I first wondered how the average citizen could be expected to come up with anything more than a simplistic answer.
Then I wondered how I would answer that, being a longtime observer of City Hall and its denizens, dating back to reporter days on the Palo Alto Times when I was assigned the dread "Palo Alto beat." And I thought back on the collection of city attorneys I have known, and what made them successful, or not.
I don't think there's a magic formula, beyond wanting someone who is a Dudley Do-Right Eagle Scout with a sixth sense and a Stanford, maybe Harvard, law degree, at least. The Eagle Scout factor is important because of the Scout motto, "Be Prepared." Then comes the honest, loyal, and other nuances of the Scout oath.
Next I applied those thoughts to the various attorneys I have known, many as a journalist, some as an observer and some as friends after they and I changed jobs.
When Palo Alto adopted the council/manager form of government in the early 1950s it included hiring a full-time city attorney. The first was a fellow named Robert "Bob" Michalski, who served during the 1950s then returned after an absence in the 1960s.
Michalski was highly respected among other city attorneys, and had a reputation for getting city business handled quickly and efficiently. He exuded an "I'm sure of myself" confidence that was contagious to many.
But not to all. He became identified in the early 1960s with the so-called Establishment faction in city politics, which generally envisioned a growing city. When a group began to coalesce in the early 1960s that opposed rampant growth and traffic it became the Residentialists. Its members regarded Michalski with deep suspicion as "one of them."
Michalski eventually read the handwriting on the wall and departed.
A later inheritor of the office was James "Jim" Hildebrand, a soft-spoken, easy-going man who tried hard to walk a middle line, or tightrope, between the growth vs. no-growth or slow-growth factions. His tenure was marked by some legal challenges and a personal touch: He and the city clerk fell in love and were married.
He had an interesting legal theory, which we discussed one early summer evening sitting on his deck watching owls fly from their nest in the top-floor Channing House outside fire stairs to catch rodents in the baylands. Hildebrand's legal theory was that if the right to vote is sacred to America's democracy, then an elected official's vote — representing thousands of individual votes — was even more sacred.
That meant that a city attorney should only rule that a person was in a conflict-of-interest situation in the most extreme of situations, so they could vote on issues in which they might have some degree of personal financial stake. Following that logic further, he ruled that one councilman who worked for Stanford University in an un-tenured position could vote on a development proposal for Coyote Hill, south of Page Mill Road, and a second councilman could vote on that even though his construction firm had just bid on a project along Page Mill Road.
The votes were challenged in a lawsuit by the Committee for Green Foothills, and Stanford ultimately settled the suit.
Along the way, Peter Stone was promoted from assistant city attorney, in the early 1970s. He was a savvy counselor to the City Council and staff in the sense of providing counsel, both legal and occasionally political or strategic.
His tenure was marked by something that made it clear to the Supreme Court: Palo Alto police, after a demonstration at Stanford turned violent and injured officers, raided the offices of the student newspaper, the Stanford Daily, seeking photos of the incident. Neither the liberal police Chief James Zurcher nor personally liberal Stone were notified in advance of the raid, yet Stone had to defend it. There's irony there. A major constitutional erosion of press protections was averted when Congress passed some corrective legislation.
Stone had an interesting technique of advising the council: In addition to legal research, Stone, would call a friend, a Superior Court judge, and ask something like, "Speaking hypothetically, what questions would you ask if a case like this came before you?" He then would report to the council something like: "A judge would likely ask. ..." He also couched his advice in odds of either winning or losing a potential case, avoiding fixed recommendations.
After he was named a Superior Court judge, his assistant, Bob Booth, was named city attorney. Booth was an outstanding legal researcher, but ran into problems because he would take fixed positions and make specific recommendations — essentially putting his head on the block each time. He ran into specific problems when a series of landowner lawsuits against a foothills downzoning ordinance, the OS (for open space) zone, went sour for the city in the early 1970s. That's how the city came to buy the Pearson-Arastradero Preserve.
City Attorney Roy Abrahms came and went as a short-termer.
The next city attorney, Ariel Calonne, became one of the most powerful of attorneys due to his general style and savvy, in some ways similar to Stone's, and his lengthy tenure in the position. His role spilled into city management in some areas when there was a perceived leadership vacuum in the city manager's office. Calonne left in the early 2000s for a job in Boulder, Colo., during a time when the council was badly divided.
The council hired Baum, who also has run into difficulties in advising the council. Some members have said that too often Baum was not prepared to answer basic legal questions on items coming before the council. He is personally liked and has been commended for some budget cutting in his office. He will retire in late October and the council has started a search for a headhunter firm to identify qualified applicants. The goal is to hire a new city attorney by the end of the year.
Candidates may be expected to recite the Scout motto.