News

Palo Alto voters to weigh in on a smaller council

City Council committee approves placing on November ballot measures for fewer seats, longer terms

Palo Alto voters will likely have a chance in November to do something that hasn't been done in more than four decades: change the number of seats on their City Council.

The council's Policy and Services Committee recommended on Tuesday night a ballot measure that would reduce the number of council seats from nine to seven. The committee also gave the nod to a separate ballot measure that would extend term limits for council members from two terms to three. Both recommendations came on a 3-1 vote, with Gail Price, Larry Klein and Greg Scharff supporting them and Greg Schmid dissenting.

Both changes were proposed in a June 2013 memo from Vice Mayor (now mayor) Nancy Shepherd, Councilwoman (now vice mayor) Liz Kniss and Price, who chairs the Policy and Service Committee. The memo pointed out that most cities of comparable size have seven council members (Menlo Park has five) and argued that shifting to seven seats "could bring efficiencies of meeting effectiveness and workload, which deserves discussion and consideration while also reducing costs." The city has had nine council members since 1971, when the number of seats was reduced from 15.

The committee largely went along with the logic in the memo, though members had slightly different reasons for supporting the change. Scharff offered what he acknowledged to be a "weak" and "tentative" endorsement of the idea and called it a "difficult decision."

"I think seven is clearly more efficient; I don't think there's any question about that," he said.

But he also concurred to some degree with Schmid, who in his dissent quoted the French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville, a 19th-century observer of America's messy grassroots democracy. In opposing both a smaller council and longer terms, Schmid argued that these measures would create new barriers between the council and the public and make it more difficult for citizens to get elected. The goal should be "having diversity on the council," even if it means inefficiency. He praised Palo Alto's willingness to "put up with some of the inefficiencies with having a larger number of council members for the benefit it provides to the public."

Inefficiency, he said, (paraphrasing de Tocqueville), is the "cost of liberty."

Schmid also praised the idea of having more extensive debates and "needing a slightly larger majority to agree to pass things."

His colleagues, however, were less excited about inefficiency. Price suggested that the seat reduction could lessen the burden on staff and lead to more focused council discussions. Klein said that while the change may lead to "modest efficiencies," citizens who expect a dramatic improvement will be "sorely disappointed."

Klein also supported placing the measure on the ballot for a different reason: the challenge of finding candidates willing to serve.

"I'm increasingly concerned about the lack of candidates," said Klein, who is now in the final year of his last council term. "I think running our city has become a much more arduous job. The way the society is moving we'll have less people who can afford the time to run for office."

Klein also had no hesitation about forwarding to the ballot a proposal to extend the number of terms from two to three. Term limits, he said, "don't accomplish anything" and in fact "have negative consequences," he said. Scharff agreed and called the extension proposal "a good compromise between where we are now and having no term limits."

The logic for proceeding with the change closely followed the argument in the June 2013 memo, in which Shepherd, Kniss and Price argued that term limits keep council members from obtaining and retaining positions on influential regional boards that set policies in areas such as transportation, housing and utilities.

"To effectively represent Palo Alto's interests, the city's representatives need time to gain expertise and build seniority on these bodies," the memo stated. "Term limits interrupt this process."

Scharff concurred and said Tuesday that term limits put Palo Alto's council members at a disadvantage on the regional level. A council member who is restricted to two terms has a hard time getting enough seniority to win appointments to influential regional bodies such as the Caltrain board or the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, he said.

"I think there are a lot of regional issues and boards that (with term limits) make it really difficult for people to advance, which gives Palo Alto much less influence and I think it's something that really hurts us," Scharff said.

Price agreed and called a shift to three terms "reasonable."

"I think service as an elected official requires knowledge, requires tenacity (and) requires the time to serve and to serve well," she said.

Though the change will likely appear on the November ballot, it remains to be seen whether it makes any difference. In recent years, numerous council members (including recent mayors Peter Drekemer, Sid Espinosa and Yiaway Yeh) opted to conclude their tenures after just one term. Price, whose first term expires this year, also announced in April that she does not plan to seek a second one.

Liz Kniss noted at last month's discussion of the proposal that the average length of service hasn't really changed since the city first adopted term limits in 1992.

The new ballot measures could add a complication to the city's regular council election, which has five seats up for grabs. While Klein is termed out (and says he would not seek another term even if the ballot change suddenly granted him eligibility to do so) and Price not running, the seats of Scharff, Shepherd and Karen Holman will also be open in November. Of the three, Scharff is the only member who had said he plans to seek a second term. Shepherd and Holman have yet to announce their plans.

The council has not yet decided when the new rule would kick in -- a point on which the committee split Tuesday night. If members agree to make it effective immediately, as Klein advocated on Tuesday night, the change would have a significant impact on this year's council race because voters would still be asked to elect council members for five seats. Only three of them, however, would actually be seated if the seat-reduction measure passes.

Scharff and Price both supported having the rule take effect in 2018, thereby creating a transition period. Though Klein initially opposed this delay, on Wednesday he told the Weekly that he will support the later kick-in date because he doesn't want to confuse the voters in November.

The committee also split on separate proposal by Klein and Schmid to shorten the transition period between outgoing and incoming council members. Price and Scharff opposed the proposed changes, which Klein and Schmid first outlined in a February 2013 memo.

The changes Klein and Schmid called for included swearing in new council members on the first calendar day of the year (as opposed to the first business Monday, as under current practice) and electing the mayor and vice mayor shortly after the election results are in (as opposed to during the first meeting in January).

Comments

 +   Like this comment
Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on May 21, 2014 at 6:25 am

The proposal gave as a reason "To effectively represent Palo Alto's interests, the city's representatives need time to gain expertise and build seniority on these bodies,"

Council Member Price voted AGAINST Palo Alto interests when she voted on the VTA board to support the High Speed Rail position in a lawsuit. So much for that argument.

There were more people who ran for election when it was held in the odd number years; when Council Member Kniss and most of the current council voted to change the city council elections to be in the even number years, the same time as governor or presidential elections, we have had less candidates run.

I favor shortening the council member terms to 2 years. That way if they mislead the votes, like Scharf did on PC zoning they can get voted out sooner. And because it's an election year, the city council and city staff want to "hear from residents", they set the date to open the long delayed Mitchell Park Library in November. Just imagine if these political creatures needed to get elected every 2 years, how much more responsive they would be.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on May 21, 2014 at 6:38 am

This is the third stream on this topic. Why are there multiple streams on this - everyone has made many points in favor or against. Check out all of the streams so that everyone is not repeating themselves. Because everyone will repeat themselves.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 21, 2014 at 7:40 am

Palo Alto needs dramatic action to attempt to stop the downward spiral and
crisis situation we find ourselves in. First step would be to elect a strong Mayor with broad administrative power, well paid, to set the agenda in City Hall. With this kind of power we might attract some good candidates. Second step, as a backup, we need to establish through initiative process a citizen committee with review power to summarily reject major projects which do not comply with basic community values and standards or are nonfunctional in terms of parking,etc. These projects would then not even be submitted in the first place and it would be an
easy job for the committee.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Another resident
a resident of Midtown
on May 21, 2014 at 8:16 am

Downward spiral?? It what alternative universe are we in a downward spiral. Home prices are soaring. The education system is considered superb. There are plenty of jobs . Plenty of visitors etc. revenues are up? ? Yes, we have a bit more traffic and there are new, stylish homes/ buildings replacing the worn out dumps that some people in town worship. so what downward spiral are we in? You are confusing change with a " downward spiral"
Who would be on this " citizens committee"? Who decides what are " basic community values"? Your suggestion for this committee is a non starter.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 21, 2014 at 8:58 am

I wouldn't necessarily use the term downward spiral, but all change is not progress.

During the time I have lived here in Palo Alto, over 15 years, our quality of life has been altered due to the changes and very many of them are not for the better.

Our schools are much bigger than the smallish sized schools we chose for our young family.

Recreational facilities are no longer as close to hand, Bowling Alley closed, Parks are congested on weekends and after school, there are wait lists and lotteries for space in recreational facilities and clubs, bus routes that used to exist have been scrapped, traffic and parking around town is much harder, family style restaurants are vanishing including our favourite Burger King in San Antonio, affordable shopping is getting to be a longer drive, the list goes on.

I would accept that some of these things, like the disappearance of book shops and toy shops at Stanford may have something to do with the internet and a change in society, but not all these can be blamed on that.

Palo Alto is and should be concerned about things like bored teens during the summer months. What is there for them to do? Not all want to be doing classes or becoming counselors for younger kids and even if they do, they still want some hang out time with their friends. Yes they can hang out at each other's homes, but do teens ever want to do that? I know I didn't when I was in my mid teens. With the changes in the law (good thing) about teens driving each other around, it is getting harder for them to go see a movie or spend time at the beach, and it is no wonder they get bored evenings and weekends.

Our schools are supposedly good, but how much of it is due to the gene pool and paid tutoring? How much stress is in our schools compared to a couple decades ago? Can the average PA high school graduate (is there such a thing?) get into a UC? The UC system was initiated to educate the Californian residents, not out of state or international students who throng to our UCs.

We are losing some charming buildings and replacing them with modern buildings which are much bigger and some may say uglier. The Mitchell Park library was definitely in need of modernization, but not tearing down. City Hall which is not an old building by any means is not safe for the police department so they tell us. The Baylands Boardwalk and Interpretive Center is closed and being allowed to rot. The harbor (before my time I know) no longer exists and yet there are many people who still use the slipway for kayaking and other water sports, should we just let that deteriorate too? Page Mill and Sand Hill are taken over by weekend, yellow lycra clad bicyclists and we are not making off road mountain bike trails for them to use? We are painting green bike lanes and yellow crossings all over town but not putting in embedded safety lights (like Fabian) to protect our school kids who don't have buses to get them to school. We don't even make them ride on the right, use lights at night or high visibility vests to make them more visible to other road users.

This area is behind the times when it comes to high speed internet, transportation, underground power lines, and other infrastructure. It is really embarrassing when visitors from overseas come and see how poorly developed Silicon Valley is compared to their homelands.

OK yes this is turning into a rant. But, yes, our Palo Alto lifystyle is changing and not always for the better. Still, some of it has to be said.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by What Matters Most
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 21, 2014 at 9:55 am

What is needed is equal representation in Palo Alto. What we currently have are council members from the most expensive neighborhoods ( with one exception), who live north of Oregon Expwy.

Most cities are divided into districts, and one council member is elected for each district to ensure equal representation. Palo Alto does not have that, and currently, it is dividing the city into north and south, upper class and lower middle class. How unfair is that? How medieval is that?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on May 21, 2014 at 9:56 am

> "I'm increasingly concerned about the lack of candidates,"
> said Klein, who is now in the final year of his last council term.
> "I think running our city has become a much more arduous job.
> The way the society is moving we'll have less people who can
> afford the time to run for office."

One can only wonder if the constantly growing size of City government, championed by Larry Klein, among others, is not the source of his concern. Certainly the City's failure to capture its institutional history, and to make more of its records on-line, contributes to the considerable learning curve that people have to undergo in order to come "up to speed" and feel comfortable making good decisions that are truly in the public interest.

The current organization of a strong City manager, who seems almost unaccountable to the residents and business owners, seems to be a problem that reducing the Council size does not address. I'd like to see money allocated to the Council to hire some sort of staff, in order to help do background research on issues before the Council. In the past, the City Manager's office has made a big deal out of Council's request for information—creating some sort of "one hour rule" to limit staff support to Council—which may, or may not, still be in effect. There are clearly too many issues that need research for an elected, but not necessarily competent group of people, to deal with meaningfully.

The longer term limits need a lot of thought, given that having access to on-line records would lower the barrier for candidates, and newly elected Council members, to acquire basic knowledge about City management. Unfortunately, we don't seem to see much in the way of wanting more open records from the current bunch of Council members.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Need qualified people
a resident of Midtown
on May 21, 2014 at 10:36 am

Reducing the number of representatives could give more power to know-nothings whose claim to leadership is their youth and inexperience.
We already have one of those on the council and he is unqualified. It's embarrassing to watch him struggle to say something relevant despite being on the council for some time.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Palo Alto citizen
a resident of Professorville
on May 21, 2014 at 1:10 pm

Name me a city that is considered tony, upscale, and desirable, when the majority of the city population are minorities?
[Portion removed.]


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Ellie
a resident of College Terrace
on May 21, 2014 at 1:14 pm

There is nothing in this that benefits Palo Alto residents. Nothing. We are being sold a bill of goods by those we elected to power who want to have more - power that is. Keep the Council at 9. Term Limits at 2 max.

When someone starts citing "efficiency" as a prime reason for decreasing OUR elected representatives while resulting in a greater consolidation of power in fewer hands, you know you are about to get the shaft. Why would we vote so Council could save an hour here and there in meeting time when it works so clearly to residents detriment. Do we not want greater diversity of views on the Council (don't people yell about that all the time?)

And what do we do when a super-majority is called for voting, or a quorum is needed? Now and then a lot of Council members are conflicted out of the discussion and can't vote on an issue. Even with 9 on Council, it has been dicey at times whether enough members would be left that could vote on important matters.

And term limits - keep it at 2. Incumbents have a huge advantage. Sure we could vote them out at the next election, but we don't - no one does. That is the purpose of term-limits - to overcome the Incumbent syndrome.

If this Council had integrity, they would not have any change kick in till after the last current member is beyond their last election. That is only fair and the only way to deal with this huge conflict of self-interest by the Council.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by stephen levy
a resident of University South
on May 21, 2014 at 1:33 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.

"Name me a city that is considered tony, upscale, and desirable, when the majority of the city population are minorities?"

How about Irvine, Cupertino and soon to be Santa Barbara?

And what exactly does that have to do with council reform proposals?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by This is easy
a resident of College Terrace
on May 21, 2014 at 2:50 pm

The smaller council should kick in in 2016 -- the only way to maginalize the current [portion removed] council is to elect five residentialist candididates this cycle to get a majority. Berman and Kniss can be discarded (not-relected) in 2016 when the size drops to seven.

Why do I anticipate a self-serving 2014 or 2018 start date to be backed by the council?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Really?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 21, 2014 at 3:17 pm

>> "Name me a city that is considered tony, upscale, and desirable, when the majority of the city population are minorities?"

>>How about Irvine, Cupertino and soon to be Santa Barbara?

Cupertino? Not so much. Been there lately?

>> And what exactly does that have to do with council reform proposals?

Nothing I can see, but what Palo Alto citizen says is true...


 +   Like this comment
Posted by 2016
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 21, 2014 at 3:26 pm

Note that Pat Burt and Greg Schmid end their second term in 2016. Maybe that's why the pro-growthers want the term limit change to happen in 2018 instead of 2016.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Palo Alto citizen
a resident of Professorville
on May 21, 2014 at 5:49 pm

[Post removed.]


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of College Terrace
on May 21, 2014 at 7:21 pm

I totally agree with previous post concerning representation. We don't have it. I think all city distinct parts need to be represented in concil. This way there will be more accountability for they will be elected by smaller number of people and live with them.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Lived there
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on May 21, 2014 at 7:34 pm

[Post removed.]


 +   Like this comment
Posted by OY!
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 21, 2014 at 8:22 pm

....just another end around attempt by council to extend term limits from two to three terms. Go figure that one of the biggest abusers of term limits, Larry Klein, would add the amendment. I agree with poster Martin that having an inaccessible incompetent city manager is one of the critical problems facing city progress.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by citizen PA
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 21, 2014 at 11:25 pm

Hi folks,
Many good ideas. Measure D was just grassroots. Every one of you can place a competing measure on the ballot.

Think we need a paid full-time Council available to citizens during the day? Think we need to be able to weigh in and participate remotely during city council meetings (and be able to override one of their decisions right then and there if, oh, 85% of us voters log on and disagree on a vote? Or just being able to click on a BS-o-meter would be a good thing while they are speaking, and letting them and the media track it after the meeting.)

Think we should recall a few of them? Require developers to submit a plan within zoning along with anything they submit outside of zoning and give planners the choice?

It's really not that hard. Do you know how we qualified something for a ballot in just 10 days that had to do with the Comprehensive Plan? Ask Bob Moss. Ask Doug Moran. Contact paloaltoville.com ... You can help improve democracy and the direction of our town.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by citizen PA
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 21, 2014 at 11:28 pm

I just want to point out that we have the same City Attorney who wrote that ridiculously biased ballot in Measure D, who will be writing this ballot, too.

Take anything you read on the ballot with a grain of salt until we get a more impartial ballot system in this town.

That's another thing we need to change. We need an impartial ballot system like they have in San Francisco. That will fundamentally re-balance some of the power between an amok city hall and the citizens.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Larry's Law
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 22, 2014 at 9:28 am

Coup in Palo Alto?

This seems to be nothing more than a naked power grab. Eliminating term limits and reducing council seats equals greatly increasing the power of incumbents. Who wants that?

The fact that the ordinance is not even excluding those voting on it (it should come in to effect for future council members at a minimum) is troubling. What seems downright illegal, is that Larry Klein, not only didn't recuse himself as the member being termed out of office, he voted that it should be in effect immediately! Maybe not illegal but certainly highly immoral. Makes one wonder if Larry's Law isn't being proposed to lock in the current power structure.

Democracy is messy. Term limits were created for good reasons. They bring in new voices to the process and they ensure that our representatives actually represent us. More seats means the workload can be spread on more people, making it more likely that people will decide to run for office.

When the issue suits, we hear that Palo Alto is not like it's neighbors - its more complicated, it runs a utility, it's a regional job center. So therefore we shouldn't compare ourselves to Menlo Park or San Carlos or other nearby towns. Now, the message is the opposite - since those towns have smaller councils, Palo Alto should too. It's disingenuous.

Finally, I elect people to city council to work for me on City council. Not to be on regional board - that is a secondary function, not primary. It should not be the reason we end term limits. Most regional boards are run by staff in any case and the elected officials have very little ability to control them.

So NO to Larry's Law. No to ending term limits. No to reducing seats on council.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Kate
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 22, 2014 at 9:48 am

Absolutely!! The City Attorney should NOT be allowed to write any 'ballot statement'. City Hall is a "stacked deck" against the residents, and Larry Klein, LIz Kniss, Nancy Shepherd, and others in the 'majority' need to be retired.
This self-serving city manager also needs to go. The city is in a downward spiral- and city haul and the management are to blame. They can't even get the streets repaired!! but can spend millions redesigning parks. And the traffic mess on Embarcadero at PALY is ridiculous. . HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO FIX THIS MESS!!??


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Oh, Steve...
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 22, 2014 at 11:12 am

[Post removed.]


 +   Like this comment
Posted by resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 22, 2014 at 11:29 am

The Council majority has run out the string with the residents. The only issue is providing viable candidates to run against them. This is the
critical dynamic at this point. If we create a strong Mayor position with a salary of $250,000 with broad powers to reset the agenda in City Hall good candidates will step forward.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Rupert of henzau
a resident of Midtown
on May 22, 2014 at 3:57 pm

[Portion removed.] It is beyond me how the voters elect a person like Larry Klein to the council over and over again. He has no respect for the will of the voters-- read his comments re term limits which were voter approved. He also had a massive conflict of interest during the PACT scandal and ended up supporting one of the guilty parties . During a financial issue a few years ago, he claimed that he was " misled" and did not know what was happening. He wrote a colleagues memo,supporting the HSR vote and then did an about face a few months later. Time for Larry to go and take,Liz with you.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 22, 2014 at 4:24 pm

Larry Klein says term limits don't accomplish anything and have negative consequences.

He also says City zoning decisions have no impact on school populations, and the jobs/housing imbalance is actually a good thing for Palo Alto.

Larry's Law, indeed.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Grinnen Baronett
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on May 22, 2014 at 5:06 pm

"I just want to point out that we have the same City Attorney who wrote that ridiculously biased ballot in Measure D, who will be writing this ballot, too."

Worked great, didn't it?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by voter
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 22, 2014 at 5:31 pm


One meeting of ping pong among the Council members is enough to take this seriously?

The NO campaign on this one should be easy.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by They are serious
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 22, 2014 at 5:53 pm

"voter" - this discussion has gone on for way more than one meeting - a couple of times before the full council and now on the fast track through the policy committee. They are working hard to have this show up on the ballot in November.

Check out this Weekly editorial from June, 2013. It sums up the issues extremely well.

Web Link


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Time to Go
a resident of Barron Park
on May 23, 2014 at 7:39 am

It's time for Larry to go.

Thanks for highlighting this issue. If our tone deaf council moves forward I will be boring against it and telling my friends to do the same.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Time to Go
a resident of Barron Park
on May 23, 2014 at 7:41 am

That's voting against it, not boring (autocorrect error). Though boring applies too.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Not smaller
a resident of South of Midtown
on May 25, 2014 at 2:24 pm

How about a larger council, with one representative for each district? As it is , most parts of town have NO representation, which is unfair and possibly illegal.


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