The two broad problems, which have dominated council meetings throughout much of 2012, were the clear frontrunners on lists submitted by the seven returning council members and two newly elected ones as part of Palo Alto's freshly revamped priority-setting process. The two were followed by "technology," with different council members offering different takes on what that means.
The new process, which the council adopted this year, also invited residents to recommend their preferred priorities. In the past, selecting the council's priorities has been accomplished less formally, with council members gathering on a Saturday morning in January, brainstorming possible priorities and taking a series of votes before selecting their list of three to five items.
The results have been all over the map, ranging from the concrete (a new police building) to the abstract ("civic engagement for the common good"). The only constants in recent years have been finances and environmental sustainability. At times, the process has been an anticlimactic affair. Last January, for example, the council decided to simply carry over into the new year all of last year's priorities — city finances, emergency preparedness, environmental sustainability, land use and transportation planning and youth well-being.
Now, however, the council is looking to overhaul how it chooses priorities and to take a closer look at what exactly it means for something to be a priority. Earlier this year, the council defined the term as "a topic that will receive particular, unusual and significant attention during the year."
The issue of parking has been particularly hot in recent months, with many downtown residents decrying the loss of parking spots on their streets and with proposed office developments threatening to make the problem worse in the coming years. Infrastructure, meanwhile, was the hot-button word at the beginning of the year, when Mayor Yiaway Yeh declared 2012 the "year of infrastructure renewal and investment."
The two issues were the constant threads running through the otherwise varied lists submitted by current and future council members. Both newly elected members, Marc Berman and Liz Kniss, included it on their priority lists (Berman wrote, "Land use and transportation, with emphasis on parking," while Kniss went with "traffic and downtown parking issues"). Councilman Larry Klein listed "downtown" as one of his priorities, along with infrastructure and technology. Klein also specified in his description that downtown's parking problem should be one of several issues that the city should consider in the coming year on this broad topic.
Councilwoman Karen Holman also took the broad approach and listed "Downtown/commercial development" as one of her proposed priorities, along with "Healthy City/Healthy Community" and "walkable streets, livable neighborhoods"). Vice Mayor Greg Scharff was more concrete, listing "build a parking garage" as one of his proposed priorities. He also included technology and "increase resident and visitor enjoyment of our commercial areas" on his list.
"Infrastructure" earned a spot on the lists of Klein, Berman, Scharff, Gail Price and Nancy Shepherd. Last year, the city commissioned a report from a citizen panel that studied the city's infrastructure backlog and offered recommendations for funding the items on the list. This year, the council plans to plow ahead with its plan to place a revenue bond on the 2014 ballot to fund some of the items.
Other suggested priorities include "investigate the impacts of rapid commercial growth" (Greg Schmid), "misuse of PC" (planned-community zoning, which allows developers to exceed zoning regulations in exchange for negotiated public benefits) (Kniss) and "public-private partnerships" (Shepherd).
The council's Policy and Services Committee discussed at length Tuesday evening the process that the council would follow at its retreat early next year. The committee unanimously decided that each council member will have six minutes to make a case for his or her priority, after which time the council will spend about an hour refining these items and coming up with specific actions the council could take in 2013 to further these priorities. The council would then vote on which to adopt, with the goal of limiting the number to three this year.
In years past, council members proposed a list of priorities and then simply placed stickers next to the items they supported.
The priorities themselves are also likely to be different in character this year, with a greater emphasis on "actionable" items.
"We want to get away from this sort of feel-good idea," Klein said.
He cited "balanced budget" as an example and noted that this is an annual objective and doesn't work as a priority.