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"Flawed" process is normal

Uploaded: Sep 5, 2014
It is misleading for City Hall to label as "flawed" its action on the 27 University Avenue project (Arrillaga towers) and the attempted sale of 7.7 acres of land next to Foothill Park. That implies that this was an isolated event and unusual behavior. If only. Normally it is only "the usual suspects" who notice (and complain). But this was so big and so egregious that it rose to the level of a Civil Grand Jury investigation and scathing report.

Read the news story "Palo Alto admits mistakes in negotiations with developer: City agrees it followed a 'flawed' process in 2012 talks with John Arrillaga over property sale, proposed development" asking "Would City Hall have done this if it weren't already a reflex and/or they expected to be able to get away with it?"

The property sale involved a 7.7 acre wedge into Arrillaga's estate. Read the last two paragraphs of that story:
The city also disagreed that the deed restrictions requiring the property to be used for parks precludes the city from selling the land. "A private party, non-profit entity or other governmental entity could comply with this deed restriction," the city's response states. "There are many such parcels of land throughout the Bay Area and the state. Thus the deed restriction did not prevent the City from selling the property. The new owner would have been obligated to meet the deed restriction."
Ask yourself if you could have made such a statement with a straight face. Who has the resources and will to successfully sue a billionaire to enforce this deed restriction?

I could illustrate my argument about this being an established culture at City Hall by pointing to a multitude of development projects. However, for the duration of the City Council campaign, I'm trying leave that field open to the candidates. I want to hear what they have to say: their analyses, their priorities and the intensity of their commitment to various positions. Instead, I will use as my example the library renovation that was the subject of my first blog entry here: "Librarians Against Books: Subverting the will of the electorate" (read only if you are interested in the sordid details).

In early 2012, the citizens' group, which included me, brought the problem to then-Mayor Yiaway Yeh. He saw it as a serious problem and quickly arranged a meeting with the City Manager. The group then arranged meetings with almost all the City Council members.(foot#1) Although those Council members acknowledged that there were serious problems, there was no apparent follow-up?I saw no changes. One Council member was indiscreet/honest enough to say that there would be no action unless there was a substantial outcry from the public. I wandered away from the group when they decided to pin their hopes on rationality and good-governance.

There were three big issues. First, Staff was silently implementing a major change in policy that went against the language of the Library Bond measure, the "legislative record", and the representations made during the campaign. Second, Staff provided misleading and false information to members of the City Council and the Library Advisory Commission, and allowed, possibly encouraged, them to make misleading and/or false statements about the policy.(foot#2)

Third, City Hall had ignored requests for public records, violating the California Public Records Act. One request took 15 months to get a response (despite re-requests).(foot#3) In meetings with the City Attorney and the City Manager there were promises that systems and processes would be put into place to track requests and respond to them in a timely manner. More than two years later, there are still problems, although I don't have any statistics. The City Hall response doesn't appear to be on the website yet (although I did find their press release of 19 June that gave an interim response and announced that a full response was due in 90 days). Until then, you'll have to settle for the quotes in the above news article. Update: Now online at Council Agenda Packet, Item 9, with response beginning on page 22.

----
Closely related to this is the "flawed" response of the Commissions and Boards. The above citizens' group found a substantial error in the plans resulting from a flawed assumption where they hadn't bothered with a simple sanity-check (simple arithmetic). The group reported this finding to the Library Director in a letter of 10 July 2012 (on page 2). The Library Director took this letter to the Library Advisory Commission (LAC) where that information, and the group, was misrepresented and ridiculed (rough transcript). And City Hall can't figure out why residents aren't eager to participate in their meetings.

----For this Council campaign:
Don't accept the equivalent of "Mistakes were made." If/when you have the opportunity, press the candidates to hear their diagnoses of the problem, and what they would do to try to change it.
Hint: If they have a simple answer, they don't understand the problem.
Hint: Listen carefully to try to spot the ones that would deal only with cases that created a public outcry. I doubt that even dealing with all the cases that arise will make the needed changes. It is a systemic problem.

---- Footnotes ----

1. Council members briefed: Current Council members Berman and Kniss had not yet been elected, and Pat Burt declined a meeting, indicating that he wanted to wait until the issue was on the Council's agenda (which never happened).

2. On Council members unknowingly making false statements: During her briefing, Nancy Shepherd was shown that Staff knew that the information she was publicizing was substantially wrong and that Staff failed to alert her so that she could issue a correction and use the correct information going forward. There is an inference that Shepherd was misinformed by Staff (rather than being mistaken). See Briefing, page 22. She is running for re-election, and it would be interesting to hear what her reaction was, whether she did any follow-up, and what, if any, the results were.

3. For the timeline of requests, see Briefing, page 30.

----
The Guidelines for comments on this blog are different from those on Town Square Forums. I am attempting to foster more civility and substantive comments by deleting violations of the guidelines.

I am particular strict about misrepresenting what others have said (me or other commenters). If I judge your comment as likely to provoke a response of "That is not what was said", don't be surprised to have it deleted. My primary goal is to avoid unnecessary and undesirable back-and-forth, but such misrepresentations also indicate that the author is unwilling/unable to participate in a meaningful, respectful conversation on the topic.

Comments

 +   2 people like this
Posted by Mike Alexander, a resident of St. Claire Gardens,
on Sep 5, 2014 at 6:46 am

The city had already leased the 7.7 acres to Mr. Arrillaga for several years. During that time, it was used to store and work stone for the billionaire's extravagant estate next door. It was left in a very unnatural state.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Chip, a resident of Barron Park,
on Sep 5, 2014 at 10:14 am

Thanks Doug.
One can try to see that Shepherd's actions be publicized in the campaign.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Wayne Martin, a resident of Fairmeadow,
on Sep 5, 2014 at 10:19 am

> Public Records Request Stats ..

The SCC Civil Grand Jury requested that the City send it a log of Public Records Requests for 2012, which it used to review that portion of the problems of City Hall.
I requested the same log, from which I derived a few stats?

Web Link

Unfortunately, the log was missing a lot of information, so I suspect that the stats are off a bit. (I also used calendar days, rather than business days, to compute the time-to-complete stat. So?for those requests with long delays, the actual delay time is off a bit.)

The key issue here is that State Law calls for a ten-day turnaround for these requests. The City doesn?t seem to be close to that number, for many of these requests.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Southern, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Sep 6, 2014 at 7:06 am

Doug, when you say City Employees subverted the public process and supplied knowingly false information - can you name names? Don't we have a way to call for an employee ethics investigation? It's happened elsewhere...


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park,
on Sep 6, 2014 at 1:13 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

RE: "Southern" on naming names

The information about the employees involved is in the "Briefing" linked to. Most/all of the ones we know about have retired or otherwise moved on. As has the interim Library Director of that time.

But even if they were still working for the City, I would not target them for an ethics investigation. My sense was that they had no intent to do something unethical or were even conscious that they were. THAT is the problem. It is a culture at City Hall that allows Staff to make its own policy and to disregard public input. If you are going to ignore the public input, it is irrelevant whether they are working from good or bad information.

The problem that needs to be addressed is higher up in City Hall, in the top managers and in City Council. This culture exists because they encourage and/or tolerate it.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Seelam-Sea REDDY, a resident of College Terrace,
on Sep 7, 2014 at 5:13 am


I beg to differ.

"Flawed Process is Normal"

Are you kidding?

In the private industry I worked; CEOs of Boeing (Phil Condit in 2002 and Harry Stonecipher in 2005) Northrop (TV Jones in 1980s)had to leave their high paying jobs. Whose heads need to roll? In essence who need to go?

Should we not expect to have the same standards?

Time to IMPROVE and demand for COMPETENCY.

2004 November is the time to remember this as citizens of Palo Alto in the polling booth!

We deserve better CITY management!


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Seelam-Sea REDDY, a resident of College Terrace,
on Sep 7, 2014 at 5:15 am

correction- sorry


2014 November is the time to remember this as citizens of Palo Alto in the polling booth!

Respectfully


 +   2 people like this
Posted by S. Keehn, a resident of Barron Park,
on Sep 7, 2014 at 4:24 pm

I just wrote my thoughts under the comments for the Editorial. As Eric Filseth said today the City Council is supposed to work for the residents, and be in charge of the City Manager etc. It certainly with this latest investigation begs the question of who is getting 'paid off.' We need transparency and open discussion with the residents of the city with any major decision.

I hope that enough people are aware, and/or become aware of these issues and feel that we do indeed new a now council.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by iconoclast, a resident of University South,
on Sep 8, 2014 at 12:27 am

"the City Council is supposed to work for the residents, and be in charge of the City Manager"

Yes the city council is "supposed" to... .

It has at times failed that supposition, often failing enthusiastically.

The City Council is supposed be in charge of the city manager. But it abdicates that responsibility to a hired consultant, who "evaluates" the city manager with fulsome praise, with no accountability to the citizens.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Wondering?, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Sep 8, 2014 at 11:25 am


It would seem that the City Clerk is responsible for generating the agenda for the Council, so it would seem to be her fault when these agendas are not correct, or violate any City ordinances, or State laws, dealing with accuracy, or completeness, of information that is in these agendas.

It is an open question as to why the City Attorney did not object to this misleading of the public.

Got to wonder why people at City Hall can openly break the law, and nothing is done about it?


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park,
on Sep 8, 2014 at 12:08 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

RE: "Wondering?"

The City Clerk does not "generate" the agenda, but rather *publishes* it. The agenda is generated in a meeting involving the City Manager, the Mayor and the Vice Mayor ("Mayor in training"). My understanding is that this meeting does not typically involve the City Attorney.

While it is not reasonable to expect the City Clerk to have the understanding of issues that would enable her to spot deceptions, omissions and inadequacies in the agenda item descriptions she is given for publication, there are some routine things she could do. For example, take parcel numbers and translate them into street addresses and add an URL for its location in an online map (eg Google Maps).

In the online agendas, the City Clerk has adapted to the Web and includes links to the staff reports in those versions.

In considering what can be done, realize that the publication of the agenda is dominated by ancient laws -- ones that pre-date the Internet and focus on publication in hardcopy newspapers. Because of the costs of hardcopy publication, the established practices emphasize brevity over being more informative. It wouldn't surprise me if there were legal issues/risks with having an online agenda that was significantly different from the one published in the newspaper that is the designated official source (speculation based on other brushes with these sort of legal requirements).


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Wondering?, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Sep 8, 2014 at 12:36 pm

> The City Clerk does not "generate" the
> agenda, but rather *publishes* it

That?s what was meant. Sorry for not choosing the correct word.

> While it is not reasonable to expect the City Clerk to have the
> understanding of issues that would enable her to spot deceptions,
> omissions and inadequacies in the agenda item descriptions she
> is given for publication

Maybe .. and then again, maybe not. There are only so many issues associated with publishing the agenda. It?s difficult to believe that someone being paid over $130K can not be expected to put together a check list, and ensure that the list is satisfied before releasing the agenda to the public.

> In the online agendas, the City Clerk has adapted to the
> Web and includes links to the staff reports in those versions.

This took a very long time to achieve. Far too long for a City in the Silicon Valley.

> there are some routine things she could do. For example,
> take parcel numbers and translate them into street addresses
> and add an URL for its location in an online map

Or kick it back to the party submitting the item for the agenda.

> the publication of the agenda is dominated by ancient laws

California is only about 165 years old. That?s hardly ancient.

> It wouldn't surprise me if there were legal issues/risks with having
> an online agenda that was significantly different from the one
> published in the newspaper that is the designated official source

Maybe. But this is where intelligent, and well-meaning, Council Appointed Officials would be within their rights to pen up their problems, referring them to their local legislative representatives for possible changes in the law to facilitate their being able to use the Internet effectively.

There is a big difference between a "can't do" and a "can do" attitude.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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