They may not be elected officials or department heads, but five members of the City of Palo Alto staff are almost certain to play critical roles in some of the city's most pressing problems and boldest initiatives in 2013. Here's a look at some important people you may never even have heard of.
Pamela Antil didn't have time for a learning curve when she joined the city in March 2010 as City Manager James Keene's second in command. As the new assistant city manager, she dove right into some of the city's thorniest and game-changing issues, including labor negotiations with public-safety unions, the overhaul of the city's busy and famously frustrating Development Center, the unpopular (and since nixed) proposal to close Palo Alto's animal shelter and the restructuring of the city's Fire Department, which has been gradually merging its administrative functions with the Police Department. Though the budget picture has brightened, Palo Alto is still facing its share of financial problems, most notably the rapidly rising cost of employee benefits. And the animal shelter, while still open, faces an uncertain future with major staffing cuts ahead. Whatever surprises 2013 brings, Antil is sure to remain busy over the next 12 months.
Phil Bobel probably knows better than anyone (with the possible exception of Kermit the Frog) that being green can be a royal pain. Over the past two years, the assistant director of the Public Works Department has been walking a fine line between two outspoken green camps -- those who want to build a new waste-to-energy plant at Byxbee Park and those who want to conserve the park space. The complex debate, which will determine the future of local composting, will accelerate in 2013 and, if things go as planned, culminate in a decision in early 2014. While coordinating all the ongoing studies and facilitating the public debate, Bobel has established himself as a credible and genial voice of reason on the highly emotional topic. At the same time, he is serving as the point man in the city's battle against plastic bags (which could soon result in a citywide bag ban for all food establishments) and is heavily involved in Palo Alto's library-construction project, which will loom large in 2013 as the city opens its new Mitchell Park Library and Community Center and begins renovating the Main Library.
Rob de Geus
When a cluster of teenage suicides in 2009 and 2010 plunged the Palo Alto community into a period of shock, mourning and soul-searching, city and school officials vowed to do more to support local youths. No one has done more than Rob de Geus to further this effort. As the manager in the Community Services Department, de Geus had been juggling a massive workload even before the city helped launch Project Safety Net, a broad coalition of community groups focusing on teen mental health. He is also the city's recreation manager and the overseer of the Palo Alto Municipal Golf Course, which is about to undergo a dramatic reconfiguration. With myriad projects under his purview, de Geus has been a multipurpose utility knife in a department that has seen an exodus of division managers. In the next year, as the city begins to reassess its vision for local parks and recreation opportunities and proceeds with the golf-course redesign, his presence will be more critical than ever.
Since he starting working in Palo Alto in 2010, Chief Transportation Official Jaime Rodriguez has become the leading driver of some of the city's most ambitious and controversial programs -- from the lane-reduction projects on Arastradero Road to the more dramatic reconfiguration of California Avenue, which is scheduled to break ground in the fall. During that time, the fast-talking and energetic Rodriguez has attracted the highest praise from local planning commissioners for his encyclopedic mastery of seemingly every local intersection and regional grant program. He has also taken his share of heat from California Avenue merchants upset about the proposed lane reduction on their commercial strip. He was also instrumental in helping Palo Alto and Stanford University land $10 million in grants from Santa Clara County in November, money that will be used to design a new bike bridge over U.S. Highway 101 and new trails around Stanford University and along Matadero Creek.
For Palo Alto's Utilities Department, delivering gas or electricity to local residents is just one part of the game. The small but ambitious department is always looking for ways to get greener and more efficient, whether it comes to buying solar energy or encouraging customers to be more efficient about plugging in. Senior Resource Planner Shiva Swaminathan has been at the forefront of the latter effort, having spent years thinking about ways to bring "smart-grid" technology to Palo Alto without having to install expensive smart meters. Unlike PG&E, Palo Alto is proceeding in baby steps. Its latest proposal to save customers money by lowering their energy bills is CustomerConnect, a pilot program that tracks energy use and provides customers with next-day feedback about the impact of their behaviors on electric bills. If it succeeds, the program would both lower customer bills and make the city's electric utility smarter and more efficient.