Palo Alto voters will have a chance to reduce the number of seats on their City Council in November after a deeply ambivalent council voted Monday night to place the issue on the ballot.
A separate proposal to extend council term limits from two to three fell by a single vote and will not appear on the ballot.
The council's 5-4 vote not to pursue an extension of term limits was a surprising reversal from prior discussions, with the proposal gradually picking up momentum and last month winning the endorsement of the council's Policy and Services Committee.
Both decisions came after an extensive debate that touched on the meaning of democracy, government efficiency and Palo Alto's "special" status. While supporters of the terms-increase measure argued that upping the limits would give council members a chance to build up knowledge and gain seniority on important regional boards, opponents claimed that it would create a barrier for newcomers seeking to serve. The latter camp prevailed, with council members Marc Berman, Pat Burt, Karen Holman, Greg Scharff and Greg Schmid all voting against the measure.
The council followed that vote with another robust debate and split vote. This time, proponents of changing the City Charter carried the day, mustering just enough support to place a reduction in council seats on the November ballot. They argued that going from nine council members to seven would make governance more efficient. Holman, Burt, Scharff and Schmid voted against the measure.
Both proposals considered Monday came out of a colleagues' memo penned last year by Mayor Nancy Shepherd, Vice Mayor Liz Kniss and Councilwoman Gail Price. The pitch for longer terms was based on the idea that council members need longer tenures to secure leadership positions on regional boards, such as the Association of Bay Area Governments and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority. The reduction of seats "could bring efficiencies of meeting effectiveness and workload, which deserves discussion and consideration while also reducing costs," the memo reads. It noted that other cities of similar sizes have either seven seats (Santa Clara, Mountain View and Sunnyvale) or five (Menlo Park) on their respective councils.
During Monday's discussion, several council members said they were very much split over whether to proceed with these proposals. Councilman Greg Scharff was one of several council members who advocated keeping nine council seats. Having more members, he said, forces the council to work harder to achieve a compromise.
"It's much harder to get a motion through and you need to convince your colleagues," Scharff said. "There's always someone paying attention. There's always someone who reads the fine print."
Schmid also supported keeping nine seats and paraphrased attorney Clarence Darrow's dictum about democracy: you can't have enough of it without having too much. It's best, he said, to err on the side of having more democracy, even if it's less efficient.
Shepherd and Klein took the opposite view. True democracy, they said, calls for giving the voters a say on the matter.
"I think it would be unfair to not allow the community to vote on how they want to be governed," Shepherd said.
Klein made a similar point, even as he conceded that he doesn't expect it the reduction to make too big of a difference when it comes to efficiency. Like most of his colleagues, he offered only a tepid endorsement of reducing the council size and said he was deeply split on the issue. Still, he advocated bringing the issue to the voters. If approved, the switch to seven council members would take effect in 2018.
"I think it's undemocratic at this point not to let people vote when there's been a significant number of people who said seven would be an improvement," he said.
Marc Berman also supported bring the council reduction to the voters, though he said that he "doesn't care much one way or the other" about the outcome. While Scharff argued that Palo Alto is different from other cities because it owns its own utilities and has a particularly engaged citizenry, Berman questioned that logic.
"We're special here in Palo Alto? I absolutely think that in the best way, but I don't think we're that special," he said. "I think we can have a very representative city government with seven members. I think it makes sense to have this go to the voters."
The proposed Charter changes have already spurred some debate in the community. Roger Smith, a longtime business leader and civic activist, urged the council in recent months to proceed with the seat reduction on the grounds that it would be more efficient to have fewer members. Others aren't so sure. Tom DuBois, who is running for council this year, opposed both of the measures under discussion. Both the increase in term limits and the reduction of seats would serve to increase the power of incumbency, he said. Having more terms would favor incumbents and "professional politicians" over regular residents who want to get involved. Reducing the number of council seats, meanwhile, would sacrifice democracy in the name of efficiency, he said.
"On one extreme, a one-member council would be highly efficient but I don't want a dictatorship," DuBois said. "Nine seats spreads the workload across more people and makes it more attractive for people to participate in the process. More seats means more representation."
Cheryl Lilienstein, president of Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning, made a similar argument and told the council that reducing council seats "does not enhance representative democracy."
"Trying to decrease the number of council members seems to be a move to exclude newcomers to the council, and consolidate the power of presently seated members," Lilienstein said.
"I have heard a rationale that a smaller council would create greater efficiency," she added. "Perhaps we all might agree that concision -- and better preparation -- would create efficiency."