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Impolite Questions to ask of PA City Council Candidates
Original post made
by Douglas Moran, Barron Park,
on Sep 14, 2012
Q to City Council candidates: "Palo Alto has a large job-housing imbalance and is under pressure to reduce it. The City's current approach to development strongly encourage _increasing_ that gap, for example, providing exceptions and other bonuses for projects that include large amounts of office and only a few housing units.
Can you explain this policy? What would you do to change it?"
As someone who has developed questions for City Council Candidates, both for forums and formal questionnaires, I have chaffed under the requirement to be polite and measured and have longed to be able to ask "impolite" questions such as the above. Well this is the election I am free to do so.
I have put together a list of rough "impolite" questions with the idea that voters can pick any that interest them and then tailor them (or simply use them as an inspiration). These are the type of questions that work best when you have some opportunity to follow up with the candidate when the answer is not satisfactory. However, because follow-up tends to be very limited, you need to start with a pointed, even aggressive, question.
My evolving set of questions can be found at Web Link
First Council Candidate Forum is Saturday, 2-4pm, Unitarian Church by League of Women Voters (I am not affiliated). Web Link
This topic (thread) is intended to allow others to post QUESTIONS in the same style. I have the hope -- probably futile -- that the usual trolls won't overwhelm this with their usual rants.
Posted by Accountability
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Sep 17, 2012 at 8:49 pm
[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]
Do we want policy makers who hold fast to ideas that don't work, or policy makers that are able to adapt to the often complex challenges that come with governing in 21st century municipal America?
Second, and most importantly, this list suggests *nothing* that would deal with the STRUCTURAL inefficiencies of Palo Alto's governance model.
Let's look at this governance model. Palo Alto, like so many other municipalities in post-WWII America, deploys a "strong city manager" model of governance. In other words, policy making is performed by the City Council members, and policy implementation is performed by the acting city manager, who administers the bureaucracy a,d works at the pleasure of the City Council, who vet and appoint the City Manager.
What kind of government does this result in?
1) In Palo Alto's case (9 City Council members) the City Manager (CM) becomes a "10th politician". The CM has to find ways to implement policy (no matter how unrealistic it may be, given current, or projected resources), and at the same time the CM has to be keenly aware of shifting political realities in order to KEEP HIS JOB!!
2) City Council members, because they elect the CM, are put in a position of taking hard criticism is the CM is not working out. After all, it was their judgment to hire this person, so if s/he does a bad job, any criticism of the CM is strong indirect criticism of their vote to appoint the CM. So, for both the City Council and CM there is a BUILT-IN conflict of interest, as regards transparency, and optimal operating efficiency. Everyone is always pussyfooting around this issue.
3) Council members are elected in an every-two-year cycle, with majority alliances shifting because many of the City Council members rotate out every two years. Remember, it takes a 5-person majority for any one City Council member to keep her campaign promises, so how does ANY ONE member offer up campaign promises that mean anything at all? One has to practically guarantee that 4 other members agree with one's campaign promises, and even if that's possible, one has to guarantee that the members who agree with one's position will not be voted out in the every-other-year election cycle.
Rather than go on about this, one sees a major flaw in the above governance model, where City Council members shift in and out of office; where the City Manager has to be a a deft politician to keep his job; where campaign promises are almost folly, because any one City Council member is powerless to implement change (or stability) without a majority vote that is always threatened by the every-other-year election cycle that may deprive any one City Council member of one's majority.
In a nutshell, with the current governance model (strong City Manager) the possibility of optimal political accountability is left wheezing in a deathbed. Nobody is really in charge. Responsibility id deferred to the CM, or the the CM's underlings, or the this or that City Council member who supported this or that policy; or, to the sad fact that a policy once supported is no longer supported because the people who were in place to support it have been voted out in a 2 year election cycle; ad nauseum. IN PA's governance model, the buck never stops; it simply floats around, like a butterfly, just out of reach.
How do you change that? ELECT a mayor, and reduce the size of City Council. Add to that a general election every four years that puts all City Council members up for re-election. Mo more every-other-year elections. What is the benefit of the foregoing? ACOUNTABILITY! In this system, the buck can stop atthe desk of the Mayor, who would have just enough separation of power to hire or fire a City Manager; who would have just enough separation of power to suggest and drive legislation; who would have enough authority to suggest and initiate innovative projects that are in his/her platform, so that s/he can be held accountable for the success or failure of those projects/initiatives at the end of his/her four or six-year term. Our Mayor would not have a separation of power that makes her like Richard Daley, but just enough separation to be able to set and drive a political and policy agenda.
Of course, most of the City Council "watchers", Doug Moran among them, would object to this, because it would put into jeopardy their seemingly obsessive desire to meddle in fine detail with literally every major policy initiative put forward by our City Council, or City Manager.
An "elected executive" model of governance would also put the citizens of Palo Alto in more control of outcomes, because there would be a far more transparent line of responsibility put in place for success or failure - something that is almost impossible to discern at this point. Witness almost any issue in Palo Alto. Where does the buck stop? Nobody really knows. As a result, inefficiencies continue; various politicos get elected and sometimes re-elected just because "they were there", and little else, and so on.
Also, with due respect to our past mayors, this would end the ridiculous practice of "appointing" a mayor for a one-year term. In the current system, this appointment is little more than a ribbon-cutting appointment, and a popularity contest. Our past Mayors have all been good people, but Mayors in name only, without any real power to drive policy. What a shame, because some of them have been very well equipped to formulate and govern in very innovative ways.
So, shrink City Council to 5 member, elected every four-six years. Elect a Mayor, ideally to a 4-6 year term.
All that said, I doubt that this will ever come to be. Palo Alto's political scene is very "insiderish". THis is pretty much the norm for most municipalities. Also, Palo Alto is in the fortunate position of being joined at the hip to Stanford University, which is by default the primary driver of Palo Alto's status, and various citizen benefits (even though many of our policy makers like to play "tough guy" with the hand that feeds them).
Caveat: even the above suggestion will not end the most vexing political problems; Palo Alto and it's municipal brethren face a very challenging future, with Palo Alto in way better shape than most, because of its proximity to Stanford. What we need in City government these days is an increased ability to ADAPT, because time are changing at an increased rate of speed. "Change" also implies change in the very structures of governance that have led to the policy impasse that the "Palo Alto Process" has become. Will we opt real change, or continue to "play house" with the current system of non-accountability and slow-as-molasses process. Either way, Palo Alo citizens, in their collective diversity, will probably always be comfortable. The question remains: does comfort equate to increased community optimization?; to community adaption to change?; to real accountability, and so on.
On a final note, the system that I have proposed cold also result in little immediate change, because many of the "insiders" who control PA's political scene might end up as players in a changed system, but even so, they would be, for the first time in PA's history, truly ACCOUNTABLE for their policy positions, and results/non-results. Also, as an added benefit, the the entire edifice of "Council Watch Dogs", as represented by Doug Moran and a few dozen others, would be enhanced in the way that they could continue to create lists and complain about every little thing. On the other hand, they would not be able to paralyze policy with obsessive minutiae and hand-wringing. That's a good thing.