Palo Alto Weekly

News - May 31, 2013

Palo Alto to consider smaller City Council

Three council members say it's time to consider fewer seats, more years of service

by Gennady Sheyner

When the Palo Alto City Council meets for its regular meeting on Monday night, it will find itself grappling with a question with existential overtones: Is a nine-member council really necessary?

The question is one of two being served up in a colleagues memo by Vice Mayor Nancy Shepherd and councilwomen Liz Kniss and Gail Price. The three propose both shrinking the council to seven seats and extending the limit of council service from two to three consecutive terms.

The idea of reducing the number of seats on the council is hardly new, though it's been a long time since the council has considered the issue. Rather, it's popped up periodically at candidate forums during election seasons, only to quickly die down once the new council is sworn in.

Shepherd, Kniss and Price are hoping to change that. The memo recommends the council direct the Office of City Attorney to draft a measure for the November 2013 ballot that would reduce the number of open council seats from five to three in the 2018 election.

The memo notes that other cities of Palo Alto's population (about 65,000) have smaller councils. Menlo Park, for example, has a council of five. Mountain View's has seven members.

"The size of the Palo Alto City Council body of nine members is unusual for municipal government for a city of our population," the memo states. "Although reduced in 1971 from 15 to nine members, we believe that council should discuss the merits of reducing the body of government further from nine to seven members. It is typical for municipalities to have a smaller council."

Shepherd, who was elected to the council in 2009, told the Weekly Wednesday that the idea of a smaller council has been floating around for so many years that she felt it time for the council to have a "substantive discussion" on the topic. A nine-member council, she said, requires a lot of work by staff. It means longer meetings, more comments and more questions for staff to answer.

"We should consider what the benefit might be to reduce it and whether the benefits outweigh the fact that having a nine-member council means we can spread out and serve in all the different liaison roles (with local commissions)," Shepherd said.

Because a seven-person council would mean more work for each member, Shepherd, Kniss and Price propose increasing the council stipend by $600. This suggestion would be taken up by the council's Finance Committee if the council and the voters were to decide to move forward with the change.

At the same time, Shepherd said, she feels strongly that the city should consider extending the term limit for council members from two to three, a change that Santa Clara County voters recently undertook with respect to the county's Board of Supervisors. Palo Alto council members have been restricted to two four-year terms since 1992.

More consecutive years on the council, Shepherd said, would enhance the ability of Palo Alto's elected leaders to represent the city on various regional boards, including ones dealing with public transit, housing mandates, the rail corridor and utility regulations.

"To effectively represent Palo Alto's interests, the city's representatives need time to gain expertise and build seniority on these bodies," the memo states. "Term limits interrupt this process. Under the current charter, members can sit out an election cycle and re-run for two more terms, but we consider this disruptive and not in the city's interest. We think Palo Alto will be better served by extending consecutive terms."

The city, Shepherd said, is currently facing many "external forces," including a housing mandate from the Association of Bay Area Governments, a controversial high-speed-rail system planned for the Caltrain corridor and various issues relating to transportation and utilities. Longer terms would make it easier for city leaders to represent Palo Alto on these regional issues.

"If we do make seniority (on the regional boards) that would be fantastic because we can then be representing Palo Alto's interests on a greater level," Shepherd said.

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