Editorial: Palo Alto needs new 2010 prioritiesWith one exception, every member of the Palo Alto City Council who will convene Saturday for a day-long retreat has served less than two years, with four serving just since Jan. 4.
Brand new City Council Saturday should to focus on definable areas needing short- and long-term attention in a time of economic challenges
But this very "lack of depth" on the council could be the biggest asset or strength, if the members realize it and compensate by doing their homework on city history and issues.
Without the baggage of past history to inhibit them, perhaps the members could move ahead with determination to resolve some of the clear problems that beset our community.
Only council veteran Larry Klein — who has served more time on the council in his 13-year tenure than all other council members combined — has a depth of council-level experience, which could be invaluable when it comes to recognizing areas of historical value or civic land mines.
Other members have varying depths of community experience from serving on the planning commission, the school board or community groups.
The test they will face Saturday (9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. in the Palo Alto Unified School District headquarters, 25 Churchill Ave.) will be whether they can forge a cohesive set of city priorities that can actually be measured at key points during the year.
The city's three 2009 priorities appear deceptively simple: economic health, environmental protection and "civic engagement for the common good." But each is immensely complex in terms of how to achieve or measure success.
The local economy is subject to broader regional, state and national economic conditions, although a more aggressive economic-development program might help things locally. We are not convinced the city's program is strong enough or that the "Destination Palo Alto" effort is worth the effort or cost.
The environment — doing what we can locally to combat global climate change — has been an official or unofficial activity in Palo Alto for decades. There is clearly much to be done, and by example the city can continue to provide leadership in a broader arena.
The "civic engagement" priority has faltered, according to results of a survey presented to the council last Monday night: Fewer people reported feeling welcomed into civic affairs in the past year than during the average for the past five years, City Auditor Linda Brouchoud reported to the council. We're slipping backwards. But this goal may simply be too esoteric for the common good, even if the term had a simple definition.
Two other priorities might well replace it. What of the former priority of emergency preparedness, in light of Haiti and continuing flood and earthquake threats? What of getting the Stanford hospitals' expansion considered?
Council members Monday night thoughtfully explored the implications of survey results contained in the annual Service Efforts and Accomplishments report by the city auditor.
Some were clearly shaken by results of the independent random-sample survey that showed declines in people's perception of Palo Alto in several key areas, despite still-high perceptions of the city as a great place overall. Several council members wanted more details, perhaps a follow-up survey that would measure more precisely differences between north and south Palo Alto and specific neighborhoods.
Klein noted that only 494 persons responded of 1,200 sent surveys, a high return but still representing just over 100 persons per zip code. He and Councilman Greg Schmid determined there was a 9 percent margin of error, which Klein termed "huge."
Other members cited weak areas such as in perceptions of plan review and building permits, trust in city government and spikes in utility costs.
City Manager James Keene said Monday night's discussion provides a "backdrop of 'Here's where we are and here's where we are going as a city'" that will be highly valuable at Saturday's retreat. He said having a "collaborative conversation" with the new council on Saturday will help determine "what success will look like" for the year.
"What that really means is nine people talking to each other, listening, factoring in information and trying to find how to weave that together in setting direction for what's important in Palo Alto" in public, with feedback: built-in civic engagement.