Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - December 3, 2010

Ban on 'late' project changes is long overdue

Palo Alto City Council also considering 'strongly discouraging' individual meetings between developers and council or planning commission members

Under the banner of increasing "transparency" in Palo Alto's consideration of proposed developments or projects, the City Council will soon be taking up several issues of vital importance to the public's right to know what's going on in their community or neighborhood.

The policies are in line with goals Mayor Pat Burt outlined when he took office last January, which the Weekly editorialized on in its Jan. 8, 2010, issue.

The first policy would require city staff reports and colleagues' memos to be submitted one to two weeks before a meeting where they are to be considered. It would also essentially ban late submissions of significant plan changes. Such changes would have to be submitted at least five working days before a meeting at which they are to be considered. Late submittals will cause a delay to a future agenda — a policy that stems directly from a late-submission pattern in the Alma Plaza project.

The second policy would "strongly discourage" members of the City Council and advisory boards or commissions from meeting individually with developers to discuss details of a project. Such a policy currently applies to members of the Planning and Transportation Commission but not to council members, resulting in what some commissioners believe causes developers to ignore the commission and head straight for the council.

The catch is, as Councilman Larry Klein pointed out, is that an outright ban on such solo meetings might also apply to neighborhood leaders and citizens. Thus this "transparency" issue might be more complex than it might seem at first glance, with nuances such as whether council members could meet with developers before, or after, a proposal is officially filed with the city.

Until such questions can be fully vetted, perhaps a "full disclosure" policy should be enforced relating to any individual contact with developers or others relating to specific projects, as has often been the practice of council members.

The other aspect of transparency, timely release of information, also dates back years, including a significant but fruitless effort in 2001 to move up the release of council agenda packets to a week before a meeting rather than late Thursdays. The try failed due to logistical issues of compiling the paper-based packets.

But the past decade has seen vast improvements in digital communications. Today, online release of council agendas and reports as soon as they are approved to go to the print shop is an obvious next step.

To his credit, City Manager James Keene on his own moved the packet release forward by a full day, to Wednesday afternoons — a good first step, but a baby step.

Now comes the bigger proposal, already approved in concept by a unanimous council subcommittee, the Policy and Services Committee. Details will be considered by the committee on Dec. 14, and the matter is expected to return to the full council in January.

Under the proposed policy the release of packets would remain on Wednesdays, but with a big exception: "For major, complex projects and policies, the City will make every effort to distribute these reports two weeks prior to the meeting when the item will be considered."

That is an outstanding policy, demonstrating a commitment to vastly improved public awareness while building in a degree of flexibility. But it will take supervisory oversight to make the policy a real vs. "paper" policy.

The new policy would require plan changes by developers to be submitted by noon five working days prior to the meeting "to allow for adequate staff review and analysis and to ensure public access to materials."

A similar early deadline would apply to colleagues' memos by council members.

But perhaps the most important policy facing the council — at least for city staff, journalists and anyone who has ever waited for hours to speak on an issue — could mean shorter meetings. Too often city meetings become grueling endurance tests, hence: "Consideration in building the agenda should be given to the potential length of the meeting and at what point items of significant public concern may be heard."

All in all, the package of "transparency" represents a solid positive effort to increase civic engagement in the community at points early enough to avoid last-minute blow-ups when people are caught by surprise. It's worth a trial run.

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