an unwarranted denigration of feeling: emotions are a fact of life; only the dead lack them. Cortese’s brushoff of Eklund was as emotional as her question. Moreover, the Novato Mayor Pro Tem had broached a crucial issue: what happens if ABAG and MTC can’t agree on a merger? In refusing to address the possibility of an impasse, Cortese was the irrational party.

Pierce should have backed Eklund up. Instead, she sided with Cortese: “As far as I’m concerned, I’m more than committed to saying, let’s put all this other talk about consolidation aside. Let’s look forward about how we can be better together.”

As it turned out, Eklund’s question never got a direct answer, either at the Admin Committee or the MTC meeting. But it was indirectly addressed after Pierce invited comment from other committee members.

Jim Spering made what turned out to be both the most incongruous and the most pertinent statement uttered during both the Admin Committee and MTC meetings that morning. “Come July,” Spering said,

we have to have a strategy in place that makes a commitment that ABAG is funded in the long-term with a reliable funding source that’s not subject to the politics of what we’re going through right now. And as chair of [the MTC Planning] committee, I’m going to see that that issue comes forward, and we really start talking about it, so ABAG can do long-range planning that’s not subject to the shadow of MTC….That is a piece that has to be included in this discussion. You know, it’s not really mentioned anywhere. But at our first meeting, I’m going to raise that issue.

It was the most pertinent comment, because if ABAG were financially independent, it would be able to negotiate with MTC on equal footing. It was the most incongruous comment, because nowhere else, either in writing or in speech, was it addressed at the Admin Committee meeting (Spering would repeat it at the MTC meeting).

Instead of frittering away their time on Greenbelt Alliance’s vacuous, feel-good sentence, the committee could deliberated adding a statement that called for ABAG’s financial independence. Spering could have made a motion to that effect, and Pierce could have invited him to do so. Cortese’s second would have signaled a genuinely collaborative spirit. Needless to say, nothing of this sort occurred.

They then took a roll call vote on ABAG Resolution 1510. Everyone voted Yes.

 

Video by Ken Bukowski

Pierce barely had the words “This is unanimous!” out of her mouth, when Cortese threw a bomb:

So, Julie, I just want to say that the last version of the resolution that I got from ABAG last night has one additional sentence. [reads from a paper on the table before him]: “ABAG approves Resolution 4210 with the following modifications.” This [holds up the paper to Pierce, who’s sitting across the table from him] was sent to me.

In response, Pierce pushed back:

I understand that, Dave, and I think the reason for that is that there were a few Whereases [checks text in her copy of the un-amended 4210]—one Whereas—and several Resolves that are actually contradictory to what this new language says. So it’s confusing.

 

And then she pulled back:

So what I’m going to ask is that in the MTC meeting, you clarify that those contradictory statements are held in abeyance, because some of these Resolves talk about going forward in the resolution, and so what I’m hoping is that that intent is something that you clarify…so that we verbally confirm that we’re on the same page. Because 4210 with the modifications that you’ve just outlined that we’ve not officially seen yet at this committee is not able to be supported.

Unsurprisingly, Cortese ignored Pierce’s request that he call out the contradictions between 4210 and the ABAG position. Obviously, it was against his interests to comply. If Pierce wanted those contradictions to be specified at the MTC meeting, she should have said that she was going to do so herself. She did not.

Then Cortese brought down the hammer:

The language that was sent over to me says: ABAG supports Resolution 4210 with the following modifications. So nobody’s asking ABAG to support the pre-existing 4210, only with those modifications, and as you know, this [the ABAG Resolution] only has context within the Resolution [4210] itself….Otherwise it sets everything upside-down. It just puts the commission back moving the planning consolidation without the changes.

How would the Admin Committee’s failure to endorse modified 4210 “put,” i.e., force, MTC to “mov[e] the planning consolidation without the changes”? If collaboration were the real goal, shouldn’t MTC simply abandon its takeover effort?

Instead of asking these questions, Pierce backed down again: “No, no, no, I’m not trying to do that [derail the deal] at all.”

Cortese persisted: “These changes don’t stand alone. They have to be part of Resolution 4210.”But why?

Pierce: “As long as we all understand that the consolidation is put in abeyance with these changes.” But that wasn’t her earlier point, which addressed the contradictions between ABAG’s position and 4210’s Resolves and Whereases.

Cortese: “Like I said, when we first sat down here, the plain language of this red-line version does say that.”

But the “plain language” he referenced when they “first sat down” was the text of ABAG resolution 1510, not the red-line version of MTC Resolution 4210.

Cortese then read #12 in Attachment A in amended 4210:

Notwithstanding paragraphs 1-10 in Attachment A, in the event ABAG and MTC approve the MIP prior to July 1, 2016, each in its sole discretion, and by formal resolution, the functional consolidation of planning departments shall be pre-empted and the actions outlined in principles 2-10 shall be void.

 

“We’re putting [consolidation] on the shelf til the end of the fiscal year,” he said.

Napa County Supervisor Mark Luce quietly shot back: “The Resolves could cause you to think otherwise.”

Pierce, muddling the issue: “That’s why I want to make sure verbally that we’re all on the same page, and I think we are. So I think we’re good.”

Then Pierce gave away the store. She asked Cortese, “Do you want to amend the resolution that we just adopted?” In the video, Eklund can be seen shaking her head, No.

Cortese:

I would say in the future, if this process is going to work, if we’re sending each other back and forth documents [holds up a piece of paper, presumably the email] that we sign off on as leadership, and they show up differently at the meetings, we’re gonna have a trainwreck—okay? Because this came to me—I was working on this until 9:30 last night. I have the email here that says that ABAG senior staff approved this language [points to paper], and I went to sleep thinking we were done modifying this resolution. So we can’t have that kind of—I won’t call it bait and switch—because you’ve put on the record that you’re in support of Resolution 4210 with these modifications—that’s what I’m hearing here—so why take the language out after it’s been sent over? It’s just not good government process.

 

Even if Pierce did send Cortese an email saying that ABAG senior staff approved the modified 4210, neither she nor anyone else could single-handedly commit the Admin Committee to that position. Everyone present knew that; someone on the Admin Committee should have said so; nobody did.

Instead, Cortese used the email to manipulate the pliable ABAG officials into approving modified 4210.

Pierce:

Based on your representation today of the changes that you’re including, and the verbal representation that we will make, I think we’re probably okay adding that language back in, if that makes you feel more comfortable, I would ask for a reconsideration of that. Because I think that’s important, but some of the Resolves don’t say what we just agreed to, and that’s the concern.

 

Cortese: “Well, if you‘re opening up a motion for reconsideration, I’ll second it.”

Eklund again raised an objection. “So, President Pierce, my concern is that there are some Resolves in this 4210 that I’m not sure I agree with. And we haven’t really had a chance to talk about that.”

Eklund was only echoing Pierce’s own comments. Once again, Pierce should have had Eklund’s back. Instead, she again shushed her colleague: “And we don’t have time to talk about it here this morning.”

Eklund: “So I assume that we just go through the resolution that we just passed, and there will be the verbal…”

Spering interrupted her and, confusingly, asked Luce to second the non-motion, which Cortese had already seconded.

Luce: “I will, because I’m trusting you guys, because what we said just now is true.”

Spering : You have my word, and Dave…”

Luce: “That’s good enough.”

But what exactly had they said? Presumably that consolidation would not be pursued during the rest of the fiscal year. Nothing, however, about the contradictions.

Pierce: “I think that should be good enough for us. I mean, we’ve got to set the tone going forward, but”—apologetically—“I needed to tell you what those reasons were, Dave, because we hadn’t seen [the changes].” Strictly speaking, they still hadn’t seen them.

Cortese graciously accepted her capitulation: “I understand. That’s fine.”

Pierce: “We have a motion and a second to reconsider.”

Luce: “Just for clarification…ABAG supports Resolution 4210 with the following modifications.”

Eklund, however, was not quite ready to give up. “But what does that mean—‘supports 4210’?” she asked. “Because some of the Resolution and the Whereases…”

Pierce: “It will be made consistent with what we are adding to Attachment A. The rest of the resolution will be made consistent with the changes being made now.”

Cortese: “We’re only asking you to support 4210 if indeed the commission adopts these same modifications [places hand on the red-lined text of 4210]. That’s what the ask is.”

But Pierce had requested something more: that Cortese acknowledge the contradictions at the MTC meeting.

Eklund: “So we’re agreeing with the functional consolidation of land use planning and transportation.”

Pierce: “No, we’re not. This language takes this off the table.”

Not so. The language just temporarily moved 4210 from the center of the table to a place where MTC could retrieve it at a later date.

Eklund: “If we say we’re supporting 4210, it may give the appearance to some people that we agree that land use planning and transportation planning need to be functionally consolidated, and that may not be the case.”

Cortese:

The commission wants to keep consolidation, although in abeyance, as a backstop until July 1, as we start the new fiscal year, at the same time, ABAG wants us to turn our direction to a merger study and a merger implementation plan that would subsume and pre-empt this planning consolidation model….It allows both agencies at this point not to be throwing away the positions that they came in with….Nobody’s working on planning consolidation between now and July 1 at MTC.

 

But ABAG’s interest in a merger study is scarcely equivalent to MTC’s desire to appropriate ABAG’s planning staff and, as per unmodified Resolution 4210, regional planning at large.

Pierce made nice: “That’s what we need to hear.”

With less than two minutes left, they unanimously approved reconsideration and the revised resolution. Pierce adjourned the meeting, and everyone trooped upstairs to the MTC meeting.

 

In contrast to the sparse public attendance at the Admin Committee, the MetroCenter auditorium was packed, just as it had been for MTC’s September 23 meeting, with people in the overflow room where the proceedings could be watched on close-circuit TV. Unaware of what had just transpired at the Admin Committee, most of the audience assumed that MTC would be deliberating unmodified 4210.

Early on, Cortese set them straight. He told the crowd that due to some “very productive discussions between the two agencies” that had occurred over the past week, he “would be formally proposing and moving some changes to Resolution 4210,” changes that had been “approved word for word by ABAG’s Administrative Committee this morning.”

To “set the context for the changes,” Cortese had Heminger set out the “base proposal,” that is, MTC’s plan to absorb ABAG’s planning staff (summarized above under “Principles for Consolidation of ABAG-MTC Planning Departments”). MTC’s Executive Director delivered an abbreviated, twenty-minute version of the hour-long address he’d given at MTC’s September 23 meeting.

There was one notable change: before MTC had targeted 15 ABAG planning staffers; now it had designs on only 13. As indicated by Principle 6, MTC wanted to leave the planners associated with the Regional Housing Needs Allocation—a contentious process that occurs every eight years—with ABAG. In other words, unstated by Heminger, MTC is only interested in the ABAG staff involved with Plan Bay Area, which, while contentious, also offers an opportunity to make major land use policy.

Otherwise, Heminger struck the same notes as he had a month earlier: the current state of affairs is unacceptable, replete with inefficiencies—specifically what, he didn’t say, just as hadn’t said since he first made the inefficiency charge at the MTC’s meeting on June 24. ABAG’s finances are “precarious.” MTC’s 167 employees do have representation. When MTC took over the collection of toll revenue from Caltrans, the toll collectors, who’d been members of SEIU, moved into MTC’s employee bargaining unit. No problem. A merger between MTC and ABAG would be challenging, given the disparate cultures of the two agencies. “It’s not like merging airlines.” (Actually, it seems a lot like merging airlines: think the United-Continental union.) And exhibiting his—let’s call it impressive purposefulness—Heminger showed a visual that, he said, his staff had asked him not to use, because it looks as if “MTC is the Death Star, and ABAG is the rebel planet fighting for freedom in the universe.” So it does:

48hillsmtcstarwars

Cortese then announced that he would depart from the usual order of the agenda, in which a staff report is followed by public comment, discussion and possible action. Instead, he would make a motion prior to public comment so that people in the audience would have an idea of the modifications in red-lined Resolution 4210. He proceeded to repeat what he’d told the ABAG committee—with one exception: he stated that “the modifications were discussed in a public meeting at 8:45 a.m. on the ABAG side [of the MetroCenter].” Maybe he didn’t want members of the public wondering how ABAG officials could have possibly given due attention to such convoluted legislation in a mere 45 minutes.

He read the modified text, called for “a spirit of transparency,” cautioned that nobody knows what a merger will look like, and, before inviting Pierce to comment and second his motion, repeated his sermon on the necessity of “a collaborative tone”:

I’ll speak for myself—that tone starts with us….If this direction is adopted today, and it turns into anything but a collaborative process, it will probably be because we allowed a non-collaborative or adversarial tone, or an emotional, accusatory  tone. I think it’s up to us as elected officials to assure that doesn’t happen for two reasons: it’s unhealthy for the region….and there’s no time to spare. Any minute going forward on this integration merger and implementation process that’s lost due to infighting or external fighting or distractions that are unnecessary—is literally a minute that could upset the entire process.

 

I think Cortese was daring Pierce to mark the contradictions between the Resolves and Whereases and Resolution 4210 and what the Admin Committee had approved and thereby lay herself open to the charge of being non-collaborative, adversarial, emotional and accusatory.

Not to worry. Pierce took all of his cues:

I would be honored to second this motion. Thanks, Dave, for the integrity and your hard work during this past week for a resolution that puts us in a place where we can walk together side by side and try to come up with a genuine plan for a merger that this time is going to work….Our ABAG committee heard this proposal this morning , as Dave said, at 8:45. We had a unanimous vote….We didn’t have a copy of it, but he read it to us.

 

That should have raised some eyebrows in the room.

It puts in abeyance all consolidation of planning departments while we look at an integrated full merger….We trusted, so the integrity and the trust started right there this morning.

Concluding with a call for unanimity, Pierce asked her listeners to give ABAG and MTC “a thumbs-up.

During the ensuing hour-plus of public comment, most of them did.

San Francisco Planning Director John Rahaim, for example, who’d also spoken at MTC’s September 23 meeting, said he was “very encouraged by the motion you presented today and would very much like to be part of the discussion as we move forward.”

Also welcoming the motion was SPUR Regional Planning Director Egon Terplan. Interestingly, unlike Greenbelt Alliance, SPUR, one of MTC’s most vocal allies, had apparently been left out of the loop. On October 26 the San Jose Mercury published a letter from Terplan endorsing MTC’s take over of ABAG planning staff as a first step toward a fully integrated regional planning agency. On the 28th Terplan indicated that after hearing Cortese’s motion, he’d had to revise the comments he’d prepared. Stating that what he found most satisfying was the prospect of “action and forward movement,” he called for the merger study to be informed by “a very broad set of conversations,” presumably conversations that involve SPUR.

Terplan also asked the question that Pat Eklund had posed at the Administration Committee meeting. He pressed harder than she had:

If there is difficulty, then what happens? Does the functional consolidation go forward automatically? It seems like [the motion] says that, but it would be helpful if you would clarify what that is.

 

After public comment, Cortese responded to Terplan’s query. But where Eklund got the brushoff, Terplan received a respectful, marginally substantive reply. Cortese said he was reluctant to say “automatic” but allowed that in the event of an “impasse,” “obviously there would be an appropriations discussion” in July.

Most impressive of all the support for the proposal was that offered by ABAG workers. Many of them held signs saying “Vote for: FULL MERGER. Best way for the East Bay.” Some stood behind three of their representatives, who in turn hailed the prospect of the full integration of MTC and ABAG. “A partial merger is not workable for our people,” said Lee Huo, the president of the ABAG chapter of SEIU Local 1021, adding that he and his colleagues were “very excited” by the “partnership that’s been created by President Pierce and Chair Cortese.”

But it wasn’t all a lovefest. Joseph Chan, who served as ABAG Finance Director from 1983 to 2009, called the proposal before the commission “a step in the right direction” and then, responding to Heminger’s staff report, said, “I find the statement that ABAG finances are precarious to be very offensive. Heminger had written that ABAG’s overhead expenses were unfairly allocated, and that the land use agency “faces a $12 million unfunded pension liability and a $5 million under-funded OPEB [Other post-employment benefits] obligation.”

Chan contended that ABAG’s overhead was “not only legitimate but required,” given that the agency has a second location on downtown Oakland. MTC, he asserted, “has been working with this overhead plan for the past two decades or more.”

As for unfunded liabilities: “Every agency that offers these benefits,” said Chan,

has unfunded liabilities. MTC has them, too. ABAG has been current in its payments to CalPERS and OPEB, and so the unfunded liabilities will take care of themselves over time.

These two allegations are just misleading. The disappointing point is the disrespectful attitude displayed in this memo. This sort of attitude is going to hinder cooperation between the two agencies. If a merger is going to take place, it should be managed by people who understand the full scope of the two agencies and have the Bay Area’s best interests in mind.

 

Another speaker who coupled enthusiasm for the proposal with criticism of MTC was David Schonbrunn, the president of TRANSDEF, the Transportation Solutions Defense and Education Fund. Stating that he “strongly supports the modified resolution,” Schonbrunn averred that “MTC’s openness to merger must be placed in context”—specifically, the agency’s inveterate quest to increase its own power. He wasn’t only talking about MTC’s attempted absorption of ABAG’s land use planners—“a naked power grab”—from which, “[h]appily, MTC has pulled back.” Schonbrunn was also referring to “the 1991 report, Bay Vision 2020—in his view, “a great plan for merger” that “MTC systematically torpedoed”; and to the Joint Policy Committee, which, he said, was “systematically bullied” by MTC into giving up its oversight functions and…subsequently receded into obscurity.” Schonbrunn recommended the Bay Vision “work product as the starting point for the new project.”

None of the MTC commissioners responded directly to Chan or Schonbrunn. But more than one of them rapped “personal attacks” on their agency’s officials. Neither Chan nor Schonbrunn, however, had attacked anyone personally: they’d criticized positions taken by MTC. If criticism of positions is taboo, the forthcoming negotiations are going to founder.

On the other hand, the commissioners lauded Heminger. Cortese was particularly praiseful, stating that “our executive director steadfastly said, despite the fact that we had a functional consolidation model already on the table: how can I support you and the commission in bringing forth these modifications”? You wouldn’t have known that from Heminger’s presentation, which barely acknowledged that their consolidation model had been, to borrow Cortese’s delicate phrase, “implementation-deferred.”

The actual deliberation on modified 4210 was scant but noteworthy. Spering declared that the MTC Planning and ABAG Administrative Committees should “convene as soon as possible” and recommended a “special schedule” of meetings devoted exclusively to the merger planning process.

Spering also reiterated his earlier remarks about “the need to stabilize ABAG” by finding a “reliable funding source” for the agency, “no matter what comes out of this.” Like Terplan, Spering was tacitly raising Eklund’s question about the eventuality of a failure to agree on a merger. He, too, did so without getting rebuked by Cortese. As at the Admin Committee, nobody followed up on his remarks.

By contrast, San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener struck a critical note that resonated with his colleagues. Wiener said he and Mayor Ed Lee “think a full merger could be a very positive thing. “But the devil is in the details….We’re dealing with two very different governing boards.” Right now, he opined, MTC has “a very good balance” between large and small cities. “ABAG has a different balance, to be blunt, between big and small.” He said he “would be concerned if we see the concerns of the large cities undermined.” It’s the big cities—San Francisco, San Jose, and Oakland—“where most of the job growth is going, and where we’re absorbing a lot of the new housing, and so many massive infrastructure needs.” Stating “I’m not sure I’m sold” on the proposed makeup of the oversight bodies, Wiener pointed out that neither he nor Campos—the two San Francisco electeds on MTC—sit on the MTC Planning Committee. Ditto for Oakland’s representative on MTC, Mayor Libby Schaaf.

To laughter, Cortese quipped that San Jose Mayor Liccardo, who does sit on the Planning Committee, “assures me he’s happy to represent the interests of San Francisco.” Speaking seriously, Cortese said that Wiener had brought up “a great point,” one he himself would address with chairs of MTC’s committees, who make up the Planning Committee. He added: “That’s an internal commission matter, first and foremost, as opposed to a joint matter with ABAG.”

Liccardo echoed Wiener’s concerns. “When it comes to governance, it is important that these bodies represent people. We don’t just represent cities or towns.”

That proposition is arguable. As a Council of Governments, ABAG does represent towns, not “people.” It’s more akin to the Senate than the House of Representatives. How to maintain that politically based representation in a merger with MTC, which grounds representation more in demographics, will be a formidable challenge of the merger planning process.

Though the unanimous vote was a foregone conclusion, one aspect of that vote bears mentioning: the absence of two commissioners, Schaaf, who represents Oakland on MTC, and Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey, who represents the county and cities of Marin. Everyone knew that, however it played it, the action taken on October 28 would be momentous—and it was. So Schaaf’s and Kinsey’s truancy invites scrutiny.

I called the Marin County Board of Supervisors and asked where Kinsey had been on October 28. I was told he was at meeting of the California Coastal Commission in Los Angeles. According to the commission’s online calendar, no meetings were scheduled in L.A. or anywhere else on October 28. That was confirmed to me by Jeff Stabin, who works in the commission’s San Francisco office.

 

I’m going to guess that Kinsey and Schaaf didn’t show up because they both thought the commission would be voting on the Cortese-Heminger takeover plan—a vote they each wanted to avoid.

Schaaf had already twice taken a public stand in somewhat more obscure circumstances. At the September 23 meeting of the MTC, she’d endorsed the Cortese-Heminger proposal. At the Alameda County Mayor’s Conference meeting on October 14, she cast the sole No vote against a resolution opposing the proposed takeover of ABAG’s planning staff. All the other Alameda County mayors supported the resolution, save Tom Bates, who didn’t attend the meeting. (That absence is also problematic, given that on MTC Bates represents the cities of Alameda County.)

Kinsey, too, had taken a public stand before October 28—but against the Heminger-Cortese plan. He and fellow Marin County Supervisor Damon Connolly had asked their colleagues to approve a letter urging MTC “to immediately and fully fund the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) for the 2015-16 budget year without qualifications.” The letter also asked that MTC and ABAG engage an independent management consultant to evaluate the two agencies, working closely with the public and the respective policy boards, in order to develop a shared course for the Bay Area’s future growth and mobility” and “participate in a broad-based study group” that would evaluate the possibility of a merger….The work should not be rushed.”

On October 20 the Marin Board of Supervisors approved on consent an even stronger version of that letter and sent it to MTC. Had Kinsey shown up on the 28th and Resolution 1042 had been up for a vote without modifications, he would have been under considerable pressure to vote No.

Schaaf’s absence on the 28th deprived her city of representation on MTC; Kinsey’s left every city and county in Marin without a voice. Cortese, by the way, did not take a roll call vote.

Enthusiastic applause greeted MTC’s approval of modified Resolution 1042. No doubt ABAG workers and retirees were relieved to see their jobs and benefits spared—at least until next summer. ABAG officials must have been relieved at having at least temporarily staved off the loss of their Plan Bay Area staff, the likelihood of bankruptcy and a costly lawsuit of MTC. And surely supporters of integrated regional planning were pleased that the two agencies had moved toward consolidation.

 

But the prospect entailed by modified Resolution 1042 and ABAG Resolution 1015 is cause for apprehension on multiple counts, starting with timing.

It’s already evident that the eight-month window for doing a merger study and implementation plan is far too short to allow for thoughtful deliberation, broad-based input, and democratically accountable decisionmaking—a predicament exacerbated by ABAG’s financial dependence on MTC.

Resolution 4210 stipulates that “the [merger] study and plan shall be governed by the joint MTC Planning and ABAG Administrative Committees.” The first meeting of those two bodies since October 28 is scheduled for Friday, November 13.

But on November 5, MTC sent out a Request for Qualifications (RFQ] for the merger project. Signed by Heminger, the document is posted on the ABAG website under “ABAG-MTC Budget Discussion Materials.” It looks as if it was originally prepared in accordance with unmodified Resolution 4210, which called for a merger study to be funded by MTC for $275,000. That’s the budget for this one, too.

To be sure, the RFQ references modified Principle 11 in Resolution 4210, which specifies the joint oversight by the two agencies. And it states that “Responsive SOQs [Statements of Qualifications] will…be evaluated by an evaluation panel comprised of MTC and ABAG representatives,” and that

[t]he panel will recommend the selected Consultant to the MTC and ABAG Executive Directors, based on evaluation of the written SOQ and oral interviews (if held). The MTC and ABAG Executive Directors will review the recommendation, the ABAG Executive Director will forward the recommendation to the ABAG Administrative Committee for concurrence, and the MTC Executive Director will forward the recommendation to the MTC Commission to authorize award.

 

But it also indicates in numerous ways that MTC will hold the reins—indeed, that it already does.

Under “Form of SOQ,” we read:

  1. MTC reserves the right to accept or reject all SOQs submitted, waive minor irregularities, request additional information, and negotiate with any or all Proposers.
  2. MTC reserves the right in its sole discretion not to enter into any contract as a result of this RFQ. All contact during the evaluation phase shall be through the MTC Point of Contact only.

 

Under “SOQ Evaluation”:

All contact during the evaluation phase shall be through the MTC Point of Contact only.

….

MTC reserves the right not to convene interviews and to make an award on the basis of written SOQS, alone….Any award made will be made to the firms whose SOQs are the most advantageous to MTC…

 

This last would appear to be qualified by a passage that subsequently appears under “General Conditions:

Any award made will be to the Proposer whose SOQ is most advantageous to MTC and ABAG based on the evaluation criteria defined in Section VIII.

 

But next comes this:

          If the selected firm fails to enter into a contract with MTC in a timely manner as  determined by MTC, in accordance with the terms and conditions of this RFQ,  MTC reserves the right to reject the SOQ of the selected firm and enter into a contract with the next highest scoring firm.

Did MTC folks fail to modify an off-the-shelf, or was money just talking? And there’s the “Consultant Selection Timetable”:

4 p.m., Thursday, November 20, 2015 Closing date/time for receipt of SOQs
Week of November 30, 2015* Interviews (if held)
December 16, 2015* ABAG Administrative Committee and MTC Commission approval

*Interview, award and approval dates are approximate and are subject to change before or after the closing date of the RFQ.

Under “Period of Performance”:

MTC expects the work to commence on or about January 1, 2016, and to be completed no later than June 30, 2016.

 

So the selection of the consultants is going to take place during the holiday season, the time of the year when public attention is least likely to focus on politics.

When I told ABAG Deputy Director Brad Paul that the RFQ seemed to be controlled by MTC rather than the joint oversight committees, and that the timeline was too short, he said that he and another ABAG staffer had been consulted in the document’s preparation, that the RFQ alluded to the possibility of changes, and that given the terms of 4210, they had to act as quickly as possible.

I see two passing references to changes. There’s the asterisked statement cited above about the “approximate” nature of the dates on the “Consultant Selection Timetable.” And under “Requests for Clarification or Exceptions,” the RFQ states that “[a]ny addenda to the RFQ will be posted on MTC’s website.” Seriously, with the joint oversight committees meeting only a week before the deadline for the receipt of SOQs (November 20), how likely is it that any changes are going to be made, especially since only the appendix to the RFQ, “Preliminary Scope of Work,” is posted on the committees’ November 13 agenda?

I also wonder if the choice of a consultant is a done deal: had MTC already decided whom to hire for the year-long merger study specified in unmodified 4210? And how many local firms can meet the following minimum qualifications?

  • The Proposer’s Project Manager has a minimum of five (5) years’ experience within the last ten (10) years managing public or private sector merger studies and/or similar work for public sector transportation and/or planning agencies; and
  • Each key personnel has a minimum of three (3) years’ experience working on public or private sector merger studies and/or similar work for public sector transportation and/or planning agencies.

 

It’s clear that ABAG President Julie Pierce is dedicated to her agency. It’s also clear that she lacks the requisite nerve and political savvy to effectively defend ABAG’s interests. This is the second time in the current ABAG-MTC tug-of-war that she’s been badly out-maneuvered by MTC: on July 16 Pierce revealed to the Executive Board that for the past three months she’d been meeting in a secret ad hoc committee comprising herself, Luce, Haggerty, Spering and Cortese. That was three months wasted on futile insider negotiations. As soon as Pierce learned about MTC’s designs on ABAG’s planning staff, she should have told her colleagues at ABAG and started strategizing with them and with the cities and counties in the region.

But the leadership deficit also reflects the weakness of the ABAG Administrative Committee and Executive Board. The only members who regularly stand up for ABAG are Eklund and Luce. That’s partly Pierce’s fault: subject to the advice and consent of the Executive Board, she appoints four of the committee’s ten members. The other six seats are reserved for specified individuals—for example, ABAG vice-president and immediate past president—who cannot be removed by the President. Pierce needs to start treating one of her four appointees, Eklund, as an ally instead of an irritant. The other three either need to start advocating more forcefully for their agency or be replaced.

The terms of standing committee members expire every two years following the annual meeting of the ABAG General Assembly in which the new president takes office. When Pierce’s second term starts in January, the standing committees, whose chairs automatically serve on the Admin Committee, will be nominated and their chairs elected.

Which brings us to the real source of weakness at ABAG: the cities of the region have not been paying enough attention to ABAG. With good reason, they’ve viewed monied MTC as the power agency. But as the events of the past four months have made painfully apparent, without strong leadership at ABAG, their interests—above all, local control of zoning and planning—are going to suffer. They need to attend more closely to the makeup of the Executive Board and the attitudes of the ABAG committee chairs.

The issue of divided loyalties has got to be addressed, most obviously with respect to Cortese, who automatically sits on the Admin Committee because he chairs the Regional Policy Committee, but also Scott Haggerty, who chairs the Legislative and Government Committee. At both the Admin Committee and MTC meetings on the 28th, Haggerty fawned over Cortese, stating that his colleague had “taken a bullet” and had been under a great deal of stress. No doubt this is true. But it’s also true that as MTC Chair, Cortese fired the first shot at ABAG—and the last.

With the ABAG committee nominations coming up in January, this is an opportune moment for the cities to be lobbying Pierce to make the strongest possible appointments to the Administrative Committee. They should be studying their own appointments to the Executive Board with an eye to obtaining vigorous and effective representation.

Many of the letters sent in protest of the Cortese-Heminger takeover of ABAG’s planning staff expressed support for some integration of land use and transportation planning in the Bay Area. But none of them got beyond a call for greater effectiveness or efficiency—the same unsubstantiated summons that was issued by Heminger and Cortese and that’s embedded in modified Resolution 1042:

WHEREAS, the current bifurcated structure between the MTC and ABAG planning departments leads to significant duplication, inefficiencies and missed opportunities in preparing the SCS and to best serve the needs of the Bay Area and its local communities;

(Was this one of the offending WHEREAses flagged by Pierce, Luce, and Eklund?)

What’s gotten lost in the tumult of the past four months is the fact that the fight at the MetroCenter has never been about efficiency. It’s about power and policy—ideology, if you will—the ends of power.

The most conspicuous, recent disagreement between the two agencies, flaring into public over the summer, was over whether the updated Plan Bay Area should retain the anti-displacement language in PBA 1.0. MTC staff wanted to take it out; ABAG staff thought it should stay. Thanks in large part to  the vigorous campaign launched by the 6 Wins for Social Equity Network, the language will appear in the next Plan Bay Area. But the inherent, conflicting attitudes toward social justice persist.

In that episode, the line between MTC and ABAG was clear. But on other charged issues, that line blurs. I’m thinking about local control, transit-oriented development, and development per se—growth.

Over the past four months, we’ve heard numerous references to the agencies’ “different cultures.” As a Council of Local Governments, ABAG has a dialogical relationship with city and county officials; there’s a lot of negotiation. By contrast, MTC behaves like the big grantor it is: submit your applications for the funds we control, and we’ll decide.

Former Berkeley Planning Director Dan Marks emphasized that distinction when he commented on “MTC’s power play” in the September 2015 issue of “Northern News,” a publication of the Northern Chapter of the California Chapter of the American Planning Association:

          If MTC absorbs the land use planning function,….[h]ow will it ensure that    planners will continue to do what we do best: coordinate and integrate the messy and always challenging public and political process to create a coherent vision?    How can MTC ensure that planning does not become a small cog in the    transportation development/funding machine that has been MTC?

 

Good questions.

But when you look at the “coherent vision”—the future for the region projected in Plan Bay Area—the differences between the two agencies fade. Marks describes PBA as “a vision for how we as a region should—indeed, must—grow if we are to preserve what is special about the Bay Area and at the same time reduce our generation of greenhouse gases. I could argue about the details, but it is very hard to argue with the vision.”

On the contrary, it’s easy to argue with the vision and its driving premise: growth per se is good. During the preparation of Plan Bay Area 2013, people—community activists—did argue with it—a lot. They’re still arguing, and so they should.

Credit ABAG planners for at least recognizing that there’s a fundamental tension between growth—including so-called smart growth—and social justice. That realization apparently eludes their colleagues at MTC.

Nevertheless, the planners, too, continue to push for growth. When they nod to local control, they have in mind elected officials, not the citizenry at large, and certainly not anyone—elected or not—who challenges the growth god.

Last week the Bay Area Council Economic Institute published “A Roadmap for Economic Resilience,” a white paper on strengthening regional government at the expense of local control. I’m still digging into it, but you can get the gist of its recommendations from the headline for the Chronicle’s December 6 story: “Bay Area group’s housing solution: Punish cities that don’t build.” The report recommends, among other things, “the creation of more ‘by right’ zoning districts, or a regional hearing body to approve housing developments.”

The report was funded by MTC, but ABAG is a party to it as well. According to ABAG’s website, BACEI and the Bay Area Council, the lobby for the region’s biggest businesses, are the land use planning agency’s “leading institutional partners.” ABAG appoints one-third of the BACEI’s thirty-nine member Board of Trustees. Ezra Rapport is one of ABAG’s appointees. Rapport was also a member of the “Roadmap”’s nine-person Project Steering Committee. So was Heminger, who also sits on the BACEI board. If this is what the two executive directors envision for regional government in the Bay Area, we’d be better off with the current fragmented arrangement. Before the merger study gets under way, the cities and towns of the region, and the people who live and work in them, need to find out.

A good place to start is the November 13 meeting of the ABAG Administrative and MTC Planning Committees. It begins at 9:30 am at the MetroCenter. The merger study is the last item on the agenda, followed by public comment.