Council members retained economic/financial health and environmental sustainability from their 2009 list, while adding collaboration for youth well-being and land-use/transportation planning and resurrecting a past priority of emergency preparedness.
The nine-member council, which added five new members in January, quietly dropped civic engagement for the common good, a 2009 goal that had been criticized as being too vague and confusing. City staff said civic engagement would be incorporated into city activities generally.
Current hot-button issues facing the city, such as completing the Stanford Medical Center expansion process and addressing high-speed rail and housing, were subsumed under the land-use/transportation priority. Council members agreed that because those issues were not initiated by the city they should not stand alone as priorities, as the library-bond priority did two years ago.
Another hot item, continuing talks with employee unions over salaries and benefits, would fall under city finances because of the critical long-term implications of the negotiations.
Saturday's decisions were unofficial "straw votes" and will need to be ratified at a regular council meeting, City Manager James Keene said.
He said the priorities would be vetted through the council's Policy and Services Committee at its Feb. 9 meeting, then sent on to the full council either at its Feb. 22 or March 1 meetings.
The retreat, held in the Palo Alto Unified School District headquarters, was attended by about 30 persons in the morning, swelling to nearly 50 in the afternoon of whom about 15 were city administrators or staff members. About 20 people addressed the council regarding its priorities.
Staff background reports on financial trends and staffing limitations, presented in the morning, warned of serious budget shortfalls this fiscal year (ending June 30) that will become more acute next year and the year after, according to staff projections.
Keene cautioned the council that setting too many priorities could over-extend his staff. He said an internal survey done last year showed there are only 65 manager-level staff members who would be involved in implementing city priorities. They already spend time maintaining city operations, which he likened to the below-the-surface portion of an iceberg.
During its discussion, the council agreed by consensus to keep economic issues as a leading priority, which each member had listed as a top consideration in the morning discussion. They informally added emergency preparedness and land use/transportation planning as the next two issues of importance.
The council then voted 5-4 to stay with three priorities rather than expand to five. But Councilman Larry Klein, in the only sharp disagreement of the day, said he would vote against all priorities unless environmental concerns were included, by any term.
"In good conscience I cannot support what we've just done," Klein declared.
"It's absolutely insane for a city that's been a leader in environmental protection to suddenly drop that as a priority," he said. And it would give a terrible message within the city and beyond, he added.
He also said that the importance of the well-being of children and youth should be addressed, referring to the community's struggle with teen suicides in the past year.
New Councilwoman Nancy Shepherd then said she wanted to switch her vote to limit the priorities to three because she thought there would be more discussion about the third alternative.
Keene added that he felt the three priorities left some gaps, based on the council's earlier discussion, and given the choice he would support five priorities. He cited an expanded role of the council's Policy and Services Committee, discussed earlier in the day, as being helpful to the staff in dealing with the larger list of priorities.
The council then wrapped up the day by agreeing on the five priorities.