Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Comprehension Test

File photo: Mayor Linda Thompson.

File photo: Mayor Linda Thompson.

At a press conference Tuesday morning, Mayor Linda Thompson announced that the city was at last embarking on an update to its comprehensive plan.

“Comprehensive” and “plan” were just two of many words that produced, at least in this reporter, a tremor of despair. (Others were “grassroots,” “people-centric,” and “consulting firm.”) At a certain point, one tires of hearing about initiatives and starts longing for achievements. In a city saturated with unconsummated plans, could the mayor really be unveiling a new one?

A so-called comprehensive plan, unlike a recovery plan drafted by a receiver, is not a Harrisburg novelty. In 1928, the U.S. Department of Commerce published a Standard City Planning Enabling Act, one of a pair of acts that would help states delegate their powers to local governments for the purposes of zoning and planning. They were called “enabling” because their goal was to activate, through standardized legislation, the states’ existing but largely untapped authority to shape their inhabited land. “We have helped to prove that these slumbering powers of legislatures can be used for the benefit of growing cities,” Edward Bassett, an attorney who helped draft the acts, said at a 1928 conference in New York City.

In Pennsylvania, the legislation that governs city planning is the Municipalities Planning Code, which includes a section on comprehensive plans. Such plans are called “comprehensive” because they incorporate strategies for transportation, housing, land use, and historic preservation, among other things. Their primary aim, according to Tom Daniels, a professor at the UPenn City and Regional Planning Program, is to “set forth a vision for a city over the next twenty years or more.” A secondary purpose is to ensure that the city’s zoning ordinances, which determine what sorts of buildings can be built where, are coordinated with the community’s overall vision of its development. (The lack of a plan, Daniels said, “leads to a lot of court cases.”)

There’s wide agreement that Harrisburg needs a comprehensive plan. The city last commissioned one in 1974, and it hasn’t been updated since; one of the receiver’s early recommendations was to reboot it. And the sort of planning involved is not typically a subject of controversy. Communities broadly want the same things—good roads, good jobs, safe schools, clean parks—and the planning process should be an opportunity for shared dreams rather than discord.

Yet by Wednesday night, when the mayor hosted the first of several public meetings, the process had already been polluted by the usual mix of skepticism, indifference, and squabbling. The event, at the John Harris High School auditorium, was sparsely attended, in part because it competed with the highly anticipated Miller-Papenfuse debate at the State Museum. During public comment, Nevin Mindlin, the one-time independent candidate for mayor, lashed Thompson and her team for a lack of transparency and for failing to follow the planning code.

“A comprehensive plan is supposed to start with the governing body, which is City Council,” Mindlin said. “I would urge we take this to City Council and do this properly.” There had been talk of a steering committee, appointed by the mayor, that had already begun meeting with the consulting team. Mindlin, citing open-records law, demanded access to the names of its members and minutes from their meetings. At some point, Robert Philbin, the city’s chief operating officer, tried to wave him along—“Mr. Mindlin, we’ll pursue this issue later,” he said—but that only led to further hectoring from the aisle.

Why did this happen? An unfortunate hallmark of Thompson’s mayoralty is that occasions that ought to be uncontroversial wind up generating ill will. In the case of the comprehensive plan, the trouble was a combination of vagaries, contradictions, and legal improvisations.

First, at Tuesday’s press conference, it was immediately apparent that Thompson was not prepared to reveal the nuts and bolts of the process—either because she didn’t know what they were, or didn’t want to share them. Asked about the members of the steering committee, for example, she initially described it as “a cross-section of people that represent the city,” but wouldn’t name names. I asked her to confirm that Dave Black, the president and CEO of the Capital Region Economic Development Corporation, was a member.

“I wouldn’t say Dave Black,” Thompson replied. “I would say ‘CREDC.’” (Actually, Black’s involvement is substantial. CREDC has volunteered time and staff to develop an “economic development strategy” alongside the comprehensive plan. At Wednesday’s public meeting, Black sat on stage with Thompson and members of Mullin & Lonergan, the consulting firm the city has employed to help draft the plan.)

Second, the mayor kept scrambling basic facts which, had she gotten them right, would have raised the undertaking above suspicion. On Tuesday, she initially said that City Council was involved in the steering committee; then she amended this, saying council “was asked to send four people, and I haven’t seen any representation,” a fact she attributed to “an apathy in the atmosphere.” Councilman Bruce Weber, however, had told me late last week he was a member, though he had only been invited in June. When I asked Thompson about Weber, she immediately amended her answer once again: “Bruce Weber is, yes, absolutely.”

The same confusion extended to the consulting firm, which the city has retained on a relatively scant budget of around $150,000. On Tuesday, Thompson told reporters the project had not been competitively bid, because the city had already employed Mullin & Lonergan for help with its housing strategy. On Wednesday night, when I tried to confirm this, she and the consultants offered a correction: the firm was actually chosen from a group of four that had submitted proposals in 2012. She promised to make the request for proposals, the names of competing firms, and the Mullin & Lonergan contract available, but on Thursday, her office qualified this promise, saying they would exercise the five days the right-to-know law grants them to provide the information.

And finally, in launching the planning process, the Thompson administration appears to be rather loosely interpreting state law. The planning code spells out that a planning commission, comprised of between three and nine members, is meant to spearhead any initiative to draft a comprehensive plan. The appointments are to be confirmed by the city’s “governing body”—Mindlin interprets this to mean City Council, though it’s actually a legal gray area, according to Weber—and its ranks are to be dominated by citizens who don’t work for the government.

Instead, the mayor has designated a “steering committee” consisting of 25 seats, 10 of which are to be filled by government officials, including the state-appointed receiver, and three of which are filled by developers.* In her defense, she’s working under extraordinary constraints. The city’s planning commission is essentially defunct, and under Act 47, governance by the books has been thrown into limbo. Thompson appears to have initiated the process at the receiver’s behest, and her committee appointments appear to have his blessing. Yet the muddle has compromised any perception that the plan will be community-driven.

Despite this, the mayor has continued to emphasize the need for public involvement. “People have always accused their government of not involving them,” Thompson said at one point during the press conference. “Under my government, that hasn’t been the case.”

But inviting the public to be involved is not the same as ensuring they are. A surefire way to achieve low engagement is to bury proceedings under layers of executive decisions and foregone conclusions. The public has been asked to add its voice to a process that apparently began a year and a half ago, and which has only very gradually been brought to light—and a murky light, at that. It would be nice if residents came out in droves to contribute, but if they don’t, it won’t be a surprise.

So if the process is not about community engagement, then what is it really about? Among the words repeated on Wednesday were two familiar ones, uttered mostly by the mayor herself: “Thompson” and “administration.” “I’m honored to have launched this,” she said on stage, in a phrase that was characteristically Thompson: half gracious, half self-laudatory. If the process so far is any measure, her focus is not so much on “community” as on a word that went unsaid. That word is “legacy,” though for Thompson, regrettably, it may not mean what she thinks.

*On Friday, the city published an updated list that contained additional members. The list can be reviewed here.

Correction: An earlier edition of this article incorrectly listed Professor Tom Daniels’ school as the Penn State School of Design. Prof. Daniels teaches in the City and Regional Planning Program at the UPenn School of Design.

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