Palo Alto Weekly

News - May 9, 2014

Smaller council, other reforms eyed for Palo Alto ballot

Proposed changes include looser term limit, fewer council members

by Gennady Sheyner

The Palo Alto City Council will consider on Monday asking voters to approve a looser term limit for council members, a seven- rather than nine-member council and swearing-in ceremonies for new members that take place earlier in the year.

If the council decides to place these reforms to the City Charter on the November ballot — which will already see the election of five council members — voters will have a chance to significantly change not just the composition of the council but its very structure.

The crowded ballot is also slated to include a proposal to raise the hotel-tax rate and reforms to the utility users tax.

The proposals to loosen council term limits from two to three terms and reduce seats from nine to seven emerged from a memo authored last year by Mayor Nancy Shepherd, Vice Mayor Liz Kniss and Councilwoman Gail Price. In the June 2013 memo, the trio argued that a "steep learning curve" is required to be an effective council member and that it takes time for council members to gain the necessary expertise and seniority to represent the city on regional boards such as the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority and Caltrain.

"Term limits interrupt this process," the memo stated. "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's two-term limit has been in place since 1992, a provision meant to encourage more people to get involved in governing. The three councilwomen noted in the memo that some agencies have been rethinking this rule. The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, where Liz Kniss served until her final term expired in 2012, recently increased its limit from two to three terms.

The council will also consider on Monday an alternative that would scrap term limits entirely.

The same memo also proposes cutting the number of seats from nine to seven, a subject that the full council has yet to discuss. Shepherd, Kniss and Price wrote in the memo that having nine council members is unusual for a city of Palo Alto's size.

"Menlo Park is a five member council; we consider this to be too small. On the other hand, Mountain View has seven, and we think that this could bring efficiencies of meeting effectiveness and workload which deserves discussion and consideration while also reducing costs," the memo stated.

The topic of reducing the size of the council has been popping up sporadically every few years since 1972, when the council reduced its membership from 15 to nine. Supporters of the reduction include Roger Smith, a former council candidate, co-founder of Friends of Palo Alto Parks and founding president of Silicon Valley Bank. On April 29, Smith asked the council to make the change. He pointed out that Sunnyvale, Santa Clara and Redwood City have seven council members, while San Mateo, which has a population of 99,000, has five.

"I've spoken to a large number of community leaders who'd like to see the council reduced to seven members," Smith said, adding that placing the measure on the November ballot would save "time, effort and money."

Another proposed Charter revision calls for swearing in new council members on the first business day of January. This would depart from the current practice of holding the ceremony on the first business Monday of the year, which could be as late as Jan. 8. The change was proposed in a memo by Councilmen Larry Klein and Greg Schmid, who argued that the delay is unnecessary and counter-productive.

Because terms of outgoing council members expire on Dec. 31 and new members aren't sworn in until the Monday meeting, the city risks "not having sufficient council members on hand to act if an emergency should arise," Klein and Schmid wrote.

Furthermore, if the outgoing members include the mayor and the vice mayor, the city would have no one in these positions until the reorganization meeting, the council members wrote.

The change would also give council members more time for business. By dedicating the first business Monday solely for the swearing-in and election of mayor and vice mayor, the city typically leaves itself with only two Mondays in January when it can actually conduct regular business (the third Monday of the year is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day).

"At the very time when enthusiasm is high — particularly in years when new people are joining the council — we in effect are dawdling," Klein and Schmid wrote. "Join us in supporting this simple change in our schedule."

TALK ABOUT IT

Do you favor a smaller City Council? Share your opinion on Town Square, the community discussion forum at www.PaloAltoOnline.com/square.

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