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City seeks to revive 'stale' commission process

Original post made on Aug 14, 2013

It takes a special kind of a volunteer serve on a local commission in Palo Alto, one with a thick skin, an analytical brain, a patient demeanor and a willingness to wade knee-deep into policy muck on issues ranging from cigarette smoke and sidewalk widths to public sculptures and storm drains. This week, the city passed a series of reforms aimed at attracting more citizens into the commission process.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Wednesday, August 14, 2013, 12:11 PM

Comments (18)

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Posted by Wondering?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 14, 2013 at 3:18 pm

So .. what does "gone stale" mean? It's pretty hard to understand that term—other than some sort of "City Speak". Does it mean that there aren't enough people volunteering for these positions to provide the Council with a pick of the people who look like, and think like, the Council? Does it mean that the same people are being appointed year after year, and it's becoming obvious to people who pay attention that the game is fixed, here in Palo Alto? Or does it mean that sitting on one of these bodies is a lot of work, and that the Council, or the public, is not obliged to listen to what these bodies recommend?

Maybe it's time to review the whole idea. For instance, does anyone actually keep track of what these groups do? And what, in the long run, they end up accomplishing? How many hours does each of these groups ultimately spend, during the year? Certainly looking at a stack of paper, after months of work, and realizing it's all for naught has got to be more than a little bit off-putting.

And what about the public? None of these Board/Commission members is elected—so they don't have to have any connection with the general public. Certainly looking at some of these groups, it's not that uncommon to see that people who contributed to campaigns—like the library bond, and the Storm Drain tax (or fee), are people who were involved either as monetary contributors, or members of the political machine that pushed these votes through. So, what about the public's interest? Not all that clearly represented via the current system—at the Board/Commission level.

Given that it's not exactly clear from this article what is really going on here--maybe, just maybe, it's time to rethink this approach, and look for something new.


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Posted by Anon
a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Aug 14, 2013 at 4:59 pm

So what's your plan, Wondering?

To sit around and complain anonymously all day? Or do you actually have a thought, dare I say a solution?


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Posted by Wondering?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 15, 2013 at 8:17 am

> solution to the problem

Since we don't exactly know what the problem is, offer a good solution is going to be difficult. However, it's not that hard to think back when then Council Member Lanie Wheelier opined from the dais that "there just aren't enough qualified candidates offering to serve on our Boards and Commissions" (or words to that effect). So, populating these bodies with "qualified people" must certainly be the key problem. It's unfortunate that this article didn't make that point.

The simplest solution to this problem would be to put the whole Board/Commission system into hiatus for a couple of years—using that time to determine just how many of the civilian bodies are really necessary in order for the City to do its job.

We hire a large number of highly paid professional people to run the departments of the City. So—just how much help to they need from the indirect oversight of the individuals who are selected for seats on this groups?

It is really difficult to believe that the City needs a Library Commission, or a Storm Drain Commission, even though there might be some quasi-legal requirement for the existence of these two bodies, based on ballot language that authorized increased taxes for various purposes.

It would help to review the burden of these groups on Staff. Staff is constantly complaining about being over-worked, and the kinds of information required by these groups doubtless is significant. That said, one good thing that comes out of these sessions is that information not generally available to the public does, in one form or another, emerge for some public review/vetting. If the City Manager were to recognize this basic problem, and increase the availability of information that is presented by Staff to these groups through other channels, then this need for information about the City's decisions, and inner-workings, would be no longer be an issue.

The thrust of this suggestion is to shut down the current system and see what "breaks". Then, in light of this information, either restart that Board/Commission, or redesign the process so it is not needed.


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Posted by Lex
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 15, 2013 at 9:02 am

Suggest revamping the ARB to include fewer architects with a single bias for dreadful modernest structures like many of the recent additions. Regular citizens with an interest in the character of the town and its history. Not architects looking for work.


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Posted by Anon
a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Aug 15, 2013 at 10:32 am

Wondering - I read so many posts on this website about how the council doesn't listen to the public anyway. removing the commissions is removing the primary group of citizens who advise the council. I don't really want employees to have the sole advisory role to council.


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Posted by letsbereal
a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 15, 2013 at 10:41 am

Dear Wondering,
[Portion removed.] The (current) Library Commission was (re)established about 14 years ago and the people who have served on it have worked *tirelessly* during that time to get a consensus plan and bond measure passed. Whether you agree or not with the outcome, do you honestly believe that ANYTHING would have happened at the staff or city council level w/o the Library Commission and their hard work? Given the "Palo Alto Process", there are some things that will never get done (and approved/passed) without citizen involvement in a commission or some similar entity.


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Posted by Debbie
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 15, 2013 at 10:48 am

The folks on the Architectural Review Board should be the first to resign and be replaced. They have done irreparable damage to this
town.


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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 15, 2013 at 10:53 am

I think the library commission shows just how sad the state of affairs with these commissions has become.

From my recollection, the first ditched effort to remodel Mitchell Park library was mooted due to the tennis lobby. The second remodel was put to the vote but we were never given a vote as to the type of library service we wanted, it was just a huge 5 library system or leave the old dilapidated building. We never got to vote on what we wanted, just what the few library zealots decided they wanted.

I was upset at the time of the library vote because we were told it was for the children's future and many people voted without looking into what they were voting for. Even the PTA managed to get parents into voting yes without the parents being asked to think for themselves.

Now we have an ongoing, delayed, huge structure in Mitchell Park and Main Library is also closed for remodel. Now we have two temporary libraries in Palo Alto and I don't think anyone is happy with the state of affairs.

If this is the best our commissions can do, I think it is much better to have the people on these commissions voted on by regular, clear thinking, Palo Alto residents, who are not going to lose their common sense and rationale when planning things that affect us all.


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Posted by About Commissioners
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 15, 2013 at 11:49 am

The Library Commission now seems to see themselves as a support group for the staff, not as independent thinkers about what is good for the library system. The other day one commissioner referred to citizens who opposed building a road from Main to the Art Center (to be designed by the same architects that designed the Mitchell Park disaster)as "naysayers." She is obedient to anything staff wants.
We need commissioners who know something about library systems, not just people who "love libraries."


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Posted by Voter
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Aug 15, 2013 at 1:21 pm

The word "qualified" is being used quite loosely when looking at some of our existing commissioners.

Michael Alcheck on the planning commission strikes me as one who is in completely over his head. He just does what the city/developers tell him to. Watching him struggle to get out a full sentence while rubberstamping the (so poorly conceived that its now headed for referendum) Maybell project sets a pretty low bar for defining "qualified."


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Posted by Ronna Devincenzi
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 15, 2013 at 2:17 pm

All of "Wondering's" comments are spot-on and his/her most salient observation is this: "If the City Manager were to recognize this basic problem [i.e. the need for regular public input & vetting, as a project moves along] and increase the availability of information that is presented by Staff to these groups through other channels, then this need for information about the City's decisions, and inner-workings, would be no longer be an issue."
****************************

From the perspective of a former volunteer of a local organization, not a Commission, but a group that spent countless hours over a 5-year period working on a project in collaboration with Public Works & with Commissions, what "Wondering?" points out will save the city and everyone a lot of grief and build trust, resulting in more residents being willing to volunteer, as their efforts would be recognized & respected, and most importantly, when a project came *to council* for final approval, *no one* would be surprised by anything.

After all, how could *any interested party* be surprised by a project about which they 1) had the opportunity to watch for 5 years, and 2) about which they were able to help design?

Short of providing a way that would keep *every interested party*
consistently in the loop, again, "Wondering?" says it best with this:
"The simplest solution to this problem would be to put the whole Board/Commission system into hiatus for a couple of years —using that time to determine just how many of the civilian bodies are really necessary in order for the City to do its job. We hire a large number of highly paid professional people to run the departments of the City. So—just how much help to they need from the indirect oversight of the individuals who are selected for seats on this groups?"

Well said, Wondering.

As an aside:
In the past, when someone compliments a combox comment, it often prompts someone that *disagrees* to accuse a person of either knowing who the wise commenter is, or of actually being that person. I am not Wondering and I have no idea who he/she is. In this case, I just think the suggestions are excellent, and all the person wrote would solve the problems broached in this article.

Lastly, re: the mention of "other newspapers" -- you are referring to The Daily Post, I hope.

For the past 2+ years, this group of journalists have been the BEST thing that happened to Palo Alto *Communications*, in years.

That is an observation & based on fact. I have no affiliation w/ the Post (if anyone disagrees with giving credit where it's due).


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Posted by Ronna Devincenzi
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 15, 2013 at 2:35 pm

...forgot to mention that Public Works would be well-served to have a resident Commission too, unless the PA Board/commission system as a whole was put on hiatus, per Wondering's suggestion.


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Posted by Wondering?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 15, 2013 at 3:30 pm

By way of correction, the Library Bond Oversight Commission/Board/Group was intended in the posting above, rather than the Library Commission. However, any comments about the so-called Library Commission stand.

What's interesting is that this topic, about Commissions, and how many should the City have, seems to pop up frequently. This article from the Weekly's archive that goes back to 1997:

Web Link
According to a report compiled in fall, the city already has 28 commissions and boards, and some believe the number should be cut back. Advisory commissions require work from city staff, who must attend the meetings, post their agendas and compile minutes. According to the city's calculations, the city's six council-appointed advisory commissions cost the city $330,000 last year.

"Anytime you've got a commission, there's an investment involved. It's an extensive amount of staff time," said Paul Thiltgen, the city's director of community services. "From a management standpoint, I'm not convinced we need (a library commission)."
----

The article above does not seem to provide us much in the way of meaningful details, but certainly we can draw on the 1997 data and make some projections.

As to the Library Commission itself—it's hard to find much in the way of meaningful results that can be attributed to this group of individuals that seem to enjoy talking, but has little to offer in the way of a solid vision of what libraries in the 2010s, 2020s and 2030s will look like—particularly under the disruptive influences of the Internet. The lack of any meaningful use of technology in the current ugly blue cube-like structure that has scared the entrance to Mitchell Park on Middlefield Road speaks volumes as to what "working tirelessly" means.

The City Council has recently reduced the Library Commission to five, with some Council Members questioning the need for this Commission--

Web Link

Councilwoman Nancy Shepherd said she expects a "vigorous debate" over library staffing in 2014, when the new Mitchell Park Library is opened and people will seek longer hours for the College Terrace Library, which currently operates just four days a week.
----

So, what can five people with no experience in running a library, or even a large business, have to say about scheduling of staff that a $200K/year Library Director can figure out for herself?
----


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Posted by Not an issue
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 15, 2013 at 5:46 pm

Wondering-- why do you assume that Lanie Wheeler was qualified for office?
She is part of the self- perpetuating gang of council members. She is constantly endorsing her buddies-- it is quid pro quo. A few years back a council member before her term was over-- did the council gang pick some me blood to finish the term? Nope they picked Lanie to be on the council. All those endorsements paid off.
Do you think are current council members are qualified? Guess again. Between their self congratulatory exercises and the Weekly (aka The Voice of the Council) , they have pulled the wool over our eyes


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Posted by Wondering?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 15, 2013 at 7:32 pm

> why do you assume that Lanie Wheeler was qualified for office?

Why do you make such an assumption from one sentence with Lanie Wheeler's name, and comment in it?

> Do you think are current council members are qualified?

I join with you in your skepticism of the Council's qualifications. There have been, from time-to-time, some very qualified Council members--such as Richard Rosenbaum--but these folks have been few and far between/


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Posted by Not an issue
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 15, 2013 at 7:39 pm

Well, wondering since she made the comment that there were not enough qualified candidates, one would assume that she felt that she was herself qualified for office.

Mr rosenbaum was before my time in palo,alto. All we have now is recycled members ( Klein and kniss) who have nothing but contempt for the voters--- claims about term limits and manipulation of the election cycle for,their own selfish desires or members
Ike Holman, who are completely or totally over their heads.


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Posted by DGN
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 15, 2013 at 8:10 pm

What are the names of the people on the Architectural Review Board? And what were their qualifications that allowed them to be on the ARB? They need to be forced to resign, now. They are destroying this town.
Speaking of unqualified, our current city council seems inept, too.


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Posted by Wondering?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 16, 2013 at 11:31 am

> ARB Members ..

Web Link

Chair: Clare Malone Prichard
Vice Chair: Lee Lippert
Staff Liaison: Russ Reich, Planner - 650-617-3119

LEW, Alexander
372A Bush Street
Mountain View, CA 94041
Term Expires: 9/30/2015

MALONE PRICHARD, Clare
81 Encina Ave.
Palo Alto, CA 94301
Term Expires: 9/30/2014

ALIZADEH, Naseem
250 Hamilton Avenue
Palo Alto, CA 94301
nalizadeh@ba-u.com
Term Expires: 9/30/2015

LIPPERT, Lee
580 Hawthorne Avenue
Palo Alto, CA 94301
Term Expires: 9/30/2015

POPP, Randy
212 High Street
Palo Alto, CA 94301
Term Expires: 9/30/2015
---

Googling these folks will reveal the names of their businesses. It makes sense that most of these people are working architects. Unfortunatley, their CVs, and on-going projects, are not generally in the public domain, so it's not clear if these people are working for the good of Palo Alto, or themselves.


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