News


City to institute public 'rules of decorum'

Guidelines were in the works, capped by Thursday night outbursts at public meeting

In the wake of a community meeting Thursday in which one man nearly hit another during a verbal dispute, the City of Palo Alto is considering rules for public behavior.

Assistant City Attorney Don Larkin confirmed that guidelines for public participation at meetings could debut within a month and that the City Manager's office has been actively developing the rules.

"We were working on it before last night. But that (meeting) drove home the point that we should have guidelines for people leading the meetings," Larkin said Friday.

"We can regulate disruptive behavior. If people are getting up in the meeting and shouting, we can ask those people to leave," he added.

"It's a little more difficult to control a workshop like (Thursday's) because we are trying to encourage people to dialogue" at it, Larkin said.

In addition to the new rules, the city's interim planning director, Curtis Williams, said he will be "front and center" at future community gatherings on land-use and may facilitate them to ensure that they run smoothly.

The focus of Thursday's meeting was the redevelopment of the California Avenue and Fry's Electronics area and was intended by the city as a forum to gain public input. But during the gathering at Lucie Stern Community Center, attendees shouted at one another and at the meeting facilitator, and afterwards, one man threw a punch, stopping inches from the other man's face.

One of the men involved in the altercation, former library commissioner Sanford Forte, ended up calling the police and has said that he intends to press charges against the other man, resident Gary Holl.

The feuding began when Holl's wife, Victoria, stood up and began addressing consultant and meeting facilitator David Early in a loud voice.

Victoria Holl asked Early, founder of Berkeley-based Design, Community & Environment, how far into the development-plan process the city has already gone. Early did not directly respond to her question, and Holl shouted: "Answer the question."

Holl said she felt Early had a bias toward dense housing and that he was leading the discussion in a direction that did not seem neutral.

Early objected to the tenor of her questioning, saying at one point that he would not allow a small group of people to hijack the process.

"Excuse me. I'm a resident of the city. I pay taxes. I pay your paycheck," Holl said.

During the exchange, Forte turned around in his chair, partially standing, and said to Holl: "Show some respect."

Forte interrupted Holl several more times as she continued to insist Early answer her, and Holl made an obscene hand gesture at Forte, which Early chastised her for.

"After three interruptions, I felt the gesture was appropriate, as you were not getting control of your meeting," she said.

Other attendees, bothered by Forte's interjections, yelled at him to be quiet.

"I don't like how she's talk--" Forte started to say, when Barron Park resident Doug Moran finally shouted in Forte's face. "Sanford, shut up!"

Early then said that he and the city had not engaged in any planning before the meeting, and he moved the discussion on to other, less controversial topics, such as the need to create open space.

"Only once in my 20-year career have we ever had an outburst like we did tonight," he said at the end of the meeting. He apologized "for the tone this meeting has taken."

Holl said she was shaken by the exchange and had felt attacked by Forte.

Ronna Devincenzi, president of the California Avenue Area Development Association, said she thought Holl had a valid question. She added that emotions were running high because many residents do not trust the city. One topic that resurfaced was that many felt the city has favored developers, to the detriment of schools, traffic and parking.

But while the meeting had ended, the argument between the Holls and Forte continued. How it transpired is a matter of differing opinion between the two parties.

They agree that Forte and Devincenzi stood talking on the sidewalk in front of the Lucie Stern Community Center after the meeting.

Gary Holl said in an e-mail on Friday that Forte was in the middle of the walkway.

"I made a comment to Sanford that he was rude and should have let Victoria finish framing her question to the facilitator. He insisted he was right and kept talking while I was trying to talk calmly to him. He escalated his voice, and he said he was a black belt, so I told him that was a threat and he should throw the first punch. The facilitator then came out of the community center and volunteered to escort us to the parking lot," Holl wrote.

Forte and other witnesses said the Holls approached Forte and told him they had heard he was a "well-known (expletive)."

Witnesses saw Gary Holl move close to Forte's face, yelling expletives, while the diminutive Devincenzi called for the men to stop and attempted to get between them to diffuse the argument.

Holl was seen throwing a punch at Forte, stopping only an inch from his face, and was heard taunting Forte, according to witnesses.

At that point, Early's staff interceded, asking if they should call the police. Forte said they should. Early then accompanied the Holls as they left.

"No one should come out of a public meeting and be threatened by anyone. ... This breaches all limits," Forte said as he dialed the Palo Alto police.

Forte said Friday that he only stated he was a black belt as a warning after Holl had threatened him.

Forte said he has attended too many meetings at which people have engaged in personal attacks against others with whom they disagree. A former library commissioner, Forte cited personal criticisms of former library director Paula Simpson as an example of how some in the community have let their differences get out of control.

"Comments directed to city staff and consultants should not imply that the person who is there to deliver information should be personally attacked," he said.

Forte said he felt that was happening to Early and that he wanted to bring a tone of civility to the meeting.

"In all fairness, I could've waited until Victoria finished her attack and then I could've raised my hand and (asked for people to show some respect)," he conceded.

Forte said he hopes the city will develop rules that will stop abusive verbal exchanges at public meetings.

Assistant City Attorney Larkin said that the city, in addition to the guidelines, was also considering training staff members in how to "decompress tense situations."

"We're certainly not going to have cops at every meeting," he said. But "we should have people trained at every meeting" that is likely to be controversial.

The second public workshop on the California Avenue concept plan is tentatively scheduled for March 26, from 7 to 9 p.m., at the Lucie Stern Community Center.

Previous story:

o Altercation erupts at California Avenue meeting

Comments

 +   Like this comment
Posted by bruce
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 14, 2009 at 5:52 am

> community meeting Thursday in which one man nearly hit another
> during a verbal dispute, the City of Palo Alto is considering rules
> for public behavior.

Huh ... a community meeting someone hit someone else? Were there
witnesses, and who was it and what the hell happened?

I thought that was illegal. What is wrong with people these days, they
cannot keep their tempers in check or their mouths.

I just cannot believe the way things seem to be devolving in this
country ... what the heck is wrong with people?

Is there a story explaining what happened?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by bruce
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 14, 2009 at 5:56 am

there is an art to leading a meeting so this kind of thing does not happen.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 14, 2009 at 7:50 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Threatening someone or disrupting a public assembly has always been illegal, even as pusillanimous leaders were intimidated or in sympathy with the disruption. You seldom hear of Hell's Angels meeting disruptions.No new laws!


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Ms. Holl
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 14, 2009 at 8:26 am

Once again I will clarify this reporters paraphrasing of my comments. I am not sure why she insists on tying my comments to housing. I said nothing, absolutely nothing, about housing. Maybe someone else who joined the debate did, but it was not me. I would appreciate it if this reporter would stop putting words in my mouth.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Decorum????
a resident of Stanford
on Feb 14, 2009 at 9:03 am

Included in the rules of decorum will be a ban on people criticizing elected officials of the city council and/or questioning how they spend our money.
When addressing city council members, they will be shown the proper respect and addressed as "Your Worship, Councilman Klein" or "Your Holiness Councilwoman Kishimoto" as examples.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by big Al
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 14, 2009 at 9:52 am

Sounds like we need a timeout for some of these "adults"-


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Chris
a resident of Community Center
on Feb 14, 2009 at 10:01 am

"Only once in my 20-year career have we ever had an outburst like we did tonight,"

If this happens only once every 20 years, does it justify new rules? I would think it more effective to simply train discussion leaders in conflict resolution techniques.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Big Al
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 14, 2009 at 10:06 am

and finally...perhaps much like sanford.....
I've often noticed that when meetings are getting heated, like the one mentioned,
it is often quite helpful to to make rude hand gestures in order to gain a tone of civility.
Works every time!


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Karen White
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 14, 2009 at 10:15 am

Chris of Community Center makes a good point. An angry outburst once every two decades certainly does not justify spending scarce city resources paying staff to make new "rules" that may not be adhered to, even if and when they are adopted.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Me Too
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 14, 2009 at 10:21 am

I am really discouraged about the future of Palo Alto. The town seems to have a real overdose of rude, extreme, and just bad people, vocally pushing their own agendas and stoking their own egos. That includes the City Council. It is hard to see how this place ends well - the leadership seems bad, and active constituents just as bad.

There aren't many problems you can't address with people of good will and character working together. But there aren't many you can't screw up without that. We seem likely to continue to screw things up pretty badly.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 14, 2009 at 10:57 am

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Be realistic
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Feb 14, 2009 at 11:26 am

How do you enforce "Rules of Decorum?" Does this mean the tax payers will finance a Police Officer in attendance at every City sponsored meeting?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Interacting
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 14, 2009 at 12:01 pm

Isn't it the job of the facilitator to manage the meeting and make sure people are treated with respect? At most meetings I've attended there are guidelines or agreements. While the City can come up with "Rules of Decorum", it will still be the facilitator's job to enforce these rules.

From a previous thread about this meeting, the facilitator, David Early, lost control of the meeting and lost his temper. Check out the link below to the story from Friday about the meeting and the extensive comments from people who attended.

Web Link


 +   Like this comment
Posted by bruce
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 14, 2009 at 12:44 pm

"me too" said:
> There aren't many problems you can't address with people of
> good will and character working together. But there aren't
> many you can't screw up without that. We seem likely to
> continue to screw things up pretty badly.

Me too, "me too" ... good point.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by No Drama
a resident of another community
on Feb 14, 2009 at 1:43 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Douglas Moran
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 14, 2009 at 3:12 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

New rules of decorum are not only unnecessary but harmful. In the current environment, such rules will be seen by many as another method to suppress residents' dissenting opinions.

What is needed is a City Council and staff that will enforce a fair process. The outburst inside the meeting occurred when residents fought back against being steamrolled yet again by "the Palo Alto Process." The frustration among residents is that they have been ignored, dismissed and disparaged too consistently over too many years.

Note: For the 2007 Council election, I wrote a series of essays on this very problem that achieved only limited distribution but that is still very relevant: Web Link.

--- Summary of info (me and others) on thread from original story "Fight/Altercation erupts at California Avenue meeting" Web Link

Everything was polite and respectful until provoked by the consultant who grossly misrepresented what had gone on in the five discussion group (I confirmed this with people in the other groups). When a majority of the audience objected, the consultant aggravated the situation by stating "that he would not let a small group of people hijack the process.", thereby dismissing the majority.

Ms Holl's underlying question was whether we residents were just wasting our time on something that was already decided. This was an opportunity for the consultant to repair the damage, but instead he admonished Ms. Holl and when she attempted to reply was interrupted by Mr Forte. I was in the front row, I twice said to the consultant/moderator that he needed to tell Mr. Forte to stop interrupting, but he allowed Mr Forte's disruptive behavior to continue. This created the impression that there was one set of rules for those who disagreed with the consultant/moderator and no rules for those who agreed with him.

---

As a measure of how bad things are, the consultant's overall performance was vastly superior to that of the previous consultants (2006) on this area. His performance as a moderator was about average - he just had a audience that was less willing to be suppressed in the name of "civility". Talk about low expectations.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Douglas Moran
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 14, 2009 at 3:15 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

(separate posting because it is a separate topic)
I was disappointed, but hardly surprised, by the one-sided (positive) portrayal of Mr. Forte in this and the previous articles. Articles such as this exacerbate the frustration of residents because they see the press as routinely siding with the powers-that-be (and against them).

Details on this specific instance: Mr Forte is portrayed as someone seeking civility in meetings when his history and reputation are quite different. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

The most egregious case of disruptive behavior in a meeting occurred several years ago (early 2006?) when the then-Library Director Paula Simpson held what was advertised as a meeting for public input on plans for the Downtown Library, but at that meeting, brazenly declared that she had already made her decision and nothing that was said at that meeting would change it. Mr. Forte was at the meeting and as a member of the Library Advisory Commission (LAC), he _could_ have shown leadership and stood up for a fair process. Instead, Mr Forte interrupted members of the public who stood up for their rights (much as he did at this recent meeting), escalating the anger and hostility until the meeting irretrievably disintegrated.

If you don't understand the lack of trust, consider that City Council members saw nothing wrong with either Ms Simpson's or Mr Forte's conduct, reappointing Mr Forte to the LAC shortly after this.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Decorum????
a resident of Stanford
on Feb 14, 2009 at 3:55 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


 +   Like this comment
Posted by anonymous
a resident of another community
on Feb 14, 2009 at 4:11 pm

Doug Moran: "New rules of decorum are not only unnecessary but harmful. In the current environment, such rules will be seen by many as another method to suppress residents' dissenting opinions."

It appears that Doug Moran continues to characterize those he disagrees with as "suppressors of public opinion". [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.] Mr. Forte has always been civil, and an incisive, passionate, and intelligent commentator in the online forums - always providing facts and educated opinions. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


 +   Like this comment
Posted by no chance
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 14, 2009 at 4:47 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


 +   Like this comment
Posted by svatoid
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Feb 14, 2009 at 5:30 pm

svatoid is a registered user.

Having followed this thread from the beginning, I find the selective editing of comments by the Staff confounding. I have read most of the comments before they were butchered by the staff, I might add.
As an example, Doug Moran's post above regarding sanford forte has been heavily edited, but it still calls into question Mr Forte's character without providing any proof for Moran's allegation. A subsequent post, in which Mr Moran was asked to provide proof for his comments was completely removed.
Why is Mr Moran being given a pass bythe editors to denigrate other's in our community, but those that dare question his postings are either edited or removed completely.
It seems to me that the forum editors have gone out of their way to protect Mr Moran despite his well known feelings regarding those that disagree with him.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Carroll Harrington
a resident of Community Center
on Feb 14, 2009 at 5:58 pm

Carroll Harrington is a registered user.

I suggest that everyone read "Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In" by Bruce M. Patton, William L. Ury, Roger Fisher from Harvard Negotiation Project. Here are the eight guidelines for discussions:

Separate the people from the problem.
Focus on interests, not positions.
Listen actively and acknowledge what is being said.
Speak about yourself, not them.
Speak for a purpose.
Build a working relationship.
Realize that each side has multiple interests. ("The most powerful interests are basic human needs: security, economic well-being, a sense of belonging, recognition, control over one's life.")
Acknowledge others' interests as part of the problem.
Be concrete but flexible.
Be hard on the problem, soft on the people.
Invent options for mutual gain, and look for mutual gain.
Don't defend your ideas, invite criticism and advice.
INSIST ON USING OBJECTIVE CRITERIA.

I have found these very useful in a number of projects, including the development of the Individual Review Guidelines after 17 months of meeting as cochair of The Future of Single Family Neighborhoods Group 2000.

Carroll Harrington



 +   Like this comment
Posted by pat
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 15, 2009 at 12:19 pm

pat is a registered user.

I don't understand why this forum is now closed to anyone who is not registered.

I'm also disturbed by some of deletions on this thread. Most of them seemed quite innocuous.

My greatest fear around issues of "public decorum" is that it stifles discussion and free speech. I'm reminded of a city council meeting years ago when Jim Burch was mayor. He shut down Aram James during his 3-minute comments because James criticized City Manager Frank Benest. James was NOT threatening and was not even yelling. (I do not know Aram James.)

I think people should be civil, but it's easy to get frustrated with our city government. As Ronna Devincenzi said in the article, "emotions were running high because many residents do not trust the city."

There is nothing wrong with emotion. Yet many seem to be threatened when people speak with passion. And it is easy to get frustrated when legitimate comments and questions are ignored by city representatives.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by svatoid
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Feb 15, 2009 at 1:39 pm

svatoid is a registered user.

Pat's example above of Burch preventing Aram James from critcizing Benest is one example of PC run amuck in PA. We also have the infamous rules against facial expressions on the council a few years back. and we have quotes from the council saying that they do not read this forum because they do not like the content (i.e. criticism of the council, their wasting of our money and their actions in general).
Rather than focusing on getting things done and accepting critcism from the citizens that elected them, the council acts like an elite bunch on lords and and ladies that seem to think that they know what is best for the hoi polloi and will brook no opposition.
Now I am sure the council will waste time and money trying to put together these "rules of decorum".


 +   Like this comment
Posted by aok
a resident of South of Midtown
on Feb 15, 2009 at 1:45 pm

aok is a registered user.

Great set of guidelines for discussion Carroll. Might I also add community meetings should be facilitated by a neutral party. How are we to trust the impartiality of David Early and his firm Design, Community & Environment when the firm has been contracted to design a plan for the area?

Now it seems Interium Planning Director, Curtis Williams will intercede for future meetings. I'm not sure this will actually improve the sentiment in the community that this is a done deal. I hope the City seriously considers hiring a skilled neutral facilitator.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by jardins
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 17, 2009 at 2:55 pm

jardins is a registered user.

How about the City spending another $500,000 on a consultant--this time a behavioral sciences guru to lead public meetings?


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