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Commission Laments Olsen's "Loss;" Frick Defends Department

By Oliver Lukacs and Jorge Casuso
Staff Writers

July 14 -- A new era may have been quietly ushered in at the Planning Commission last week, when board members grudgingly bid farewell to their ousted leader, Kelly Olsen, and Planning Director Suzanne Frick shot back at his repeated accusations that her department is corrupt.

The sparsely attended meeting Wednesday already has been scrutinized on videotape by public officials and political pundits searching for tell-tale signs of a power shift, analyzing pauses and utterances for their psychological underpinnings and taking in the high drama.

The absence of Olsen -- who for four years served as the backbone and moral compass of the commission -- seemed to have left the five old board members present at a loss and neglecting to welcome new commissioner Terry O’Day until nearly 15 minutes into the meeting.

It was clear that this would be no ordinary meeting when Frick interrupted her customary opening report -- which noted that the City Council had appointed a new commissioner and upheld a Planning Commission appeal -- to allow the commission to say a few words about Olsen.

What followed was an unprecedented eulogy for a fallen “hero,” whose removal, the commissioners said, was a politically motivated “tragedy” that should serve as a warning that “people who look out for residents' rights better look out for themselves on reappointments.”

Opening the remarks was Commission Chair Darrell Clarke, who along with Commissioner Barbara Brown, was unanimously reappointed to a second four-year term.

Clarke said Olsen’s contribution during his tenure -- serving two years as chair -- was “quite fundamental in the direction this commission had taken,” in “seeking a better balance between neighborhood interests” and in “asserting the appropriate role of the planning commission in a number of decisions.”

Clarke also praised Olsen for “seeking a level of civility and collegiality among the commissioners and at the same time not being shy about speaking up for what he believed in. I wanted to say that very much for the record.”

Olsen, said Commissioner Arlene Hopkins, is a "hero" for his "fearlessness and his willingness to fight the good fight in spite of all the obstacles that are thrown in his way, all the criticism that is thrown his way.

"He’s the kind of person who will stand up for the right thing, and he will struggle," said Hopkins. "I see him as being a hero. He is a heroic person.”

Commissioner Jay P. Johnson called Olsen's loss a tragedy, noting that the commission had lost a member who provided an institutional memory that went back more than a decade. (Olsen served on the City Council between 1990 and 1994.)

“It’s a tragedy to the City that we lost Kelly Olsen as a commissioner here," Johnson said. "And tragedy is a strong word, and I understand that, but I use it on purpose. The tragedy in my mind is this issue of institutional memory.

“Institutional memory is one of the most valuable ingredients boards and commissions could have assuming they have people on them that have that sense of institutional memory," Johnson said. "That to me is the single strongest element that Kelly brought to the board."

Johnson also praised Olsen's involvement in the community.

"He would see a situation in the community, and he would bring it before us and he’d be tenacious about it and keep pushing, ‘We’ve got to do something about this here, we’ve got to do something here,’" Johnson said. "And after three, four, six times, finally, in most cases, things were done."

Commissioner Julie Lopez Dad, who was the first to welcome commissioner O’Day -- assuring him that “none of our sentiment has to do with you, and I anticipate that we’ll all have a very nice working relationship" -- said it was “a sad day for residents of the City.”

“There are a lot of disturbing things about Commissioner Olsen no longer being here,” said Dad. “He’s provided and created the cohesiveness and made the planning commission a unit, a working unit. It takes a while for any commission made of individuals to get to that point, so we’ll have to find our way to that point again, and without that leadership, but I am sure we will do it.

“Kelly helped us to reach consensus, it was a very important aspect to him," Dad said. "His critics have never focused on that and don’t want to. The consensus that this commission reached was always due to Kelly’s efforts, and it took us a long way”

Echoing other commissioners, Barbara Brown said she was "very disappointed" with the City Council, which fell one vote short of reappointing Olsen, with Councilman Michael Feinstein casting the deciding vote.

"I think what you have done is a disservice, and I think what you did was very shortsighted," Brown said.

Several of the commissioners addressed the camera directly in the hopes Olsen would be watching the live CityTV broadcast on his birthday. “I’m sure you’re watching tonight," Johnson said. "I’m sorry we lost you.”

After listening to the commissioners sing Olsen's praises, Frick returned to her report. In a carefully worded five-minute speech -- also unprecedented for its candid comments -- Frick rebuffed Olsen’s public “attack” on herself and her department.

Without mentioning him by name, Frick implied that Olsen was responsible for the "morale" of a department he has repeatedly charged is corrupt and mismanaged.

“I have worked in this profession for 25 years and it has only been in the last two years that my integrity, honesty and professionalism has been really called into question,” Frick began.

She said se would "welcome" the management audit called for by the commission under Olsen’s leadership. “I want to let you know that I welcome a comprehensive evaluation, so the accusations, innuendoes and false impressions can finally be put to rest," Frick said. "I and the staff of PCD (Planning and Community Development) have absolutely nothing to hide."

Frick noted that last year her staff assisted more than 150,000 people, while the commission only "came in contact with 250 of those people. I want to let you know that you are basing your impressions on how my Department is managed from contact with two tenths of one percent of our customers.

“We are not bureaucratic robots, we are human, we're not perfect and we make mistakes," Frick said. "Neither my staff nor me have any hidden agendas, allegiances to one group or another, or ulterior motives in the work that we do. We are here to do the best job that we can.

“You yield considerable power over the daily lives of staff. You have the power to make the work environment a negative or positive experience. Your actions and behavior impact every one of the 100 employees in PCD. When you publicly attack one of us, you attack all of us.

“The mischaracterizations and accusations are impacting the morale of my department and my ability to retain outstanding employees. People have choices in what jobs they work in. They don't have to work here. I want to make it perfectly clear that this is a difficult period for staff, in addition to a very difficult period for this commission, and we really need to come together.”

In his first remarks as a commissioner, O’Day said all the previous comments gave him “an insight into my new role and in particular the size of the shoes I’m filling. I hope to pick up on some of the good qualities that you described today.

“I think you’ll find I’m open-minded, and a I’m listener, and that I don’t bring any preconceived notions about how this commission operates, and what it means to be a commissioner," said O'Day, the owner of a Los Angeles-based electric vehicle rent-a-car company. "I am here to listen and to learn.”

"Officially" welcoming O’Day and wrapping up the farewell to Olsen, Clarke said he did not expect any major changes in the commission's direction.

“There are seven individuals still on this commission who I think share a set of values," Clarke said. "The six of us have been working together for quite a while, and if anyone is expecting major changes in what this commission stands for, they're not going to see it."

Clarke then moved on to the routine business of the commission.

“Well, I guess we are now onto the more conventional part of the agenda, what we do week in and week out. Item 5A Design Compatibility Permit 03-003 and Vesting Tentative Tract Map 53685… to allow the construction of a new three-story, five-unit…"

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