Slow should not be the way to go in Palo Alto
Original post made by Diana Diamond, Palo Alto Online blogger, on Oct 25, 2007
Slow to get roads repaired, libraries facelifted, Web sites working -- the city is replete with examples.
That became abundantly clear when City Auditor Sharon Erickson presented a report last week to the City Council's Finance Committee on the status of some six years of audit recommendations to city staff from 10 different audit reports.
Her conclusion: Of 93 recommendations, city staff completed only five. A total of 68 recommendations are in process, some just barely, while 18 recommendations have not been started. Two have been discarded. Some recommendations are five years old.
Keep in mind that most of these recommendations are ways for the city to become more efficient and to save money -- in some cases considerable amounts. One would think these recommendations would be a high priority for the city staff. Obviously they are not.
The recommendations range from lowering overtime expenditures, prioritizing code enforcement to maintaining parks and streets, recovering costs for city-run classes.
For example, one recommendation made in 2003 was: "The City should propose a revision to the Palo Alto Professional Firefighters contract that minimizes the frequency in which higher-rank employees work overtime in lower-rank positions." Good idea, because right now it's the higher-paid firefighters that are first asked if they want to work overtime rather than the lower-paid ones -- as a result overtime costs this city more than it should. The city spends more than a million dollars a year in overtime for firefighters.
Erickson's report notes that the fire department concurred with the recommendation, but then each year from 2004 to 2007 she reported that implementing the recommendation was "not started."
A no-start label appears on 18 of her recommendations. Nearly all city departments are involved, including City Manager Frank Benest's office, which has seven not-completed recommendations on the list.
If the manager's office is delinquent in fulfilling the auditor's recommendations, what kind of priority message does that give to the rest of the staff? The Finance Committee was clearly upset at the lack of progress. It is scheduled to discuss the report in early December.
That report got me to thinking about other incomplete projects around the city:
* The Color of Palo Alto -- About five years ago, the city's Public Arts Commission agreed to fund artist Sam Yeats, who wanted to determine the color of the city by photographing every house in town and then digitally combining the colors. He set up his modernistic garage-looking studio in a raised planter on the plaza right in front of City Hall. So far he's received $65,000 for the project; $40,000 came from Hewlett-Packard. After some prodding, Yeats promised the commission that the color would be delivered by September 2007. It is now late October and we are still colorless; the now-unused garage is still on the plaza.
* Last year the city was $28 million behind in road repairs. This year we are still at least $28 million behind. Some progress, no real catch-up.
* Complaints about the city's new Web site started as soon as the site was posted in July. (It was supposed to be completed months earlier.) We were told that the "glitches" would soon be remedied. It is now late October and while there have been slight fixes complaints are increasing.
* The city has had at least three council-appointed retail committee during the last four years or so. We are still looking for auto dealers and some stores (like the old Hang Gallery) still remain vacant on University Avenue.
* There's a revised proposal for a redoing of Lytton Plaza on University Avenue. The idea to revamp that plaza was introduced at least three years ago. It's just a little plaza ...
Now slow isn't always bad. Slow can mean thoughtful, considered, relaxed and participatory. But slow can also be unproductive, ponderous and costly.
I think we need an attitude change at city hall. I watch PASCO, the private Palo Alto Sanitation Company, pick up my garbage and the guys literally run from house to house. Ditto on gardeners with contracts from the city who mow city parks -- they run with their lawn mowers.
I watch city employees mow our parks -- they amble along. For private companies, the faster the employees work the more jobs can be done and the more money made. Apparently there is no reward -- financial or otherwise -- for city workers to get jobs done fast. And I see no signs of any penalty for failure to get them done at all.
But attitudes can change. Benest, or someone, should impose across-the-board deadlines, and make sure city auditor recommendations are met in a timely fashion -- including carrying out the auditor's recommendations in his own department.
Diana Diamond can be e-mailed at Diana@DianaDiamond.com.