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Town Square

Why Palo Alto Needs an Elected Mayor

Original post made by Otto, Crescent Park, on May 20, 2007

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Posted by A resident
a resident of South of Midtown
on May 20, 2007 at 8:47 pm

A Mayor drawing a $250,000 annual salary is not what Palo Alto wants or needs. Any full time elected Mayor would have to be paid more than our Superintendent of Schools - that's a given, and it would be another BIG waste of the tax payers money. Your suggestion supposes that an elected Mayor for a term of say 4 years would be a good Mayor, suppose we got a bad Mayor for 4 years!!!

What Palo Alto needs more than an elected Mayor is a smaller City Council. A City Council of 7 members would be better focused, and streamline discussions at Council meetings. Nearly all our neighboring Cities, who demonstrate greater fiscal efficiency than Palo Alto, have 7 member Councils.

It has also been suggested that Council Members represent the neighborhood they live in, and be elected by that neighborhood - is this a good idea?

Lastly, it has been suggested that Palo Alto should do away with "term limits" for Council Members. They are restricted to two full terms in sequence now. Should Council Members be permitted to run for three consecutive terms or even more?






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Posted by Joanne
a resident of Midtown
on May 21, 2007 at 6:43 am

To make the changes you mention would require changing the City Charter. For a citizen initiative to change the City Charter would require more than 6,000 signatures on a petition. These signatures would have to be gathered individually door to door, NOT over the internet, in a very limited time period.

A Council member was asked about putting a Council initiative on the ballot to circumvent requiring 6,000 signatures. The response was lukewarm, and came with a suggestion that "term limits" be abolished and neighborhood representation should both be included on the ballot.




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Posted by Otto
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 21, 2007 at 1:56 pm

"A resident", then why is it that municipal governance organizations all over America have begun to have this conversation? Staying with Palo Alto for the moment, I would like to understand the _inherent_ advantages of a 5, 7, or 9 person Council that loses half its members every two years - with almost literally _no_municipal mandates, save for those declared as token statements every year by the appointed mayer at the state of the city speech.

Remember, if you elect a "bad mayor", as you put it, there is still a City Council to provide checks and balances.

Currently, we are unable to move fast enough, or in a cooperative enough way with other municipalities, to meet the forward challenges of our city.

Extending terms of Council members _might_ be a good thing, but it doesn't solve the _structural_ limitations of the very nature of the way Councils operate.

There was a time when we could afford to give over the pure operational management of our city to a city manager; that time is fast disappearing, _unless_ we shift to entrpreneurial management. When do you expact that to happen? btw, this is not a slam at current city management. In fact, the current city manager has been doing just what he was hired to do, and doing it quite well.

If the wrong mayor gets elected, it's easy enough to change course by electing a new mayor. How do we even get close to forward vision, and the necessary kinds of turn on a dime actions that are going to be needed in our region - and city - to _adapt_, with a nine-person Council that is compeletely dependent on consensus for action, with no guarantee of continuity for more than 2 years (as a body, because of election schedules).


Joanne, yes, I am aware of the requirements for a ballot initiative. I find it interesting that there is very, very little discussion at the Council level over something like this. It's understandable, because policy makers dislike nothing worse than changes to power structure.

The fact is that Palo Alto is mired down in a "politics by total inclusion" consensus model. Whether Council takes this up now, or at some later date, it will surface again and again in coming years because there are structural flaws with the decision-making model we have right now _RELATIVE TO FOWARD NEEDS_ and _RELATIVE TO THE NECESSARY INCREASE IN SPEED AND EFFICIENCY_ that this municipality will need to impliment policy if we are going to sustain ourselves at service levels that we have become accustomed to.

Tell me, where are the high profile, _serious_, backed by agreements with teeth, inter-reginoal cooperative efforts over transportation? What about water shortages. The latter are coming.

A consensus-driven City Council is simply not capable of acting fast enough to deliver _optimal_ solutions to these problems.

Where is the _vision_ for Palo Alto's future? Let me tell you; there isn't one. The only vision we get are the vision statements at the state of the city speeches. These are well-meaning speeches, and nice to ponder once or twice, but which of those vision statements have we seen followed through on over a number of years.

In another forum, another poster has spoken about our need for visioning revenue models. Where have we done that in a way that talks well into the future?

This is not due to a failure on the part of City Council. Rather, it's due to the slow-as-molasses structure of policy making that City Councils not led by elected mayors fall into.


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Posted by Fred
a resident of Barron Park
on May 21, 2007 at 7:55 pm

Otto, thank you. I am all for this. I was taken aback arriving here 2 years ago to find they ran a city of this size and complexity with a city manager/council form. And looking at the leadership vacuum and lack of accountability, it seems even clearer now - a mayor is probably needed.

Getting the right mayor of course, is not easy - and that of course makes all the difference. But an elected Mayor, paid for a full-time effort, accountable for getting things done, would provide the leadership we need to address the structural issues we seem to face. Thanks for starting the discussion.

Fred


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Posted by Veritas
a resident of another community
on May 22, 2007 at 5:06 am

A Boss Tweed, a Boss Hogg, or the original Mayor Daley are historical or fictional examples of people able to "grease the skids" and make the process work more expeditiously. A higher tone, "evolved" California version of one of these would suit Palo Alto well.


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Posted by eric
a resident of Mountain View
on May 22, 2007 at 9:14 am

A city manager IS, essentially, the mayor. A non-politico, an Executive Director accountable to his board of 'directors'. An elected mayor would be silly in a small town like Palo Alto (as would district elections-- what under-represented constiuency are you trying to serve--Eichler owners? Give me a break!).

An elected mayor would do nothing more then further self-aggrandize Palo Altans who think that a jaywalker on Middlefield requires an intensive study session.

The smaller city council, however, is an excellent idea.


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Posted by Otto
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 22, 2007 at 3:23 pm

Eric, on the contrary. A "strong city manager" model may often leave one with the impression that the city manager is acting like a mayor, but that's not so.

Under the present structure, the city manager's job depends on pleasing a changing (every two years) group of policy makers. THose policy makers are responsible for hiring, firing, and reviewing the city manager's job performance.

So, who do you think really runs the city? Let me tell you: nobody. Instead, we have a power-shifting arrangement that let's policy-makers off the hook, because, after all, the city manager is supposed to be running things, right? But then what happens when a city manager (in a system like ours) wants to take bold initiatives, and has to vet those initiative through the filter of a policy-making body that is purely consensus driven, and bound out of habit to hear out all constituencies on every little matter of policy.

Last, it seems you have a negative view of Palo Altans. That's too bad. All people are pretty much alike - probably about 90% alike. Why focus on differences?


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Posted by eric
a resident of Mountain View
on May 22, 2007 at 3:51 pm

Otto, the OVERWHELMING majority of decisions made by city governments are quite routine and appropriately handled by staff. If you are underwhelmed with city staff and the city manager, thats a reasonable position, but if the council feels that way, they could and should act like the Board of Directors they are and make wholesale changes.

It is not the role of the city mgr or staff to make "bold initiatives". It is his job to make sure that the business of the city gets done. In a small town like PA, the city manager is the CEO, reporting to his board, the council. In an elected mayor city, the mayor is the CEO/Chairman, and the city manager is, perhaps the CFO. Palo Alto is a small town, and has no need for a Chairman-level mayor.

Most small cities around here function just fine with the manager/council model, including the bulk of Peninsula cities with larger economies and populations then PA (Mtn View, Sunnyvale, Santa Clara, Redwood City, etc). The question you need to ask yourself is, Why is this so problematic in PA? Its a smaller city with a bigger staff, but less services, then many of its neighbors that I listed. Whats the deal?


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Posted by Otto
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 22, 2007 at 4:21 pm

Eric, you make some interesting points, let's 1uestion some of the assumptions that underlie those points.

1) You're correct in that the overwhelming majority of decisions are made by staff. What you're missing is that those decisions are operational in nature. What about the strategic stuff that guides operational deployment? Who makes those decisions? Let me tell you; it's a rotating in-and-out city council. In fact, the rotations are so overwhelming that it's impossible to drive cogerent near-short-term direction, and guarantee that it will last.

2) City Council members are rather naive when they begin office. THey have to learn how the city runs; it's at least a few years before one is comfortable enough hto understand all the ins and outs of city operations. Please explain how that helps give a rotating elected body the impetus to change city management, _especially_ when that management is reporting to Council. How long does a city manager have to be in place - and underperforming - before s/he leaves a trail of failure long enough that's obvious? (btw, this city manager has done just fine; he has performed admirably, with just a few hiccups)

3) If it's not the city manager's job to make bold initiatives, whose job is it? City Council? That's the only choice you have left. :) This takes us back to my original point, and question - i.e. how can a rotating in-and-out policy making body (every two years lsoing half its members) deploy and carry out bold policy, long-term policy, or ostrong inter-regional initiatives? It doesn't happen. btw, it doesn 't happen in any ofo the other cities you list, either. They all have non-elected mayors.

4) Palo Alto is a special case in that it has MORE services than some larger cities, and a very dofferent demographic due to the nature of PA's R&D and town-gown roots. This is a more "intellectual" city, and prone to carry on debate. It's a personality flaw, relative to municipal efficiency, but it has to be dealt with as an essential part of our personality.

What is so inefficient about PA relative to other places. What other place has managed to keep debt at bay better than PA? What city has a higher credit rating?

PA is not going to hell in a handbasket, if that's what you're implying. That said, PA will be FAR more seriously challenged, going forward, than iyt has ever been. Same goes for the region, at large. With that as a looming reality, who are going to be the leaders that are _capable_ of acting and turning on a dime, instead of debating issues until dooms day, only after every citizen has been heard.

We are lacking passionate vision that accurately meshes with forward municipal and commercial scenarios. We are locked in the "comfort zone" of the past, in terms of the way government policy-making is structured.

Name on city council without a mayor that has begin a visionary inter-regional program of ANY kind. Name one, just one.


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Posted by Fred
a resident of Barron Park
on May 22, 2007 at 5:18 pm

This is a good debate. I'm with Otto on this one, but not surprised at the push-back from others (which I've heard from others over the last couple years).

The Board of Directors/CEO analogy is an interesting one. If you have an under-performing company (lack of strategy, can't adjust to changing conditions, poor productivity - sound familiar at all?), it is not so easy to create CEO change. The Board often has other agendas (keep my job easy while I pad my resume, make sure I don't get kicked off so I get my directors fee), and not a lot to gain by taking an uncomfortable adverse position vs the CEO (what if I lose the fight? will my pet initiatives all be conveniently forgotten?), and besides, who knows if there is a better CEO to be had (this is esp true in the PA case - I don't think City Managers really DO what we want - more later on that). So it is easier, far easier, to go with the flow, make suggestions, rail on this or that issue, but not put together the difficult alliance to create "wholesale change" (as another poster put it). Similarly, booting an ok, but not inspiring City Manager, is not so easy.

But can a strong City Manager do what a Mayor does? I don't think so - a Mayor LEADS, first and foremost, while a City Manager, well, manages (duh). A Mayor, if he wants to get re-elected or progress, needs some accomplishments - lower taxes, better services, more this, higher that. And he needs to get it done in a defined timeframe (usually 4 years). He needs to SET THE AGENDA, FOCUS THE COMMUNITY ON THE ISSUES, CREATE ACTION, AND DELIVER RESULTS. That is not what a City Manager does, in my opinion.

For those who say PA is too small, too whatever, I offer an analogy - Newton, MA, my former home, population about 80K (vs. 60K in Palo Alto), similar demographic, at least as argumentative! Mayoral form of government, has been for a very long time. While not perfect, the City is very well run, with reasonable taxes, brand new library, brand new police HQ, brand new high school being built, one of the safest cities of its size in the US, etc. Now, one would not necessarily chalk this up to form of government, but as any long-time resident will tell you, Mayor Theodore "Teddy" Mann, made that town run and got things done (including many of the above). Newton is at least as fractious as Palo Alto (IMHO) but the Mayor knew how to pound the table, work the corridors, and get things done. And if we didn't like what we got - we didn't just complain, we could vote him out next time around.

Let's continue this debate. I hope people will open their minds, and do some of their own research, on this potentially important and far-reaching change in government.

Fred


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Posted by eric
a resident of Mountain View
on May 23, 2007 at 2:48 pm

What, praytell, are the "bold initiatives" that you expect from a municipality? Cities provide a finite basket of services. Major redevelopment (RWC comes to mind as an excellent example) are generally pushed by the private sector and managed by municipal government. Purely municipal upgrades (MV's rehab of Castro 15-20 years ago) are a response to a specific need. Palo Alto is a case study of the need for LESS board oversight and tighter control by the professional managers. What "vision" do you require-- what are you looking for that an elected mayor would provide that doesnt exist now?

Id also like to know what the "extra services" are that PA provides. I believe this to be part hankering for the past, but mostly myth.


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Posted by Fred
a resident of Barron Park
on May 23, 2007 at 2:58 pm

Eric, I think your "bold initiatives" questions was directed to Otto, but I'll say what I would like to see leadership on:

- new library and branch rationalization
- new police HQ
- development of retail, including "auto row" to preserve Honda and Toyota dealerships and add new dealerships
- redevelopment of El Camino, combining properties, in part by eminent domain in need be, to allow for larger scale facilities
- evaluation of potential sale of Palo Alto utilities, including what would be done with $$ if sold
- re-visit and re-work the "Palo Alto Process" to streamline decision making and reduce NIMBY impact
- re-visit (and perhaps manage to kill) FTTH initiative

In other words, the big hairy projects that have been hanging around, on and off, for years, making little progress. I'm sure there are many others, those are just top of mind. No one would be successful on all (not in a term or two anyway) - if they did, they'd be up for canonization! But these are the kind of complex, expensive, potentially divisive issues where LEADERSHIP is needed to build consensus and make progress.

IMHO, Fred


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Posted by eric
a resident of Mountain View
on May 23, 2007 at 3:41 pm

Fred, I view all of those as "course of business" items that generally get dealt with just fine in a city mgr-oriented municipality (with the POSSIBLE exception of the utility sale). The auto mall (which is completely DOA) is something that any other cities economic development office would chase- and virtually every city in the area has done aggressively (fact is that the successful ones are generated by the private sector, not by cities. But I digress). PA lost on that because the city council in my opinion got in the way of the professionals! Your ECR idea would also get handled at that level, but, 1) it isnt an appropriate action by a city govt, mayor or city manager-style, because there is no "blight", and 2) is impractical without massive ED of residences. But I digress again.

Library- MV's relatively new library did not need an elected mayor, just good management of resources and quality professionals at the helm. Neither did any of the impressive new municipal bldgs in any number of Bay Area cities.


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Posted by Fred
a resident of Barron Park
on May 23, 2007 at 4:05 pm

Eric, thank you for those examples. Certainly buildings can be built and decisions made by managers; I very much agree. Political leaders are not needed to handle those tasks - they are needed to resolve conflicts and grid-lock, by making/forcing difficult decisions (who "wins" and "loses" or what the compromise will be).

I suppose any form of government could work with the right people in place (Plato's philosopher-kings comes to mind); so I'm not saying that other towns can't succeed with managers/councils, as you point out. But in PA, what we have isn't working. It may be the council "gets in the way of the professionals" - but if so, how did we get that way and how do we resolve? I guess I am unsure that the problem can be fixed just by changing out all the people ;-) You may be right that we just have all the wrong councilors and wrong manager, and should throw the bums out; but if this is the group we wound up with, and they seem like well-meaning, competent people, maybe the problem is indeed structural.

I do not know much about the politics or decision-making of cities who are our neighbors. So I am not in a good position to respond to what challenges others face (or don't) and their success. Here in PA, we have vocal interest-groups who vigorously lobby for their causes, and a city council that seems really challenged in mediating and resolve those interests. The staff-run "Palo Alto Process" works slowly, painfully, and in some cases, ineffectively.

So, sure, City Manager govt could work in PA - but it is NOT working. I've seen strong-mayor government in a town very similar to PA, and it DID work, addressing the same issues we have here. Definitely worth consideration in my view.

Fred


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Posted by Otto
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 23, 2007 at 7:20 pm

eric, With respect, you're too bound up in the "traditional" role of municipality - i.e. the simple provision of services, accompanied by established guarantees of safety.

Might I suggest looking back more than 40-50 years, and thinking about - given where Palo is today - why we engage a specific set of behaviors and expectations for PA's municipal government. When yuo've competed that exercise, do the same for the region, at large.

The best opportunities for massive efficiencies in housing, transportation, communication, and education are dormant. Why? Because we have a bunch of municipalities that see these problems as their own, instead of seeing these problems as shared problems, and then doing something to solve those problems with something more effective than ABAG.

Staying with Palo Alto for the moment: would you rather see a City Council engage the question of cooperative efforts to deploy infill housing efforts, or would you rather see 3-5 mayors getting together to announce a cooperative vision, and then _making that vision happen_, because they have been mandated to do so by voters? THis is not at all the case with city councils.

This is not just about PA's City Council; it's about the lack of inherent capacity to _adapt quickly_ to rapidly changing times and challenges that City Councils - especially City Councils that suffer from the congenital disease of "policy-making by optimal inclusion", as has been the tradition in Palo Alto.

There's an excellent chance that none of this will change in Palo Alto. I'd bet on that. That said, I'd also bet on Palo Alto, over time, loising much of its dynamic core, and missing out (along with our neighbors) solving the most vexing problems that we face because we're trying to get 40 people (City COuncil members) to agree on something, instead of three (Mayors).


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Posted by Paul Losch
a resident of Community Center
on May 23, 2007 at 8:40 pm

A specific comment to some of what Otto is pointing out as among the "challenges." There most definitely are a number of things that are at least intractable if not impossible to solve at this current time at the City level. I experience this first hand with some issues I participate in as a Parks and Recreation Commissioner.

I have had conversations with elected officials who serve this area at the county and state level, and they agree that there are issues that are regional in nature which cities are trying to solve individually within their boundaries. It is oftentimes above any given city or cities capacity to address on their own, and dealing with them at the County or State level doesn't quite work either.

A good example of how complex this gets is stuff around the Baylands and the Creek. I attended a meeting last year, and there must have been in attendance at least a dozen different government agencies, all of which had skin in the game, and depending on the specific aspect under discussion, may or may not have been a lead horse on the topic. The issues themselves are difficult and complicated enough, trying to have a scorebook to understand the players and their roles requires a level of concentration typically required to read a Doestejevski novel.

Meanwhile our good neighbors here and over there in Menlo Park, San Mateo County whose homes abut the creek are scared $#%&less about another flood--the cities are stuck.

I really don't have anything prescriptive to suggest around this particular matter or "above the city level"/regional issues, but problem identification is the first step to working toward a solution on anything. So, in that regard, I echo some earlier observations about our existing structures may not be configured to meet some of the challenges we face and will face in the coming years.


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Posted by Joanne
a resident of Midtown
on May 24, 2007 at 3:28 am

At the top of your list should be "amending the City Charter", because electing a Mayor will require this. I wonder how many of you have read the City Charter? You are assuming that an elected Mayor will provide strong leadership, in Palo Alto that is a leap of faith!

An elected Mayor will provide Palo Alto with a high profile spokesperson with a large salary, but it won't necessarily provide your dream of a "strong leader". Progress on City issues will remain as slow as molasses and continue to be dominated by NIMBYISM. There is an entrenched political structure of endless participation by everyone which will not change.

Sorry to be so pessimistic, but I've been around here for 40 years and the more things change the more they stay the same.


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Posted by Otto
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 24, 2007 at 9:14 am

Paul, Joanne, you both making interesting points that go to the heart of the challenge. Our current mayor has called for more "innovation". Given that, what innovation could do the most to insure that our future as a region, with Palo Alto remaining a vital part of that region.

Joanne may very well be right, in that our city has an entrenched behavioral bent that favors seemingly endless participation prior to action - a habit that was reinforced by fortunate historical accidents (the tech sector made us what we are) that lead to a lack of constraints, making it possible to set aside crisp decision-making. After all, when one of well off (as our City has been, elative to others), one can afford to make less-than-optimal decisions, because there is a "pad" of forgiveness provided by that wealth. But things have changed, and this bad currently habit weighs us down, to no good end, relative to current and future needs.

We have Council members sitting on various regional committess - on transportation and water committees. Where are the regular updates on issues of import to all citizens in these areas? Where are the stinging rebuttals to groups like the VTA from Mayor Kishimoto, who sits on the VTA, as the VTA intends to strip Palo Alto of an important public transportation route?

We don't - and won't - see this kind of action from our elected policy makers - not because any one nofo them is incompetent (on the contrary, they're talented people) - but because each one of them sits as only one member of a collaborative decision-making body, without a leader who has the power to take real policy initiative, or make policy happen. There is no reward, and in fact lots of potential political penalty for "standing out" or "taking a stand" that catches one's City Council policy making peers off guard. What demeanor of policy-making and leadership does that lead to?

It leads to playing "defense".

Our ultra-collaborative form of policy-making, uninformed by passionate, broad vision that resonates with the polis leads to a kind of complacency, and a lack of a sense of urgency. Even when certain policy matters are brought forward as urgent, there is still a nine-member body that has to agree on how to engage that urgency - asking questions like "let's measure the degree of urgency among our fellow citizens", or "let's take a poll so that we can see what people think", and so on. What we end up with is micromanagement of opportunity, and challenge. We move too slow.

This is not to say that one should not be cautious and measured in one's approach to making policy, but when change in one's environment is accelerating at a speed far beyond anything that has occurred prior - in any environment, political, personal, environmental, etc. - the entities that tend to do best are those that are best able to _adapt_.

The above statement begs the question about how best to encourage political adaptation in a time of rapid change.

Without venturing too deeply into biological metaphors, it's safe to say that environmental change causes certain ingrained characteristics to fall out of favor after a time, because those characteristics simply don't help the organism (in this case, our city) to thrive. This is the state we're currently in, relative to the way policy is made.

It's my contention that we - and our neighbors - are not adapting fast enough to enable survival in a way that we are going to be comfortable with some years down the road.

I don't have the answers, but I do have an intuition that the leaders among us - including some on our own City Council, are critically hobbled by the archaic habit of glacial collaboration required of an essentially leaderless policy-making body, where our mayors (who have been and are, all talented people) are not able to truly cut loose and DO anything, short of cajoling theh polic in one direction or another with an impassioned state of the city speech, whose purpose soon sinks into the mounds of endless deliberation about this or that crisis, until the next round of elections where individual candidates for City Council make campaign promises as if they were going to have any real power to act. How innocently, and tragically, naive.


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Posted by eric
a resident of Mountain View
on May 24, 2007 at 9:15 am

Fred, Palo Alto's problem isnt its government, but Palo Altans. Residents have put up roadblocks to effective and efficient governance for decades. PA is no longer the leader in city services in the region by a long shot. Finances are degrading. The business base is dwindling. "Vision" is a luxury that PA no longer has (maybe it never did), because the storm drains are a mess and tax revenue-generating businesses are heading for the hills.

A mayoral city govt would be MORE contentious, MORE opinion-poll driven, and MORE of a mess.


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Posted by Otto
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 24, 2007 at 9:25 am

eric, Your assumption is that people cannot change, or led in a different direction. How is it that good (elected) mayors have helped cities take themselves forward.

You are also mistaken in your assumption that Palo Altans - in general - have been the problem. Not al all.

In fact, it's been a relatively small fraction of Palo Altans whose policy makers could afford the luxury of listening to them in more successful years past. That past is gone; it's time for a new day.

The current Council has made some strides in looking past the Monday evening regulars, but that's not enough.

What we (including Mt. View, Menlo Park, etc.) need is a way forward that will enable FAR more speed in decision making. We can enable that by putting people in power who have real power, and real vision.

Yes, sometimes we'll (the polis) get it wrong. When that happens we can self correct.

I see the latter scenario as far preferrable to one where we ekelct citizens to some amorphous body that moves along slow as molasses, and is leaderless by design.