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).