Palo Alto Weekly

News - May 16, 2014

Palo Alto eyes changes to council size, term limits

City Council committee to consider possible changes to City Charter

by Gennady Sheyner

A proposal to cut the number of seats on the Palo Alto City Council continued to gather momentum on Monday night when Councilman Pat Burt joined three of his colleagues in offering tentative support for the change.

The reduction is one of several reforms to the City Charter that may appear on the November ballot this year. Though the council on Monday didn't decide on specific changes that would appear on the ballot, it voted unanimously to have the council's Policy and Services Committee go through all the options and issue a recommendation to the full council.

The menu of possible reforms the council considered was long and varied, including such things as higher compensation, district-based elections, direct election of mayor and vice mayor, elimination of term limits and the reduction of seats from nine to seven. Two of these proposals, for district elections and direct mayoral election, fizzled during the discussion, and the council ultimately voted 8-1, with Larry Klein dissenting, not to send them to the committee for further discussion.

The rest are fair game, the council unanimously decreed. Of those, longer term limits and a smaller council are on top of the list. The conversation over these two reforms was spurred by a June 2013 colleagues memo from Mayor Nancy Shepherd, Vice Mayor Liz Kniss and Councilwoman Gail Price. In the memo, they advocated extending limits from the current two terms, arguing that this would allow council members to build up seniority and gain influential seats on regional boards such as Association of Bay Area Governments and Caltrain. The city had adopted term limits in 1992.

Even though she had signed the memo, Kniss on Monday said she doesn't believe extending term limits is all that critical. Between the 1960s and 1990s, an average council term was 6.5 years, she said, about the same as it has been since. She suggested that extending the limit to three terms is "a good idea" but acknowledged that for the most part, people are "self-limiting."

The trio also suggested cutting the number of seats from nine to seven, arguing that "this could bring efficiencies of meeting effectiveness and workload which deserves discussion and consideration while also reducing costs."

Though it remains to be seen whether the council majority agrees to place this change on the November ballot, the likelihood increased on Monday when Burt said that he is leaning toward supporting the proposal from his three colleagues.

"I believe a smaller council size would in all likelihood lead to more efficient and more effective government," Burt said.

The committee will also consider other less drastic reforms, including holding swearing-in ceremonies for newly elected council members on the first business day of the year, rather than during the first regular Monday meeting. This proposal, as well as one that would replace the largely ceremonial first meeting of January with a regular meeting, was proposed by a memo from Councilmen Larry Klein and Greg Schmid.

The council didn't spend much time Monday going over the various reforms, opting to reserve the bulk of its discussion for June, when the item comes back. Meanwhile, the committee is scheduled to vet the issues on May 20.

Several members of the public addressed the council on the proposed changes, offering a range of opinions. Roger Smith, founding CEO of Silicon Valley Bank and a former council candidate, made a second pitch in as many weeks for a smaller council.

"I'm a big believer in taking the council from nine to seven," Smith said. "I just think it would be much more efficient. It would take less time, and staff would be more productive."

Council watchdog Bob Moss argued that it's not the size of the council that matters, it's how the members conduct themselves in their discussions. Historically, some council members enjoyed hearing themselves talk, Moss said, while others rarely asked questions. He also pointed out that Palo Alto has more boards and commissions than other cities and runs its own utilities and concluded that if the council's size is reduced, members will have "more on their plate."

Klein urged his colleagues not to get too deep into the issue on Monday but to wait until the committee and the public have had a chance to weigh in.

"We've had virtually no discussion by the public so far," Klein said. "We've heard from a half dozen people. I hope we hear from a lot more."

The council plans to consider the potential ballot measures on June 16. The city has until Aug. 8 to finalize its November ballot, which will also include a hotel-tax increase, reforms to the utility-users tax and five City Council seats.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be reached at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

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