Palo Alto Weekly

News - July 23, 2010

Palo Alto may switch to even-year elections

Move would save city money, extend terms of current council members

by Gennady Sheyner

Palo Alto officials could soon switch to even years for local elections a move that would save the city about $200,000 every two years and extend the terms of current City Council members by a year.

The council asked the City Attorney's office early Tuesday morning to draft an ordinance that would change the city's election year from odd to even years, a switch that was proposed last month by Santa Clara County Supervisor Liz Kniss. The switch would have to be approved by city voters.

Kniss, a former Palo Alto mayor, told the council at the June 21 meeting that most cities in the county already hold their elections on even years, which coincides with state and federal elections. Los Altos and Gilroy had recently switched from odd to even years, while Cupertino decided to stay on odd years.

A switch from odd to even years would require the council to change the City Charter. It would also stretch the terms of four council members Pat Burt, Sid Espinosa, Greg Schmid and Yiaway Yeh until 2012. Their terms are currently scheduled to expire in 2011.

The five council members who were elected (or, in Larry Klein's case, reelected) last November would see their terms expire in 2014 if the measure gets on the ballot and the voters approve it.

The council voted 8-1, with Schmid dissenting, to ask the city's legal staff to draft a charter amendment and ballot language that would allow current council members to serve five-year terms and that would not effect their ability to serve two terms.

Kniss acknowledged during her presentation last month that the political aspect of the switch could be the most difficult obstacle. But she said the switch would both save the city money and raise voter turnout.

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

Councilwoman Karen Holman and Greg Scharff made the proposal to request an ordinance changing the election year. The council will discuss the proposal on Aug. 2, the final meeting before its August recess.

The council agreed at the end of its meeting which spilled over from Monday night into early Tuesday morning that Kniss' proposal deserves a closer look.

"I think it's important to have a discussion on the matter, given that she raised it and it's an important issue," Scharff said.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

Comments

Posted by Janet, a resident of Midtown
on Jul 21, 2010 at 10:36 am

Seems very logical and financially valid, to change the election year.


Posted by Fran, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jul 21, 2010 at 10:49 am

My math is admittedly a little weak.

How is it that just 4 City council members...Pat Burt, Sid Espinosa, Greg Schmid and Yiaway Yeh...would have their terms extended to 5 years?

What about the 5 Council members just elected to 4-year terms expiring in early January 2014? What happens to them during calendar year 2014 before the next City Council election cycle rolls around in November 2014?


Posted by Don't waste our money, a resident of Meadow Park
on Jul 21, 2010 at 11:45 am

I'm all for this. The City Council persons who will stay on council for an additional year are all good people and worth keeping, and it will save the City $200,000.

Also, I'm all for having mail-in balloting only, no precinct balloting; this will also save the City and the State money they don't have. Continuing to pay staff to man empty precinct locations on election day in the 21st century is an unnecessary waste of money.


Posted by Save money, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jul 21, 2010 at 11:55 am

To tell you the truth, I would be more happy if the council would lose a year from their terms. That way we can save money and weed out the council earlier. I am sure no council member would object to giving up a year of their terms to save us some money


Posted by Don't waste our money, a resident of Meadow Park
on Jul 21, 2010 at 12:16 pm

Save Money says: "I would be more happy if the council would lose a year from their terms". The only problem with this idea is that it doesn't take into account the perks Council persons get when they leave office.

All Council persons get health insurance for life when they leave office, not only for themselves but for their families too. That is why we're seeing single term council people who retire after one term; they've earned their perk - health insurance for life and that is worth a lot!!


Posted by Save money, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jul 21, 2010 at 12:19 pm

"All Council persons get health insurance for life when they leave office, not only for themselves but for their families too."
I did not know this. Why isn;t this perk taken away, given our current financial situation. This is outrageous.


Posted by JO, a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 21, 2010 at 12:23 pm

Council members were elected for a specified term by the voters, and to extend that term after the election and in this way seems wrong to me. Instead, the next City Council election (in Nov 2011) should be either for specified shortened terms of 3 years or lengthened terms of 5 years. Either way, the voters should know up-front the exact term of office for each council seat they are casting their vote for, and that should not be allowed to later get changed by this sort of manipulation.

Due process seems to get short-shrift by government officials when it is not to their convenience or benefit, but it seems to me that the correct way to go about changing election years is to respect the decicion of the voters in past elections, even if it means postponing the $200,000 savings for one more election cycle. (And I am recalling many hundreds of dollars given by Council to the Senior Games and to "study" various proposals that led nowhere. I can also think of staff positions that should be eliminated or changed in ways that could save hundreds of thousands of dollars).

Also, if the voters have to approve a charter change, then the City would either have to hold a special election (and pay extra $ for it), anyway, or put the charter change on the Nov 2011 ballot. So it makes sense to me to hold the Nov 2011 citywide election as scheduled and offer the charter change to the voters then, along with the 3 or 5-year term for the open Council seats.


Posted by Don't waste our money, a resident of Meadow Park
on Jul 21, 2010 at 1:00 pm

Save money says: "Why isn't this perk taken away, given our current financial situation." Because they'd have a hard time getting candidates to run for council office. They need the perk!!

Besides health insurance for life Council persons also get a small hourly payment for attending meetings on behalf of the City and expenses if they travel.


Posted by Fred, a resident of Southgate
on Jul 21, 2010 at 1:20 pm

Council members don't get health insurance for life. That perk was taken away several years ago. The current council members get around $600 a month for around a 20 hour a week job


Posted by Do-It-Online, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jul 21, 2010 at 1:28 pm

Voting on-line, and putting all the materials on-line, would save money .. and a lot of it. However, don't look to never-saw-a-dollar-I-couldn't-spend-in-a-heartbeat Liz Kniss to be promoting a money saving change. There must be some other agenda that she's pushing that is not obvious yet.

Rather than extending the tenure of the Council members cited above, why not let's let their terms expire and try doing without them? There has always been some interest in a smaller Council. Here's a chance to try out the concept.

Wonder if Kniss is trying to find out why our elections are so expensive?


Posted by Gennady Sheyner, Palo Alto Weekly staff writer
on Jul 21, 2010 at 1:58 pm

Gennady Sheyner is a registered user.

Fran,

Good point. I added a sentence to reflect the ordinance's potential effect on the five council members who were elected in November.

Gennady


Posted by Save money, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jul 21, 2010 at 2:03 pm

"Councilwoman Karen Holman and Greg Scharff made the proposal to request an ordinance changing the election year. The council will discuss the proposal on Aug. 2, the final meeting before its August recess."
How can the council vote on this--4 members (those whose term would be extended) would have a clear conflict of interest--they will benefit by having an extra year tacked onto their terms. That would leave only 5 members to vote and that is not enough.


Posted by Do-It-Online, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jul 21, 2010 at 2:33 pm

> 4 members (those whose term would be extended) would have
> a clear conflict of interest

That's not how Conflict-of-Interest works in California. For Council members to be conflicted out of a vote, they would have to be financially enriched by an action of the City, such as being the owner of a company that is doing business with the City, or owning land that the City wants to buy.


Posted by JO, a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 21, 2010 at 3:13 pm

Another thought: why not have current council terms expire at the end of their four year terms as currently designated? Then, in Nov. 2011, all the open Council seats on the ballot would be for either a 1-year or 3-year term. Under term limits, those candidates running for a 1-year term would be allowed to serve for 3 consecutive terms (9 years maximun) before being term-limited out of office. On the other hand, The three-year council seats would count as one full term under term limits. [This way, candidates have a choice between a longer term limit (but they would have to win an additional election for the privilege), or the choice of being limited to serving 7 consecutive years instead of 8. --Either way, the candidates and the voters know the terms beforehand so there woudn't be any surprises regarding terms and term limits].
In Nov 2012, elections would be held for 4-year term Council seats. If then-serving Council members choose to run before their then-current terms expire, they would be term-limited out after the 4-years following the 2012 election.
In Nov 2013, elections would be held for 1-year or 3-year terms as would have been done in 2011. (The exact number of 3-year terms vs. 1-year terms would depend on the number of seats scheduled to be open in 2014, the number would be chosen to balance the number of council seats open in future even-year elections to approximately half of the total Council seats).
In Nov. 2014, all open council seats would be for 4-year terms, as would be the case in all future even-year council elections.

This is an example of how a transition to even-year elections can be done wihout "extending" the terms of Council members beyond the terms for which they were elected by the voters, and done in a way that I think would be fair to current Council members.


Posted by Jay Thorwaldson, editor emeritus
on Jul 22, 2010 at 4:43 pm

Jay Thorwaldson is a registered user.

Hi -- In the interest of correcting some misinformation or lack of information about health benefits for City Council members, here's the city's written policies relating to that topic. Granted it could use some translation into plain English, but here it is, courtesy of the city's Human Resources Department (I've added a couple of paragraph breaks for easier reading):

"Councilmembers elected after 1/1/04 are subject to a 20-year vesting schedule for retiree medical benefits. Under this law, a Councilmember would be eligible for 50% of the specified employer health premium contribution after ten years of service credit, provided at least five of those years were performed at the City of Palo Alto.

"After ten years of service credit, each additional service credit year increases the employer contribution percentage by 5% until, at 20 years' service credit; the Councilmember will be eligible upon retirement for 100% of the specified employer contribution and 90% of their dependent coverage.

"In order to be eligible for the retiree medical benefit, a Councilmember would need to earn a minimum of 10 years of PERS service credit; 5 years of this need to be earned while working for Palo Alto in order to get 50% of his/her medical premium paid in retirement.

"Therefore, Councilmembers would need to serve two terms in Council as well as having prior service credit in the CalPERS system. A Councilmember would also have to meet the minimum age requirement of 50 and must retire from the CalPERS system within 120 days after the end of his/her term. After 12/31/2010, Councilmembers who are eligible to retire will also be subject to an additional health premium contribution."

So there it is. It *must* be simpler than it sounds. Best, -jay


Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Jul 23, 2010 at 2:16 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

I agree that the Council cannot vote to extend their terms.


Posted by Phyllis, a resident of Midtown
on Jul 23, 2010 at 3:08 pm

The purpose of having city council elections in odd years is to keep the election non partisan and to give it ample focused attention. If the election time is changed to coinside with the general election will attention be focused on other elections and will the candidates want to stay neutral on the partisan elections?


Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Jul 24, 2010 at 3:52 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

There is very little doubt about the partisan affiliation of most councilfolk.


Posted by Fred, a resident of Midtown
on Jul 25, 2010 at 8:48 am

The SoCal connection has demeaned Palo Alto City government. Former Palo Alto Administrative Services Director, who orchestrated the 2.7% retirement formula conveniently just a year before his own retirement, former Assistant City Manager Emily Harrison, who flamed out after causing maximum wreckage at City Hall, and Russ Carlson, Palo Alto's HR Director the last five years who helped sweep several City personnel scandals under the carpet undere the dozing eyes of a City Council asleep at the switch. These and more were all SoCal people who learned how to game city government during their SoCal years.


Posted by Fatima, a resident of another community
on Jul 25, 2010 at 3:33 pm

"There is very little doubt about the partisan affiliation of most councilfolk."

So, what is your point, Walter. If you do not like the political affiliation of our council members, move to a location that is more suitable to your political tastes (North Korea has a nice dictatorship that you may like)


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