With most City Council members expressing mixed feelings, a bare 5-4 majority decided Monday night that Palo Alto voters should get the chance this November to reduce the size of the council from nine to seven, beginning in 2018.
The idea of bringing the size of the council more in line with those in other cities of its size has waxed and waned in political debates over the last three decades, but interest in it never rose to the level of formal council consideration until last June.
At that time, three council members (Nancy Shepherd, Liz Kniss and Gail Price) attempted to get their colleagues to consider rushing measures onto a special election ballot last November in hopes of making the changes effective for this year's council election.
A second measure would have extended term limits from the current two to three consecutive terms. That would have allowed Councilman Larry Klein to run for a third, four-year term (on top of the 18 years he will have served during two separate tenures on the council).
After discovering that a new state law forbids charter amendments from being adopted in special elections, the urgency disappeared and the matter was put off until earlier this year.
The interest in extending or eliminating term limits and reducing the size of the council seemingly came out of nowhere last year and has attracted little public support, opposition or attention until it got a full airing before the council Monday night.
The argument for reducing the number of council members is based on the premise that fewer members would lead to greater efficiency both at meetings and for the staff, who currently must respond to the information needs and policy proposals of nine elected officials. A more intuitive argument is that if every other city can manage with either five or seven members, then it stands to reason Palo Alto can too.
Those opposing the reduction argue that the larger council ensures more diversity of views, spreads the workload of regional bodies among more people, acts as a buffer when Stanford University issues create a conflict of interest for members with economic ties to the university, and requires five votes to approve anything, forcing more collaboration and coalition building.
On Monday four council members (Shepherd, Kniss, Klein and Price) supported putting both changes on the ballot while four (Pat Burt, Greg Scharff, Karen Holman and Greg Schmid) voted against proceeding with either.
The determining swing vote was Marc Berman (in his second year on the council,) who voted against putting on the ballot the measure to extend term limits from eight to 12 years but voted in favor of the council-size measure even while acknowledging he didn't hold a strong opinion "one way or the other."
Berman's decision to split his position on the two proposals, in spite of having raised concerns about whether they both would protect incumbents and inhibit diversity and new blood on the council, was a surprise, as was Greg Scharff's unusual alignment with Burt, Holman and Schmid against the measures.
The council votes came after public comments made clear that critics of the council's handling of development issues would be lining up against both proposals this November, therefore creating a new and potentially volatile campaign issue.
With Price not running for re-election and Klein termed out, that leaves Scharff, Shepherd and Holman likely to be running for three of the available five seats. In the current political atmosphere, Scharff and Shepherd are the most vulnerable, notwithstanding the very ugly behind-the-scenes attempts by some members of the council to impugn Holman's integrity over her sloppy handling of a financial disclosure statement last year.
A highly charged and emotional political backdrop exists in Palo Alto right now, and for the sake of an intelligent election campaign and an informed electorate it is critically important that political leaders and community activists commit to focusing on real issues and to an honest examination of the records of those incumbents seeking re-election.
The ballot measure to reduce the council size adds an interesting twist to the election but is also an unfortunate distraction from more important issues. A time of significant political division is hardly the optimal time for reducing the size of an elected body, so if proponents are successful with this ballot measure in November, it would suggest a clear, albeit surprising, community mandate.