Casting aside years of broad, vague and feel-good "priorities," Palo Alto officials on Saturday selected infrastructure repairs, technological improvements and the myriad issues surrounding downtown development as the official priorities that will dominate the city's attention in 2013.
In a first-of-its-kind retreat in the Palo Alto Art Center, the City Council broke away from the recent practice of including such things as city finances and environmental sustainability on the list. These two standby "priorities" are now likely to be included on the city's official list of "core values," which the council plans to adopt in the spring.
In a series of votes unsurprising to anyone who has watched a recent council meeting, council members quickly agreed to focus their 2013 workload on two hot-button items that topped the agenda for much of 2012: the city's aged infrastructure and the recent flurry of community complaints about parking and traffic problems caused by downtown developments. Council members agreed unanimously that these two areas deserve special attention in the coming year.
They then added the third priority, "technology and the connected city," with numerous council members expressing enthusiasm about harnessing technology to deliver services more efficiently and to encourage greater citizen engagement.
The process at Saturday's retreat was more structured than in years past, when council members brainstormed about possible priorities in an ad hoc fashion, made a list of ideas and voted on adopted priorities by placing colorful stickers next to their choices. The goal this year was to adopt priorities that would be more concrete and timely than those in the past.
The new definition of "priority" now refers to a topic that will "receive particular, unusual and significant attention during the year." Mayor Greg Scharff said each priority would also now be "achievable within three years."
When it comes to city repairs, the council specifically adopted as its priority "infrastructure strategy and funding," the wording suggested by Councilman Pat Burt. The issue has been a topic of much debate since 2011, when the Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Commission completed a report analyzing the city's infrastructure needs and proposed ways to pay for the items on the list.
The citizen commission had identified a $41.5 million "deferred maintenance" backlog; recommended that the city raise its capital spending by $2.2 million annually; and concluded that the city's police building and two of its fire stations are in need of urgent replacement.
Councilman Marc Berman, who had served on the commission, said the group's report created a good "road map" for the city to follow on the complex topic. This year, staff and consultants will be conducting polls, holding focus groups and taking other steps to set the stage for a possible 2014 bond measure that would fund some of the infrastructure items. With each council member citing infrastructure as a priority on his or her own list prior the retreat, its inclusion on the council's official priority list was a foregone conclusion.
In terms of downtown parking and traffic issues, the council agreed to make "future of downtown and California Avenue" a 2013 priority. Councilman Larry Klein noted the community had sent a strong message last year that this is something the city should focus on and said the council should respond to residents' concerns. Newly elected Councilwoman Liz Kniss said downtown parking was one issue she heard about more than anything other when on the campaign trail last year.
The only disagreement was over semantics, with Burt and Klein opting for the broader "future of downtown and California Avenue" and Councilwomen Gail Price and Kniss favoring the more targeted "downtown districts: urban design and transportation." The council ultimately opted for the broader wording Burt suggested and agreed to list the specific issues of "transportation, urban design, parking and livability" as a subtitle.
Every council member also said he or she strongly supports making technology a priority, though opinions ranged about what this means. At a minimum, it includes taking another look at whether the city should use its expand its "dark fiber" ring to become a citywide "fiber to the premises" system that would bring high-speed Internet to every residence. Last year, the Utilities Advisory Commission, acting on a staff recommendation, voted 4-3 to terminate the effort, which the city has explored for more than a decade.
But council members said Saturday that they remain open to re-examining the fiber-optics project. Kniss noted that Kansas City, Mo., and Chattanooga, Tenn., offer their residents citywide high-speed Internet and recommended that the city explore those projects.
"Other cities are making this work," Kniss said. "I think an important thing for us to do as a city is to learn from other cities."
Klein talked about the city's potential to harness technology to promote economic growth without increasing traffic congestion and further worsening downtown's parking problems. He advocated making the city "as technologically advanced as possible."
"The more this has been focused on, the more enthusiastic I get about it," Klein said. "We had a variety of technology things going on, but we never really brought them together and considered them in an organized and coherent way."
Councilwoman Karen Holman lobbied her colleagues to include "health city/healthy community" as a fourth priority. The concept of a "healthy city," as expressed by the World Health Organization in 1986, refers to a "one that is continually creating and improving those physical and social environments and expanding those community resources that enable people to mutually support each other in performing all the functions of life and in developing to their maximum potential." Making this a priority, Holman said, would commit the city to implement specific programs to promote a healthy community.
But Holman proposal fell one vote short of adoption, with only Price, Berman and Greg Schmid joining supporting making "healthy city" a priority.
The Saturday decisions mark the first time in recent history that all priorities are brand new. The two perennial items -- "city finances" and "environmental sustainability" -- are finally off the list, though members stressed that they are no less important than in the past.
In April, the council plans to adopt "core values" that are expected to include those two items along with "youth well-being" and "emergency preparedness" -- two other 2012 priorities that are not on the new priority list. Another past priority that could now be redefined as a "core value" is "civic engagement" -- a subject that the council views as important but difficult to measure.