Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto this year is rightfully spearheading a green-awareness effort, picking up from prior mayors and other council and community members whose environmental credentials go back years, in some cases decades.
The City Council dedicated its meeting Monday night to environmental themes and reports, while acknowledging some early leadership that spearheaded national awareness of environmental issues back into the early 1960s.
City staff members warned that extreme effects of global warming could mean that a third of Palo Alto's prime real estate neighborhoods could be prone to flooding during increasingly fierce storms, tidal surges and creek overflows.
But creating another layer of bureaucracy in Palo Alto in the form of a permanent "Environmental Commission," complete with staff support, would be a serious misstep. Several council members should be commended for expressing significant doubts about the commission, which doesn't yet have a precise mandate. The general idea is that it would monitor city environmental efforts and its duties would be defined so they don't overlap with those of other city boards and commissions -- which sounds like a serious commitment of time.
What about other priorities and issues? Palo Alto officials, citizens and non-profit organizations just recently agonized over facing substantial cuts in the city's human-services budget, much of which is funneled through local nonprofit organizations. The council decided to duck those cuts this year, but has not identified replacement cuts, yet, or whether to swallow hard and try to levy a new tax of some type.
The idea behind the cuts is to free about $3 million to transfer to the city's infrastructure fund that pays for maintenance and repair of city facilities, streets and sidewalks. There is a community undercurrent of dismay and in some cases anger that during the 1990s annual operating budgets were balanced by reducing maintenance. The costs of such deferrals plus aging facilities are now increasingly evident, despite efforts to make inroads through the "CityWorks" program.
There is deep concern about long-term loss of revenues -- in the millions of dollars annually -- from dwindling sales taxes, hotel-occupancy taxes and other sources. This problem has not been resolved -- constituting a different kind of "green" urgency. In our rush to go green environmentally we must not forget our need to sustain the revenues on which so many of our valued city services and facilities rely.
Last year, under the leadership of then-Mayor Judy Kleinberg, Palo Alto developed a strong focus on emergency preparedness, inadvertently causing a loss-of-momentum to efforts of several prior mayors to shore up the city's revenue base. A big push to create an "auto row" sales area along Bayshore Freeway sputtered out.
But Kleinberg's focus on disaster planning, as urgent today as it was last year, now itself is in danger of being displaced by the new push by Mayor Kishimoto, a longtime environmentalist. Other council members also have impressive green credentials, including council newcomer Peter Drekmeier, a founder of Bay Area Action, Larry Klein, one of the co-founders of the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District 35 years ago, and Dena Mossar, a longtime leader in pushing for more alternative transportation, and others. Mossar, Kleinberg and Councilman Jack Morton voted against this referral.
We do not argue with the new emphasis on the environment and "sustainability." It is long overdue.
But we do not believe Palo Alto needs an Environmental Commission and the bureaucracy, confusion, time and money it would entail. As defined so far, it feels like a commission in search of an agenda. Those council members who expressed doubts about it are right -- the council committee should make short shrift of this new time-sink concept.
Palo Alto needs to institutionalize environmental awareness throughout city operations and community-wide as part of a new way of doing business, not create a new place to which to refer projects for some kind of green seal of approval by another "Palo Alto Process" agency.