Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - January 28, 2011

Editorial: Espinosa deftly outlines a year of challenges

Well-delivered State-of-the-City speech focuses on critical priorities and how to achieve real progress on meeting them

New Palo Alto Mayor Sid Espinosa captured an overflow audience Monday night at the Cubberley Community Center for his State-of-the-City speech — both in getting an impressive turnout and in people's response to his comments.

There was widespread praise for the clarity of his comments, delivered in a smooth, fast-moving presentation that included humor, warmth and a touch of sadness about a young friend lost to suicide. His talk reflected realistic concern about the city's economic base and its ability to meet long-term retirement commitments of about $105 million and a $450 million to $500 million backlog of city infrastructure projects.

There were no "big headline" items, as the city's five priorities are held over from last year: city finances, youth well-being, emergency preparedness, environmental sustainability, and land-use and transportation planning.

But the tone of determination to make important changes during 2011 and the comprehensive overview of city and community issues dominated the evening.

He did make two important pledges: That city business will be done open and "transparent" and that progress on the priorities will be measured in ways that mean something. Those are not insignificant pledges, given a long history in Palo Alto of unspoken undercurrents and more talk than action on annual council priorities.

He repeatedly urged residents to become involved in city and neighborhood issues, from youth well-being and emergency preparedness to using new technology to learn about city issues and provide informed feedback.

"We need your active engagement. We need your partnership. We can't accomplish any of these goals without you," Espinosa summed up his 25-minute address.

He began his presentation by praising Palo Alto as a great city and place to live — citing a recent survey showing high approval ratings by citizens. But he quickly shifted to problems the city faces on one hand and its city's reputation for innovation, its AAA bond rating, and its being "tree city, bike city, with Stanford and first-rate schools" on the other.

Like many cities, Palo Alto the recession, and faces millions in unfunded retirement commitments and infrastructure needs.

Palo Alto is a recognized leader in environmental actions and in emergency preparation, he noted. But "the magnitude of the problems we are facing can seem overwhelming" to the point that people give up or never try.

"Are we prepared for a disaster here?" he asked. Not really, he said.

"We are also a community where our youth are struggling. Five suicides in a row, two others since the beginning of this year. Experts tell us to be careful how we talk about these circumstances because it might affect publicity. But clearly we are a community that needs to understand and deal with these terrible losses, and their causes," Espinosa said. With some emotion, he said a young friend ended his life last year due to mental illness despite being an Iron Man athlete, working to finish his Ph.D. and being in a great relationship.

Espinosa then turned his attention to some broader, seldom discussed community issues:

"Finally, we are a community experiencing demographic shifts and changes. Darwin fans here in the audience will tell you that it's not the strongest of the species that survive, or the most intelligent, but the most responsive to change. And we are a changing community.

"We need to integrate better across old and new divides, whether that's geographic, north and south; ethnic with our growing Asian community; age-related, Boomers all nearing retirement but not necessarily wanting to retire but wanting to be engaged. We have a new base of wealth that is really unprecedented but not necessarily engaged in civic life. "We have to start thinking and acting like one city, with one future, with a shared responsibility for success," he said.

"And frankly these periods of upheaval and change provide every city and every organization therein the chance to stop and think about how we do things differently — how we do things better, how we're more efficient, how we're more creative.

"Transformative policymaking often happens best in times of change."

If Espinosa and his colleagues can tackle solving our community's challenges as well as he outlined them Monday nightm, 2011 could be a banner year on many fronts.

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