A call for candor from the city council candidates Diana Diamond's Blog, posted by Diana Diamond, Palo Alto Online blogger, on Aug 20, 2007 at 11:34 am Diana Diamond is a member (registered user) of Palo Alto Online
Everything seems in place for this fall’s city council election in Palo Alto. We have 12 candidates running for four seats, we have campaign managers and candidate web sites.
But will we have candidates who are candid? Will we have an intelligent discussion on how to improve our city? Will the candidates specifically address the issues, or will they hide behind “on the one hand, on the other hand” types of answers we typically get from people who want to be elected?
I have some overall questions I would love to ask the candidates, such as can they understand a city budget and work through the numbers? Are they willing to make decisions based on finances, rather than on who comes to council meetings pleading for pet projects? And finally, will the candidates be simply a rubber stamp for city hall staff or can they exercise some leadership?
Those are for starters; here are some more:
• Infrastructure – a code word for sundry things like street and road repairs, park improvements, street lighting. Much work has been neglected, e.g., we are some $28 million behind in street repairs alone. What would you do, Mr./Ms. Candidate, to speed things up? Should we allocate more city money for improving our infrastructure?
• What are your three priorities for this city?
• Councils in the past have put together a list of priorities, but then the list changes the following year. What overall priority practices would you urge?
• City employee costs and benefits are skyrocketing, putting increased pressure on the city’s annual budget. Would you cut the budget? Would you cut the number of employees at city hall?
• Does this city spend too much and/or are we getting our money’s worth?
• What should the city do to keep its auto dealers in town and attract new ones?
• Please comment on the city’s new web site and what should be done about it, if anything.
• We’ve had two city council subcommittees work for two-plus years on increasing retail in Palo Alto and encouraging new businesses to locate here, but the committees have not had much success. What would you do to attract more retailers?
• Do we need more housing in our city or do we have enough?
• How do you feel about the traffic in town?
• Four years ago, and then two years ago, there was talk of reducing the council from nine to seven members, and also electing a mayor who would serve a four-year term. Candidate reaction, please.
• The City Council recently approved hiring an environmental-coordinator for $151,000 to focus the city more specifically on global warming locally. Do you agree or disagree with the need for such a coordinator?
That’s my list. I am sure residents have a lot more, which we can list below. Next goal: get the candidates to answer our questions.
Posted by pat, a resident of the Midtown neighborhood, on Aug 20, 2007 at 1:39 pm
I’d like to see some big-picture, strategic thinkers on the council -- preferably people who understand how to run a business.
1. Priorities and Budget
The overriding problem I see is a lack of priorities. And I mean real priorities, not the latest mayor's pet project. Once priorities are set – with a line drawn under the essentials – the budget follows. If there's no money left for below-the-line nonessentials, they don't get funded.
So I’d like the candidates to be very clear on how they would set priorities and what their top priorities would be. Then I'd like to hear about how they would get involved in the budget process and make it more effective -- not just leave it to four members on the finance committee to rubber stamp whatever the city manager puts in front of them.
2. Financial Analysis and Accountability
I'd like candidates to promise to make decisions on financial analyses and a clear strategy, not on a how many folks show up at a city council meeting with a pet project. And I’d like them to exercise their oversight responsibility by holding city staff – and themselves – accountable for decisions they make.
We need a long-term plan, on housing, business, schools, etc. Each time a new project is proposed, we get the same growth/no-growth debate. We hear that traffic can’t be allowed to increase, which is unrealistic. If surrounding cities are growing (and passing us by re tax revenue), traffic is going to come through Palo Alto regardless of what we do within the city.
Council should listen and respect all comments -- even those they disagree with -- and respond to citizens' concerns. Council members are too insulated. They only hear those who come to council meetings and that's a tiny percentage of the population.
5. Council and Mayor
I'd like candidates to support reducing the size of the council and electing a real mayor. Folks complain that we'd have to pay a mayor, but IF we got a good one, he/she would be worth the money. Our "your turn now" mayoral system is not effective, and it means that every year we get a new set of personal priorities. Real priorities can't be addressed in just one year.
I think these big questions are more important than "How do you feel about libraries?" or "What will you do to keep Palo Alto green?"
Posted by Anonymous Coward, a resident of the Evergreen Park neighborhood, on Aug 20, 2007 at 2:25 pm
What is your opinion about the recently proposed infrastructure builds, as summarized in recent commission reports - i.e. Public Safety Building, Libraries/Recreation Center (Mitchell Park rebuild and Main/branch improvements)? Should these infrastructure builds be financed as part of a single bond offering, or go out on separate ballots?
Do you think that Palo Altans are knowledgeable about the real benefits - in metrics that they can understand - of our Public Safety, Library and Recreation Center infrastructure?
If you think Palo Altans don't know enough about these institutions, what will you do to help change that situation?
How would you work with Council members(s) A, B, C, and/or candidates D, E, F, or some combination thereof, to accomplish your stated strategic goals for Palo Alto?
How do you envision Palo Alto's future? Will we grow? By how much? What role will you play in promoting growth, while balancing concerns for neighborhood integrity?
How will you help Palo Alto prepare for a time, some 15-20 years hence, when senior citizens comprose roughly 40% of our population?
How prepared are you to work aggressively toward regional solutions to some of our most vexing problems - i.e. housing, transportation, homelessness? Please relate some of your thinking about these problems.
What is your plan for increasing the effectiveness of city/PAUSD relationship, in ways that state - and complete - real milestones with attached metrics?
What plans will you work to complete that will improve the solicitation of retail services to Palo Alto? What ideas do you have for bringing, merchants, developers, landlords, and citizens together, to create win-win scenarios for retail growth in Palo Alto?
What kind of retail growth would you like to see in Palo Alto?
What is your positino on the Stanford expansion? Please explain in light of the costs AND benefits associated with Stanford's presence.
What is your thinking about the nature of our relationship to Stanford? How would you propose that Palo Alto become a better partner with Stanford? What - if anything - do you think is "broken" regarding Palo Alto/Stanford relations.
What ideas do you have for promoting inter-municipal efficiency, and how would you implement those idea?
What is your opinion about the effectiveness of city staff in the delivery of services?
What ideas do you have for maintaining strong city employee morale, while keeping operational costs down?
What is your opinion about examining the idea of selling Palo Alto Utilities. If you are against the idea of looking into this possibility, please explain your rationale in light of the benefits that such a sale might bring, as well as the costs that a sale might bring.
What is your opinion about intra-urban mass transit? How can we be more effective in providing cheap, accessible, intra-urban mass transportation that gets people where they want to go, when they want to go there.
How important are walkable neighborhoods to you? How do you transport yourself to most intra-city destinations?
Is Palo Alto's quality of life increasing, or decreasing - why? Please be specific.
What is your opinion on affordable housing? What problems do you perceive - or not - if Palo Alto chooses not to build sufficient affordable housing in the future?
What ideas do you have for environmental sustainability that do not limit growth?
Would you slow down, keep current, or increase the projected pace of population change in Palo Alto?
What is your opinion about the existance of political commissions? Are permanent, or ad hoc commissions more advantageous?
How much time are you prepared to spend working on City Council issues?
Define Palo Alto, in your own words, in 30 seconds.
Define Palo Alto's primary challenges, in your own words, in 60 seconds.
Describe what the entire City Council needs to do to accomplish the goals you are setting out in your campaign, and who you will work with to accomplish those goals. PLease keep this answer to less than two minutes.
Is Palo Alto an environmentally friendly city?
How can we reduce the cost of government without laying off workers, or raising taxes. This is a difficult question; it will challenge your "inside-and-outside-of-the-box-thinking".
Is Palo Alto able to solve the projected problems that you envision on its own?
What retail businesses would you like to see in Palo Alto?
Should Palo Alto maintain some margin of control over the kinds and placement of retail in certain parts of our city? For instance, should we permit 10 beauty salons within a block of each other, or 15 restaurants within two blocks of each other? What can Palo Alto policy makers do to improve the retail mix in our city, in a way that makes our city, and our valued retail merchants and restauranteurs more sustainable?
What is your opinion of the hotel tax? Business license tax? Please explain your position.
What is your position regarding private/public partnerships to pay for city services? What advantages and pitfalls do you perceive?
What is your opinion about the amount of diligence required of commercial property developers prior to development?
What will you do to encourage more of a dialogue between developers and the community before development projects get off the ground?
Describe your most competent opponent in this race. Why is s/he competent, and suited to hold office?
How is it possible to enforce a vision that keeps pace with the accelerating rate of change in our region, especially on a policy-making bodt that consists of nine members, and is driven by consensus?
What is your opinion about paying City Council members a salary between 30-50% of Palo Alto's median salary?
Is the strong city manager model of government a viable municipal management model in current times. Why or why not?
How will Palo Alto sustain its current level of service, with layoffs?
How will Palo Alto sustain it's current level of service, without layoffs?
How will you work with the consistent minority of voters in Palo Alto that tend to vote in just large enough numbers to challenge the spending wishes of the clear majority, in ways that prevent a zero sum result?
What is your stance on FTTx (fiber communications)? Should we be pursing a local, regional, or no solution at all?
What is your plan to help Palo Altans understand guaranteed, coming, water shortages?
What is your opinion about flood control.
Is ABAG good or bad for our region? Why?
Should public commissions be suggesting action on matters of national policy? Why or why not?
Posted by Not so fast, a resident of the Duveneck/St. Francis neighborhood, on Aug 20, 2007 at 2:38 pm
Wow, anonymous coward, that is quite a list.
I would like to hear two things:
1) Will you be like mayor yoriko kishimoto--have rose-colored glasses on when it comes to the real problems facing PA, while blithely going on your with pet project and always stating that there will be "too much traffic" whenever any new project/business is proposed for PA
2) Where do you stand on the Stanford Hospital/Medical Center expansion.
Posted by diana diamond, Palo Alto Online blogger, on Aug 20, 2007 at 8:14 pm diana diamond is a member (registered user) of Palo Alto Online
As to reducing the size of the council, it takes a change in the city charter which the council can put on the ballot, or residents can get an initiative going to change the charter, which takes a lot of work. I think the notion of having a smalller council is beginning to gain value in our city.
Posted by Nora, a resident of the Fairmeadow neighborhood, on Aug 21, 2007 at 7:09 pm
I had to make several stops in Mountain View today and I was amazed at how good their roads are. Especially the major through streets are beautifully done! clearly marked, smooth -how can they do that and we can't ? Something is very wrong here, does anyone know why?
Posted by Alyssa, a resident of the Community Center neighborhood, on Aug 22, 2007 at 11:24 am
Sorry Wink, but I'm with Nora on the streets issue. Whether major thoroughfares or side streets, to me Palo Alto's seem in much worse condition than almost any other Peninsula city. And I do a lot of local driving for my work. I believe the city auditor did a study a while back that confirmed this impression with objective data.
Either way, we need to get people on the council who will focus on the day-to-day municipal governance of Palo Alto and quit trying to have the city government be a vehicle for expression of pet non Palo Alto specific issues like climate change.
Posted by Winky, a resident of the Charleston Meadows neighborhood, on Aug 22, 2007 at 5:51 pm
Alyssa, I think you'll find that most Palo Altans report being happy with our streets, in the auditor's report. IN fact, their satisfaction with same is roughly in line with other Peninsula residents.
This isn't to suggest that we couldn;'t use more street repair - we need and want that. I just get tired of hearing comparisons with other cities that don;t match up on paper, or in my experience. I drive a lot, too, and don't quite have the same experience you have.
Posted by Nora, a resident of the Fairmeadow neighborhood, on Aug 22, 2007 at 8:00 pm
Winky, you handed out homework, you said, Go do a comprehensive tour and learn. How about if YOU do your own assignment and name the cities around here that have streets in as bad shape as ours. The lofty statements don't convince anyone. How's about the evidence you keep demanding from other people.
And just because you are tired of hearing it doesn't mean it isn't true. That's a really silly argument.
Posted by Midtown Guy, a resident of the Midtown neighborhood, on Aug 22, 2007 at 8:53 pm
(Question for all council candidates):
"Do you have any connections with Stanford University that would cause you to recuse yourself on Stanford issues? We want everyone on council pulling the same weight. A "stealth Stanford candidate" would hamstring council and create a "two tier" council: one council constituency for all, and another council(by subtraction) for (or against)Stanford. Needless to say, fewer numbers mean a smaller majority. If we don't become aware of this facet until AFTER elections, some odd surprises might ensue.
Posted by Winky, a resident of the Charleston Meadows neighborhood, on Aug 23, 2007 at 9:04 am
Nora, I drive a LOT, and don't agree that our streets are in worse shape than other cities. I never hear people complain aboutour streets, except in this forum. That might tell you something.
Also, read the audit; it plainly says that Palo Altans are largely satisfied with their roads. Please argue onn that basis, as it looks like you're in the minority, excpet for the constant complainers on this board.
Midtown guy - your are RIGHT ON! with your question. This projecct needs to go forward, and we're going to need all the votes on Council we can get, because there are at least a few votes already collaborating to extract concessions to the point where serious delays will be caused.
I will also consider voting against anyone who doesn't agree in principal to look into shrinking Council to 7 members. Nine is too many for the speed this city needs to achieve, if it's to adapt successfully, long term.
Posted by Alyssa, a resident of the Community Center neighborhood, on Aug 23, 2007 at 12:19 pm
Winky hasn't read the report, or is misrepresenting it. The report begins as follows:
"Palo Alto has a $28.7 million backlog in street repair, and less than half of residents rate street maintenance good or excellent."
This directly contradicts Winky's contention that the report "plainly says that Palo Altans are largely satisfied with their roads."
The report also compares Palo Alto to neighboring cities as to the extent of backlog, and as to the different practices and funding priorities that the auditor says account for the poor condition of Palo Alto's streets. Palo Alto has more extensive maintenance backlogs than any of the other cities studied. Palo Alto also fails to enforce even its current inadequate policies regarding street cuts and repaving.
I'm not sure what Winky is talking about, or what his/her agenda might be, but infrastructure - including streets - is and should be a major issue in the campaign.
It's difficult to dig out the Auditor's report on the "new and improved" website (another failure of Benest's Braggarts that should be addressed in the campaign). But for anyone interested in seeing the real report, rather than my or Winky's comments, here is the link. (Web Link)
I think anyone who follows it will see why I linked to it and Winky did not.
Posted by Winky, a resident of the Charleston Meadows neighborhood, on Aug 23, 2007 at 1:02 pm
I have yet to speak to more than two Palo Altans who complain about our roads, without prompting.
As for the audit, I've read it ALL the way through. Where does it say that other city's streets are in better shape - overall - than ours?
Your reportage of Palo Alto's need for better coordination among agencies, to maximize available dollars, is correct. That's based on comparative municipal studies in the audit, that claim (correctly) that we need to learn from other cities in this matter - but nowhere does it say that those cities streets are in OVERALL better shape than ours.
Did you notice that the auditor says that maintenance backlogs are from a lack of available funds? Did you read some of the auditor's suggestions for curing the capital backlog - like roadway impact fees, increases in "street cut" fees, propsoing motatoriums on street cutting, more stringent standards of street restoration, better controls for street cut work permits.
I assume you are in favor of the staff re-coordinations, and fee increases necaessary to keep our streets maintained - so am I.
All that said, the MAIN problem has been a lack of necessary capitalization to repair the streets. If there's blame to be assigned to that, assign it to City Councils in the 80's and 90's that failed to husband our resources in a way that would prepare us for constrained times, as we have now. That said, it's human nature to think that good times will continue - so the people involved at the time were probably doing their best (as most people do), but failed to anticipate change appropriately.
What boggles is why we're spending so much time thinking about street repair, when we should be spending more time on figuring ways to get people out of cars.
As far as the maintenance of pet projects by appointed mayors, the only thing that will stop that will be a change in our charter that calls for an elected mayor, who would have 4+ years to carry out promises, instead of the current inadequate one year, from a position that is essentially titular, and with only a grain more power than held by any other City Council candidate.
Posted by Gene, a resident of the South of Midtown neighborhood, on Aug 23, 2007 at 1:37 pm
Good times or bad, Palo Alto councils have failed to set infrastructure as a priority. It is a cultural thing. The vast majority of council members are not blue collar...they are white collar. Very few have ever had a serious full time job that causes callouses. Some have been supported by trust funds, and focus on their own special causes (especially environmental issues). There is nothing wrong with this profile (it is what it is), but such people take infrastructure for granted. When there was a problem in their lives, they simply hired outside contractors to fix it. The bottom line is that they didn't think much about it. Infrastructure was never something they saw as a priority.
In order to get new council members that put infrastructure near the top of the list, candidates will need to come from a different background, compared to the vast majority of members that have served over the past several decades. I am not aware that there are any serious candidates, for the 2008 election, that fit this discription. Therefore, infrastructure will only be paid lip service, while pet projects get the real money.
Posted by Alyssa, a resident of the Community Center neighborhood, on Aug 23, 2007 at 2:00 pm
Winky may have read the Auditor's report, but obviously not very carefully. On page 79 of the report, a table lists the extent of backlog in maintenance - measured in years. Palo Alto's is worst.
It is also interesting that in his/her most recent post, Winky tries to elide over the fact that his/her previous post grossly misrepresented the Auditor's conclusion that "less than half of residents rate street maintenance good or excellent," substituting his/her own subjective impression of citizen attitudes toward street condition for the Auditor's objective survey. It's unclear what Winky's motive for this prevarication is, but it is very unclear that Palo Altan's don't think the streets are in good condition.
Winky then shifts to discussing where to place blame for the condition of the streets before concluding that we should be discussing how to get people to use them less instead of trying to worry about fixing them.
Streets are important because - other than police and fire services - they are perhaps the quintessential municipal function. They're necessary for the good functioning of the community and a primary indicium of municipal governmental effectiveness. If the city government can't pave the streets properly, it's probably not doing too good a job at the other things its attempting to do.
Clearly the city isn't doing a good job with infrastructure repairs it attempts - witness the 50+% overrun on storm drain repair. And it isn't doing a good job on much of the other things it attempts - witness the website fiasco.
For these reasons (to return to the topic of this thread), infrastructure - including streets - should be an issue in this campaign.
Whether a City that regularly winds up on lists of bicycle-friendly cities and just spent over $6 million to build a bicycle tunnel that few use because of its poor design should place a similarly high priority on even more such measures that get people out of their cars is questionable. But I think Gene is right that we'll have lots of emphasis on pet projects of the city's chattering classes while the streets continue to wreak havock wiht the automobile suspensions of those of us who must use them.
Posted by Winky, a resident of the Charleston Gardens neighborhood, on Aug 23, 2007 at 2:57 pm
Alyssa, try as you may to get page 79 9to say that Palo Alto's streets are in worse condition than other cities, it just doesn't say that. You are, however, correct in your statements about street repair backlog.
That doesn't speak to the general comparative condition of streets among this region's cities. Palo Alto's streets may have been in generally better considition to begin with, compared to other cities - you don't know whether that's the truth, and neither do I.
So the only judgments that can be rendered on this are entirely subjective.
I don't find driving in Redwood City, or Atherton, or Los Altos, or Sunnyvale, for that matter, any different than here - the road all seem to need some repair, but are mostly adequate.
And, almost 50% of Palo Altans surveyed on the audit. That doesn't sound like a disaster to me.
I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on rebuilding the REST of Palo Alto's infrastructure - things like Public Safety, Libraries, Recreation Center, etc. etc.
There is something in your tone, like the gross assumptions and unscientific correlations you make about the competence of our city's operations staff, that makes me suspect you're one of those voters who will be happy to see streets repaired at the expense of other infrastructure.
btw, being bicycle friendly is only a small first step to getting people out of their cars.
Last, why denigrate people as "chattering classes", as if your opining has any more inherent weight and value than those you identify as such.
Yes, streets and roads are important, but it appears that you - like a few others in Palo Alto - want to use the streets and roads problem (a small problem, compared to larger issues) as a signifier for poor government.
I wonder how you feel about expanding our population and retail base, including a small dose of big box retail, and infill housing.
Gene, I grew up in a blue collart environment, and learned a long time ago not to fall into the trap of judging people by how much personal wealth they maintain, or the socioeconomic class they came from. I would like to see a little less of your kind of evaluation of persons based on general background, as your inappropriate pre-judgements make those of us who hail from proud blue-collar beginnings, cringe.
Posted by Gene, a resident of the South of Midtown neighborhood, on Aug 23, 2007 at 3:34 pm
Ok, Winkly, you claim to have grown up in a blue collar environment. Interestingly, you did not say that you ever did a serious full time blue collar job. Did you ever ream out sewer pipes, or grade roads or dig water wells?
Sombody who had done such things would probably have the following list of top four priorities:
1. Police protection
2. Fire protection
Libraries and recreation would not make the top four. They would only get money after the top four are fully funded, and they would need to compete with other lesser priorities.
To suggest otherwise, as you have, only goes to show that Palo Alto, if it follows your suggestions, will continue to watch its infrastrucure decline.
No need to be so touchy, Winky. Proud blue collar guys know exactly what I'm talking about. I spent 8 years as a water well driller, so I used to be one.
Posted by Fred, a resident of the Barron Park neighborhood, on Aug 23, 2007 at 4:33 pm
Good thread! I'm not a blue collar guy (and am neither proud nor ashamed of that fact), but I'd list roughly the same priorities as Gene did above. Parks and libraries are also right up there, though - if you combine Fire & Police into Public Safety and roads & sewers into Infrastructure, parks and and libraries are probably next. And btw, keep a fiendish eye on all expenses.
Ability and willingness to focus on the ditch-digging work of running a maturing city is the #1 thing I'd want in a City Council person. Watch the nickels and dimes, get the infrastructure done right, give the "fast no" to the pet projects and pipe dreams, handle the obstructionists effectively.
A side note - one poster put a long list of issue questions they'd like answered. I'm not sure I agree with that approach. Smarts and "issue positions" are highly over-rated for a city council job in my opinion; responsiveness and focus on getting things done win my vote. Let's get do-ers, not talkers.
Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood, on Aug 23, 2007 at 5:41 pm
I don't think this should turn into a class discussion, but from my experience, it is the blue collar community that values some of the services of things like parks, libraries and rec depts. most. These families are the ones who tend to have family parties at parks, need library facilities for homework help and internet availability and the relatively lower cost of rec. dept. classes and camps to what would be available elsewhere make them more attractive to the average lower income family.
Yes, please keep class out of this discussion. We all need the services the community provides and to try and put roads above libraries is in the words of Marie Antoinette "If they can't afford bread, then let them eat cake"
Posted by Gene, a resident of the South of Midtown neighborhood, on Aug 23, 2007 at 5:45 pm
"Yes, we need to tend to ALL of our infrastructure, because it's ALL related to the whole."
No, Winky we do NOT need to focus on everything that can be tossed into the pot of "infrastructure", as you define it. Once you go down that track, you might as well toss in "human infrastructure"...then it's off the races, in terms of ignoring roads and water/sewers and police and fire.
Winky, you describe the problem perfectly by simply expressing your views.
Hard physicial laobr is a healthy thing, but I am talking about folk who actually had to build and maintain infrastructure. They get it. You, apparently, do not.
There will be no change in Palo Alto, concerning infrastructure, until the culture of the candidates changes.
Posted by Not so fast, a resident of the Duveneck/St. Francis neighborhood, on Aug 23, 2007 at 7:18 pm
Fred--before each election we think we are voting in "doers"--but as soon as they take that oath of office they join the "talk much-do nothing" gang on the city council. Over the last few years, I have voted of rmany city council candidates that have won and been disappointed with all of them (Freeman, Cordell, Klein, Barton to name a few).
Why doesn't any member of the council have the stuff to tell our mayor to get off her "climate change" and "photo-op" crusade and start dealing with the cities problems.
It seems that as soon as they join the "good old boy" group aka the city council, they immediately forget the people that elected them and start with the self-congratulatory back slapping and commendation of incompetence in city hall (i.e. benest amd Harrison for example).
Our city council the last few years have been very disappointing and our mayor's have been abysmal (I thought Jim Burch was the worst with his attempts to gavel free speech out of order while protecting his buddy Benest, but Yoriko takes the cake now).
Posted by Alyssa, a resident of the Community Center neighborhood, on Aug 23, 2007 at 10:22 pm
Contrary to what Winky says, when talking of street maintenance, it is not true that "the only judgments that can be rendered on this are entirely subjective".
In fact the Auditor's report contains pages of neutral data that are purely factual.
I have quoted, linked, and cited the Auditor's report in my previous post. Anyone who is interested can read and see that it says what I say it says. It does not say what Winky says it does.
It is presumptuous, ridiculous and offensive to contend that any poster here is "one of those" based on a couple of posts.
I have made quite clear what I think should be one of the major issues in the campaign and stated and explained with data why I think that. Winky is free to disagree and is free to base his disagreement on any whimsical notion he fancies. He's not free to pollute this thread or mischaracterize others as a part of his reasoning.
One would think the campaign has started already and that a city employee is running for office.
Posted by pat, a resident of the Midtown neighborhood, on Aug 23, 2007 at 10:58 pm
NSF, I disagree with you only on whether Burch or Kishimoto deserve the worst mayor award. I’d vote for Burch.
Gene, thank you for so clearly stating the real top priorities (Police protection, Fire protection, Sewers, Roads) – though I would add storm drains/flood control.
Our city government does not know how to prioritize. That’s why pet projects get funded and every time we get a new mayor, we get a new set of priorities. The unchangeable priorities for every city have to do with public safety and public works. All the rest is icing on the cake. Only after funding the top priorities, can we afford icing.
But Council doesn’t know how to say “no.” That’s why they voted to give $1.74 million to the art center – knowing that we don’t have enough money to fix the streets or finish the storm drains.
The story in the Palo Alto Weekly (Web Link ) says:
“The council's action gives the Art Center project priority over numerous other needed improvements to the city's aging infrastructure. . . . Nearly 20 speakers, including a few children, extolled the virtues of the center, and asked the council to move ahead with the project. More than 50 art lovers attended the meeting, wearing lime green buttons to show their support for the project.”
THIS is how the Council makes decisions: Show up at a council meeting, preferably with kids, wear buttons to show support and Council will vote Yes on anything.
Decisions on how our money is spent should be made by prioritizing essentials and doing fiscal analysis.
Would it surprise anyone to know that it’s impossible to determine how much it costs to run each of our five libraries? I’ve tried to find out, but I’ve been told that the budget is just not set up that way. Our library director doesn’t know. She just follows Council’s directive to keep all branches open. Our Library Advisory Commission doesn’t know. They also unquestioningly follow Council’s directives. No fiscal analysis anywhere in that process.
I’m not picking on the art center or the library system. I think both are wonderful. I’m just using them examples of how decisions are made in our city.
Sadly, I agree with other posters that nothing is going to change. The city government is a closed system, and once you’re in, you fall in line and start back-slapping.
Posted by Mike, a resident of the College Terrace neighborhood, on Aug 23, 2007 at 11:20 pm
pat, you are simply wrong when you say that nobody knows how much it costs to run the library, or the art center. It's in the budget, but I'm not going to take the time to dig it out for you. Your talk of library "support" belies what you say on other threads about the library.
When you speak about "prioritizing essentials", the listener must remind himself of the phrase "caveat emptor" - because nuying your philosophy of government would turn Palo Alto into a very mediocre place, with city officials wearing bookkeepers visors, and resoaking their tea bags five times before getting a fresh one.
As far as Council candidates keeping campiagn promises, I;'ve spoken to that before.
Consider that we have nine Council members. The only way any one Council member can get close to completing a policy goal is to get at least 4 other members to vote his/her way. Since there is really no one leader (i.e. an elected mayor) on the Council, there is no bully pulpit from which to legislate, and use leverage. It's a cat and mouse game that requires extraordinary sensitivity to the nuances of the other eight members - all that mitigates against fast, or bold action.
This is a real problem as our city faces rapid change in the region, and worldwide. I'm not sure we have the collective wisdom (politically) to create a more optimal governance model.
It's VERY difficult to convince a legislator to legislate in a way that reduces her political power.
We need a smaller governance body, and an elected mayor, but I don't knwo of that's in the cards for Palo Alto.
Many of our neighbors should also consider electing their mayor; together, we could move this Valley forward from it's slowly-losing-advantage position.
Posted by Mike, a resident of the College Terrace neighborhood, on Aug 23, 2007 at 11:27 pm
Alyssa, "One would think the campaign has started already and that a city employee is running for office."
Boy-o-boy, ou talk about Winky's "mischaracterization"??? :) I guess that anyone who disagrees with you must be a city employee? That's a pretty weak argument.
You have not been able to produce ANY document or proof that shows Palo Alto streets being far worse off than its neighbors in the current quality of its roadways.
Now, that may very well be the case, but there is no data to back it up. YOu are simply setting up a conclusion from circumstantial evidence that points to Palo Alto's relative weakness in road repair coordination, among its various departments. You're trying to make a mountain out of a molehill.
Posted by Marvin, a resident of the Charleston Gardens neighborhood, on Aug 24, 2007 at 7:14 am
Pat--you are correct about how to get things done in town. You would thought that after the historic ordinance land grab was okayed by the city council about 10 years ago after a small group got them to pass it and then it was resoundingly defeated at the ballot box, the council would have learned a lesson (by the way to digress, one of the ringleaders behind the historic ordinance is now trying to push the city council to okay a law that will ban people from parking on city owned streets in certain parts of town).
The council is afraid to say no and people in town know how to work t he system.
Posted by Alyssa, a resident of the Community Center neighborhood, on Aug 24, 2007 at 7:53 am
Unlike, apparently Mike, I have read the Auditor's report. It's very direct, very factual, and very objective. Our streets are in poor shape, less than half of residents rate our streets good or excellent, and measured by the extent of backlog, they're worse than neigboring cities by a significant degree. Anyone can go to the report and check this out.Web Link
[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]
It's both annoying and antithetical to rational discussion when posters make up facts as they go along as opposed to expressing opinions based on those facts. It debases the discussion and it's dishonest.
Posted by pat, a resident of the Midtown neighborhood, on Aug 24, 2007 at 9:13 am
Another Mom: I’ve seen the library budget. The largest expenditures in the budget are salaries (77%) and collections.
According to the online org chart for the library, we have 43.75 FTEs plus 12.7 hourly. I assume some of the staff time under the headings "Library," "Administration," and "Collection & Technical Services" are allocated to the various branches. I'd like to see FTE and hourly broken out so I can see how much of the budget goes to salaries and benefits. How many employees would we need if we had only one library (plus Children's)?
Collections are not budgeted by branch because they serve all the libraries. But if we only had one library, how would the collections change? Would we would need more or fewer books, DVDs, etc.?
Building maintenance comes from the Public Works budget. What are the costs of utilities and maintenance for each branch?
What about IT and administrative services? Would they increase or decrease if we closed the branches?
How about opportunity costs? If we closed three branches, we could presumably make money from renting or selling those properties. Or we could use them for other city services. (Doesn’t the planning department currently rent space?)
What I'd like to see is a line-by-line spreadsheet of costs for each branch. And I would think that's what the library director, the city manager and the city council would also like to see.
Posted by Driver, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood, on Aug 25, 2007 at 10:54 am
There is a big problem with repairing and improving the condition of our streets. The experts will tell you that deteriorating streets with bumps and potholes slows the traffic down. Reduced speeds on our streets seems to be what the residents of PA want.
If you repair a street and resurface it speeds on that street will increase.
Posted by Smokey, a resident of the Downtown North neighborhood, on Sep 13, 2007 at 7:08 pm
Comments from Smokey Wallace, candidate for City Council.
Smokey: I find it telling that you have gotten 41 replies to your “A call for candor from the city council candidates” and none of them are from candidates. Ok, let me rectify that situation. I missed the article when it was first posted and luckily a friend just recently sent me the URL. I have subsequently registered and hopefully will not be out of the loop in the future.
I have lived in Palo Alto since 1971 and I think it is a wonderful place. It is just that is could be so much better. That’s why I am a candidate for City Council
My answers to your questions follow;
Diana: …questions I would love to ask the candidates, such as can they understand a city budget and work through the numbers? Are they willing to make decisions based on finances, rather than on who comes to council meetings pleading for pet projects? And finally, will the candidates be simply a rubber stamp for city hall staff or can they exercise some leadership?
Smokey: At the risk of sounding self serving, I have created, read and understood budgets for much larger organizations than the City of Palo Alto. Making decision solely based on finances will turn us all into bean counters. There is a lot more “soul” in Palo Alto.
In my opinion, the open sessions at City council are simply “venting” sessions and are dominated by individual or small group issues and do not seem to address city wide challenges. This is another example of a lack of proper prioritization Yes, there are neighborhood issues that need to be addressed, but are council meetings the place to air them?
When I signed up to run for City Council, I really did not understand the structure and the extent of organizational dysfunction of our City government. What I have learned is that there are no quick fixes. The problems are complex and there are no easy answers. Having said that, it is clear that if we truly want to improve this wonderful place were we live, we need to tackle the management and organizational cultural problems.
Those are for starters; here are some more:
Diana: • Infrastructure – a code word for sundry things like street and road repairs, park improvements, street lighting. Much work has been neglected, e.g., we are some $28 million behind in street repairs alone. What would you do, Mr./Ms. Candidate, to speed things up? Should we allocate more city money for improving our infrastructure?
Smokey: It is obvious we can not clear the backlog quickly, so we should do those repairs that will have maximum positive impact. I would propose we start with the downtown business districts, since any improvements will have a potential positive revenue impact. Quite frankly, they are a mess!
Diana: • What are your three priorities for this city?
* Significantly improve City Management and organizational culture
* Revitalization of business districts
* Fix our decaying and crumbling physical infrastructural
Diana: • Councils in the past have put together a list of priorities, but then the list changes the following year. What overall priority practices would you urge?
Smokey:The problem is that we do not have a long term vision and plan for the City. Lacking a shared vision, we will continue to make tactical decisions that wander all over the place. One of my first actions would be to work with council and the community to generate a vision of where we want the city to be in the future.
Diana:• City employee costs and benefits are skyrocketing, putting increased pressure on the city’s annual budget. Would you cut the budget? Would you cut the number of employees at city hall?
Smokey: Yes and Yes! However, the current structure of City government makes these action almost impossible. The use of technology, automation and outsourcing offers short term opportunities. A long term solution requires changing the management structure and culture of City government.
Diana:• Does this city spend too much and/or are we getting our money’s worth?
Smokey: How can we tell? My sense is that we do spend too much and we obviously are not getting our monies worth, but without better reporting and data, we are all in the dark. And yes, I have read the City budget.
Diana: • What should the city do to keep its auto dealers in town and attract new ones?
Smokey: Reign in the Planning department and make land use decision be city wide instead on local neighborhood based.
Diana: • Please comment on the city’s new web site and what should be done about it, if anything.
Smokey: The new Palo Alto web site is an embarrassment! The look and feel is a matter of taste, but the fact that it simple does not work (I can give you tons of examples) is the real problem. I am a technologist and really feel for the average user who is just trying to access some City information. It is not fixable since there were no public design goals or objectives. The decision to adopt a Search vs. Structure model was made without any understanding of the technology required or the consequences to users. I have several ideas about how to provide the best city government web site anywhere and will share them in the proper forum.
Diana: • We’ve had two city council subcommittees work for two-plus years on increasing retail in Palo Alto and encouraging new businesses to locate here, but the committees have not had much success. What would you do to attract more retailers?
Smokey: In the face of decaying infrastructure and a City Staff that, by there actions, appear to be anti business it is no surprise that the subcommittees were not successful. The normal process when trying to entice business owners to locate in a community is to offer them incentives. My sense is that we do not and the difficulty in dealing with the City bureaucracy presents a major obstacle.
In a very real sense we are behind the curve. Without major improvements in the retail “environment” I feel the City needs to be very aggressive in offering meaningful enticements. I think there is a sense that retailers should feel lucky to be the doing business in Pal Alto. I know lots of business owners in Palo Alto and nothing could be further from the truth.
Diana: • Do we need more housing in our city or do we have enough?
Smokey: The simple fact is that the Palo Alto is “built-out”. That does not mean that we should not build more housing (we will!), but we must take into account the total costs of such increases. One of the primary reasons for our infrastructure decay and back log is that we have historical approved development with out recouping the total costs to the City. The credit card is now late and the interest is mounting.
Diana: • How do you feel about the traffic in town?
Smokey: As much as we wish people did not need to pass through our City the fact remains the need to and will! The City needs to be much more inventive and open about how to facilitate the flow of traffic through our community. The traffic department should be renamed the traffic “obstruction” department
Diana: • Four years ago, and then two years ago, there was talk of reducing the council from nine to seven members, and also electing a mayor who would serve a four-year term. Candidate reaction, please.
Smokey: Council size may be an issue, but the real problem, is that electing councilors “at large” means that the council members do not represent anyone (except maybe them selves). We should cut the city up into districts and then elect councilors to represent those districts. The issue of an elected mayor is about who runs the City. Currently the city manager has that job, but reports to nine individuals!! An elected mayor is one way to address this situation, but probably one of many possible solutions.
Diana: • The City Council recently approved hiring an environmental-coordinator for $151,000 to focus the city more specifically on global warming locally. Do you agree or disagree with the need for such a coordinator?
Smokey:I guess I would like to see the job description for this position. More importantly, what are the deliverables for this position? This appears to be a hire for a currently popular issue. I may be wrong, but It seems to me the City has a number of such positions.
Posted by PA Voter, a resident of the Professorville neighborhood, on Sep 14, 2007 at 9:46 am
As a voter, I also thank you for answering Ms. Diamond's list of questions. You're the only candidate I've seen that seems to grasp the essence of PA's problems. (The others seem to be mouthing the same feel good, wispy slogans about the protecting the environment and so on....important general goals, but not what the city needs to be focusing on right now.)
I agree with you about the dysfunctional management at City Hall (and about infrastructure problems). But recognizing the problem is only the start. Like Diana, I would like to see some specifics about how we might go about reforming the management culture at City Hall. Would you fire Frank Benest? Would you advocate an elected Mayor to alter the line of authority and responsibility. Would the council get involved in restructuring the bureaucracy? How would you implement the reductions in the number employees you say we need?
Posted by Smokey, a resident of the Downtown North neighborhood, on Sep 14, 2007 at 3:17 pm
Smokey replies to Diana:
Regarding management structure and culture, let’s first look The City Manager’s position.
The bottom line is that the City Manager is accountable and responsible (directly or indirectly) for everything that happens (or does not happen) in running the City of Palo Alto.
In giving the City Manager his due, I think it is nothing short of miraculous that the City functions at all given the weight and magnitude of the responsibilities on his shoulders. But an unmanageable structure is at the root of so many challenges The City is facing.
If you ignore the individual dynamics, any student of effective management will tell you that the City Manager having nine bosses (the City Council) is a recipe for disaster. Just who does he report to, and what does he do if he gets conflicting direction? In reality, unless he screws up, he is not managed. Likewise, the City manager having eight direct reports also represents a serious problem.
From what I have been led to understand the City government operates with a matrix management model. If this is true, Matrix Management, which seemed so promising in the 1980’s, has been discarded in the private sector because it simply does not work.
City’s Organizational Culture
The City seriously needs an organizational culture that will reinforce the kind of behavior we expect, deserve and need to see in our City employees and Council members.
It is my opinion that the City’s organizational culture is completely dysfunctional. There are numerous examples, but one need look no further than the Council and City management handling of the Utilities scandal. What message did this send to the entire organization? That Palo Alto City government condones and even rewards City employees for, at the very least, failing at their jobs and management responsibilities.
Organizational culture is not about policies and procedures, even though they tend to support (or possibly suppress) the culture. Organizational development professionals define culture as “the way we do things”. It is sometimes implicit and sometime explicit, but always shared and understood.
It is widely acknowledge that large “successful” organizations are actually a reflection of their corporate culture. One might call it the “personality” of the organization. For example: customer service (Nordstrom), innovation (Apple Computer), efficiency and work hard/play hard attitude (Southwest Airlines), excellence (Oracle Corp) and work/life balance (Adobe Systems).
Lest I sound like the City employees are the problem, I know a lot of really bright, talented and right-thinking people who work for the City of Palo Alto. Today, there is simply a lack of effective management and positive organizational culture. I hope one day in the near future, the City, like Southwest Airlines, will be known for it’s efficiency and work hard/play hard culture!
I have just enumerated the situation as I see it and I think you asked me for solutions/answers. I do have a number of specific suggestions in mind, but I believe that it would be more than presumptuous of me (if elected), to suggest that I could single handedly implement or cause any of the changes necessary. I believe that any substantive changes will require charter changes a subsequent voter approval. The task will be, if elected to work with my fellow councilors and the community to figure out the appropriate course of action.
Posted by Not so fast, a resident of the Duveneck/St. Francis neighborhood, on Sep 14, 2007 at 3:25 pm
Smokey--I found your answers quite refreshing given the incompetence on the city council and city mangement as a whole.
A couple of questions:
1) Where do you stand on the Stanford Hospital/Medical Center remodel?
2) Will you be like Mayor Yoriko and other council members and push a certain issue to the detriment of the city as a whole or will you work on the pressing issues that are facing our city today?
3) how will you handle the vocal special interest groups that know they can get their way with the city council by yelling and screaming (in other words can you say no and get over the fact that people in the city will not be happy?)
Posted by Terry, a resident of the Midtown neighborhood, on Sep 15, 2007 at 7:07 pm
In the private sector when consultants start talking about organizational behavior and culture change, I reach to make sure I've got a firm grip on my wallet. The place gets efficient when the guys at the top are closely watching the till - expenses and revenue - and making sure the details are getting taken care of.
We don't have that today - do you think? So how do we get it? Will YOU be City Councilor Pot Hole, chasing after the building department for every unfilled pothole and broken streetlight (as well as the time and budget performance on the bigger items)? Will you be asking the hard questions about how we can feed instructure requirements first, and everything else second? Will you be able to stand-up-to and piss off City employees, special interests, well-meaning muddleheaded voters, etc., to make our city work?
Another guy with fancy ideas and polysyllabic pronoucements we DON'T need!
Posted by bruce, a resident of the Barron Park neighborhood, on Sep 22, 2007 at 2:49 pm
I will vote for Smokey for City Council. But he has no organized constituency as do several of the other candidates. Please urge your friends to read Smokey's answers to Diana's questions and vote for him.
Instead of generalizations, he is specific - even admitting when he needs more information before answering. Other candidates are not so forthright. Most refreshing. Thank you Smokey.