Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - June 25, 2010

Shift Palo Alto to even-year voting

County Supervisor Liz Kniss suggests to City Council that consolidation could save $200,000 every two years by moving Palo Alto vote to general election

Santa Clara County Supervisor Liz Kniss dropped an idea-bomb on the Palo Alto City Council this week: move city elections to even-number years and save about $200,000 per election by consolidating with the general election.

Most other cities in the county are in the even-year cycle of exercising democracy locally, she noted. Kniss is a former Palo Alto mayor and member of the council, as well as earlier serving on the school board. She said she made the homecoming appearance Monday night in the spirit of cutting budgets during a challenging economic time for local agencies.

"Voters are much more engaged, especially in a presidential year, and the buzz of running is always a bigger buzz," she said.

There's a catch: Palo Alto is a "charter city," meaning that odd-year elections are built into the city's governing City Charter. There would thus need to be a citywide vote to change the charter, a fairly simple matter of altering a few words.

Yet the logical time for such a vote — the upcoming November election — is approaching rapidly, with an early-August deadline for getting the matter on the ballot.

There's another wrinkle: The terms of four recently elected council members (Karen Holman, Gail Price, Greg Scharff and Nancy Shepherd) would need to be extended for a year.

The reasons for the odd-year cycle are lost in the mists of history, perhaps dating back to the 1894 creation of Palo Alto as a city. Yet there is precedence for changing the election time. In the 1960s, the council and city-issue elections were held in May of odd years, an even odder choice. The date was later shifted to November — to save money and increase voter participation, reasons that still seem valid.

Council members were silent on their reactions to Kniss' proposal, as council procedures do not permit responses to oral communications. And they were faced Monday night with closing a $7.3 million budget gap by next week's beginning of a new fiscal year, with a huge hospitals-expansion plan looming.

But the even-year proposal has merit and deserves the relatively small amount of staff and council time it would take to get this idea onto the November 2010 ballot.

A 6-pound challenge to civic engagement

The biggest-ever development project in Palo Alto's history — rebuilding and expanding Stanford Hospital and Clinics, the Lucile Salter Packard Children's Hospital, and the School of Medicine — has now been summarized in possibly the largest Draft Environmental Impact Report in the city's history.

The long-awaited, often-delayed report weighs just under 6 pounds in its printed form — but it represents a comprehensive guide to the massive expansion plan that Stanford has proposed for its hospitals and other medical facilities.

The report has something for just about everyone concerned about the impacts of the project, currently estimated at around $3 billion — down from an initial cost estimate of about $3.5 billion ($2.5 billion to replace the main Stanford Hospital, medical school and clinics and about $1 billion for the Children's Hospital).

The reduction is not because the overall project is smaller, however. It is because Stanford officials have removed the School of Medicine and Stanford Clinics replacement buildings from the cost calculations, on the grounds that their construction is too far in the future to get accurate cost estimates now. There is an urgency to replacing the hospitals within the next three to five years due to state seismic deadlines.

Broken into easily understood sections, the report is good reading for anyone wishing to make informed comments on the expansion/rebuilding plan and its impacts on the community.

Fortunately, there is a weightless version available for easy review, at www.CityofPaloAlto.org, under "Know Zone." It's worth a browse if not a full read.

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