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About this blog: Real power doesn't reside with those who make the final decision, but with those who decide what qualifies as the viable choices. I stumbled across this insight as a teenager (in the 1960s). As a grad student, I belonged to an org...  (More)

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Reducing Council Size? Against

Uploaded: Sep 25, 2014
This is my second time through this issue, the first being in 2005.(foot#1) I am opposing reducing Council size because its advocates have failed to make even a modestly competent case for it: Their basic argument?that it would increase meeting efficiency?is demonstrably false and they have failed to provide meaningful support for other of their arguments and have failed to address well-known counter-arguments.

Primary claim: Reducing Council size will improve meeting efficiency.
We have a simple test of this claim: Look at Council meetings where members are absent, whether it be one, two or three absent. Do you see any improvement in efficiency? I haven't. Unless someone can show me otherwise, this convincingly demonstrates that reducing Council size will not achieve the advocates' purported objective.

So what do I see as the cause of the admittedly over-long and inefficient Council meetings? My top nominee is the Staff reports (technically "City Manager Reports", or CMRs). There are four basic phases in the Council's deliberations: (1) Staff presentation, (2) Council questions to Staff, (3) public comment/testimony, and (4) Council deliberation. The current structure and content of Staff reports causes the latter three to be unnecessary long.

Starting with public comment/testimony: Because Staff reports advocate for Staff's recommendation, the data, analysis and perspectives behind alternatives have to be presented during public comment. Emailing this information to Council is not a practical alternative: I and others have been told by multiple Council members not to expect them to read much past the first paragraph. So I advise people to send an email, on the off chance that some Council member reads it, and then make an oral presentation.

Another cause of drawn out public testimony is that Council has repeatedly made it clear that it is much more influenced by the quantity of comments than by the quality.

Reducing Council size could have the perverse effect of making meetings longer because it would encourage even more public testimony. If you are organizing testimony to Council and you are reasonably confident that a Council member will represent a given perspective during Council discussion?which occurs after public input has be closed?you are less likely to arrange for someone to make those points during the testimony. Fewer Council members means more uncertainty of this happening, which leads to more public testimony.

Moving on to Council questions to Staff: The packet of reports that Council members receive for their weekly meeting is typically many inches thick (if/when printed). Back in the day when I thought the effort was worth it, I would annotate the PDFs of Staff reports?highlighting, comments, bookmarks?to help Council members find the critical info, which could be scattered throughout pages of background, administrivia and boilerplate. Many Staff reports seem designed more to document Staff's recommendation rather than to support decision-making and oversight. Reducing the size of Council will have no impact on the number of questions that need to be asked about unclear and omitted information in Staff reports, except possibly that with fewer Council members they will become exhausted before all the appropriate questions have been asked.

Similarly for the final phase: Council deliberations. A standard part of training for managers is the effectiveness of preparation on the efficiency of meetings, especially organizing how the various components of the decision are structured and presented. It takes a lot of work, but experience is that it is well worth it. So why doesn't Council get Staff reports that better support decision-making? There is considerable speculation in multiple directions, but even anecdotal evidence is hard to come by (and simple speculation is off-topic for this blog).

On one Citizens' Advisory Panel I served on, the senior Staff member (now retired) acknowledged that she had received no training or mentoring in organizing the Staff report and related presentations to be more effective. Several of us on the panel had well-developed skills in this area, and offered advice and assistance. It was firmly rejected. During the tenure of the previous City Manager, several senior Staff members indicated that better organized Staff reports would not be appreciated (studied ambiguity on their part). This lack of training continues: City Hall currently has a high-profile Staff member who is widely infamous for conducting meetings in ways that unnecessarily antagonize large segments of the attendees (who that is is off-topic).

Implicit claim: There will be no deadwood on Council.
Many of the arguments about Council being too large are implicitly based on the false assumption that all Council members are committed, diligent and intelligent.

First, remember that Council is essentially an unpaid job: Council members report that the pay of $600-800 per month roughly covers expenses for which they don't get reimbursements. Second, recognize that it is typically estimated to be a time commitment equivalent to a half- to full-time job. So the Council composition needs to accommodate significant absences: "real job", family problems, health?

Council also needs to have enough members to also accommodate conflicts-of-interest. In the past, a near-majority of Council members were conflicted out on Stanford issues. On the current Council, at least two members are reportedly property owners in the University Ave downtown, and potentially could be conflicted on major issues. And many other situations.

Council has had members that have not put in the work, but the electorate is unlikely to hear of that: For our political elite, it is impolite/uncivil to publicize this info. For example, in trying to get a handle on actual workload, I was talking to one Council member and he said that it was small for him. He wasn't interested in most issues?he knew whom he tended to agree with and just followed their lead. On issues that mattered to him, he said that a quick scan of the Staff report was all he needed, and that was often done during the actual meeting. Naïve me was surprised at this and mentioned it to a political insider. I was told that it was well-known (to insiders) that when he was on the School Board, he wouldn't pick up his packet (of reports) until he arrived at the meeting (often late). That insider was also disturbed by this behavior, but unwilling to suffer the consequences of making it public (and since that official is no longer in office or running, I am not going to spend any of my foolhardiness budget on this).

We have had Council members described as "a charming airhead", "a dim bulb" and "easily confused". On previous Councils we had members who would openly declare from the dais that they didn't understand the issue, so they were just going to vote for the Staff recommendation. While I can understand that occasionally Council members will feel that they don't know enough to make an informed decision, I would think that the right response would be to abstain. But the local political culture seems to be to defer to Staff. With such a culture, you need a larger Council to overcome the effects of these non-abstentions.

Irrelevant argument: Private sector experience with meeting size.
There is extensive management research that puts the optimal size of a meeting at 5-6 people. But those meetings are of an entirely different category: They are focused on problem-solving, and their participants are well-prepared and have deep knowledge of the subject matter. In contrast, Council is involved in oversight and policy setting, and Council operates under a wide range of constraints, for example, transparency requirements often rule out what would otherwise be done in preparing for a meeting.

Non-argument: Responsibility/accountability too diffuse
One of the legitimate concerns about overly large meetings is that responsibility becomes so diffuse that no one feels really responsible for preparing or for carrying out the results. No one has made this argument about Council, except in the abstract.

One potential example of this was the $4.5M City Hall renovation contract that slipped through on the Consent Calendar. The Consent Calendar is intended to reduce the load on what Council members need to pay attention to. So the failing was primarily the City Manager's in not highlighting it to the Mayor and Vice-Mayor when the agenda was being created. If you want to argue that there needs to be more oversight on this by Council members, explain why you aren't effectively arguing that Council should be larger.

Note: A lot of final Council votes fail to reflect the deep divisions and differences of what came before. There is pressure from our political elite to present the pretense of unanimity on decisions. The partial, unsatisfactory explanation that I have heard is that many people here are "uncomfortable" dealing with conflict. Again, this culture is irrelevant to Council size.

Off-topic arguments: Democracy and Power-play
In what little discussion there has been of this topic, there are two arguments that I am going to rule as off-topic, because this blog is about pragmatics. They are that a larger Council is more "democratic", and that the reduction is part of a "power-play" to make the Council less representative.

News article:
Debate over council size splits Palo Alto establishment: Past and present council members take opposite sides on Measure D, Palo Alto Weekly/Online, 19 September 2014

Official Documents:
See Measure D (City Clerk's webpage on the 2014 Election) : ballot statement, impartial analysis, arguments for and against, and rebuttals.

---- Footnotes ----
1. Council member Judy Kleinberg and former Mayor Gary Fazzino came to PAN (Palo Alto Neighborhoods, of which I was co-chair) asking us to help start the debate on this issue, only to see it dropped when other issues took precedence. Some history.

----
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

 +  Like this comment
Posted by common sense, a resident of Midtown,
on Sep 25, 2014 at 7:12 am

Doug, you skipped over a critique of staff presentation - from the meetings I've seen, staff presentations and the city manager should be more direct and economical in their presentations, responses & interruptions. I'm guessing that if you grouped time spent by
- staff presentation, city management
- city council members
- public

that city council talking & staff/city management talking are about equal in time.

Lastly, it takes a majority of the council to provide oversight. The council today doesn't have a majority of members who are interested in providing oversight (Kniss, Price, Shepard, Berman, Klein) are mostly rubber stamps for staff recommendations.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Bob, a resident of Downtown North,
on Sep 25, 2014 at 8:22 am

I have attended many council meetings in PA and in other cities. Most of those council boards are 7 or fewer. It does not result in a lack of representation as many Peninsula cities are less than 100K in population. Further, and without dissecting your entire argument line by line, it has become clear to me why Palo Alto city council meetings in particular are inefficient.

a.) Each council member feels the need to repeat what his/her colleagues have already said. If I had a nickel for every time I hear a council member say,"I'm not going to repeat what my colleagues have already said," and then proceed to do just that, I would be a rich man.

b.) There is no law that says staff has to make a recommendation. In other cities staff reports are prepared to be as unbiased as possible in order for the council to make the policy decisions.

c.) Only in Palo Alto have I witnessed the back and forth procedure of asking each council member of they would like to comment on their motion, comment on their amendment to their motion and if the seconder of the motion would like to make a comment on their second. This in my opinion lis the single most ineffieciency that exists during PA council meetings. I have not seen this procedure in any other city. It seems crazy. Make the motion, second the motion bring to council for discussion and vote.

d.) With nine members, each has to have their say. This is simple mathematics. the less opinions you have, the less time it takes. The current unanimity of the votes prove that with nine there is more diversity of opinion than there might be with seven.

I don;t think you lose anything by reducing the number of members. The public might actually get more involved if the meetings didn't drone on until all hours of the night.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Wayne Martin, a resident of Fairmeadow,
on Sep 25, 2014 at 12:28 pm

[[Deleted by blogger: At first I thought this comment represented an honest misunderstanding of what had been said. However, subsequent comments (hidden to avoid clutter) show an intent to misrepresent and a belligerence.
]]


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park,
on Sep 25, 2014 at 1:04 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

RE: "common sense" of Midtown

On the length of the Staff presentation at the beginning of an agenda item: I didn't talk about this because I didn't see any relation to Council size. That presentation is often intended as an overview of the Staff report. It functions to refresh memories and focus the discussion, and to brief those that didn't read the Staff report. I would argue that its length and content is subsidiary to, and a consequence of, what is in the Staff report.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Marcia, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Sep 26, 2014 at 12:36 pm

Doug, nice piece. The most compelling argument is collision between small numbers and what we could delicately call members who are not as intellectually strong as others. Had Greg Scharff not wanted a stalking horse, with nine members we could have been spared ever watching Nancy Shepherd struggle through a term as mayor. On the other hand, weakness is easier to hide in a group of nine than seven.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Tom DuBois, a resident of Midtown,
on Sep 26, 2014 at 10:47 pm

Tom DuBois is a registered user.

Doug - these are comments that were recorded this week for Public access TV on pros and cons of the ballot measures. Greg Schmid and I spoke against Measure D. Walt Hayes spoke on the "For" side. One important point, is councilmembers time involved much more than the Monday meeting - the focus has been on short meetings, but for the people in office there is a lot of additional work.

I know this includes arguments you didn't want to cover (ie representative government), but here's the text of what was said:

There are many important reasons to keep our council at its current size and few reasons to reduce it. And the first reason is so important; it really outweighs all other arguments for or against.

That reason is democratic representation.

Having more city council seats allows our highly educated, informed, and engaged citizenry to have more of a voice, to have more diverse viewpoints, and to enable a broader range of people to participate in our local city government.
Fewer representatives concentrate power in the hands of fewer people. Our democratic system relies on checks and balances, one of the most important being representation of the people.

Menlo Park and Mountain View have smaller councils. So why shouldn?t Palo Alto?
First, Palo Alto is a complex city for its size, and has many services not commonly found in similarly sized cities. Palo Alto runs its own utilities, its own airport, golf course and has a work day population that is more than twice the size of the resident population. Parts of Stanford are in the city limits and the whole campus is a part of its official sphere of influence.

Secondly, our city council is a basically a volunteer organization. It should be noted that most of a councilmembers time commitment occurs outside the Monday evening city council meeting. The true workload is best spread among 9 members. Because council members sit on many regional and state committees--among them the Mid Penninsula Open Space District, Santa Clara VTA, Stanford Liason Committee, Association of Bay Area Governments, Santa Clara Water District, Northern California Power agency, Bay Area Air Quality Management ? the list goes on and on. Having 9 council members spreads the regional workload and makes it possible for more residents to participate while still holding down a job. It also allows Palo Alto to have active representation in areas that impact us.

Third, our council used to be 15 seats and was already reduced to 9. With further reduction, because of the workload demands, only professional politicians will be able to serve ? those that are independently wealthy, retired, or have strong motivation such as representing a special interest that needs city government approvals. Residents have diverse views and are often less organized. Fewer seats leads to less focus on resident priorities.

We have a history in Palo Alto of citizen engagement that we need to continue to encourage. I?m a good example ? I am running for council because I am concerned about the quality and pace of commercial development in town. I am also a father with 2 teenagers and a fulltime job. I am running as a citizen representative with a desire to serve the public. And I don?t think it would be possible for someone like me to run with a seven person council.

It?s instructive to look at how this measure got on the ballot. Several items were proposed together ? eliminating term limits, paying councilmembers more, and reducing seats. There were discussions about all of these taking place immediately so that many of our current council members could remain in place. Luckily our city attorney said such measures could not be implemented immediately after the election and the term limit proposal was voted down. This proposal for reducing the number of seats only passed by a 5-4 vote and several councilmembers who voted for it said they really weren?t passionate about it one way or another.

So the question is WHY is this even on the ballot? Who?s pushing for it? What are their motivations? It has been proposed before and always defeated. Former Mayor Vic Ojakian stood up in council chambers the other night and said this very thing, calling it a ?solution in search of a problem?.

The biggest argument for it is that council meetings are too long. I suggest we correct that by conducting meetings more efficiently. We need council to select mayors that are skilled at running. Too often council members talk far longer than necessary. In terms of the public though, council already adjusts the agenda to accommodate people who show up to comment, and often moves an item up so that people can speak, handling less important tasks later in the evening.

Reducing council from 9 to 7 is a 22% reduction. Perhaps 22% of the those words spoken were unnecessary, and if so, we would expect meetings to be 22% shorter. Yet, in practice, when city council members are absent, meetings are not shorter. And neighboring city, with smaller councils still meet past midnight. So, Seat reduction does not guarantee shorter council meetings. Experienced leadership that expects attendees to come prepared and values concision and preparation can create efficiency.

So please join me in standing up for your voice and your representation. Vote NO on Measure D. Cast a vote for making residents the top priority for the city.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by disgruntled reader/voter, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Sep 27, 2014 at 12:09 pm

Doug--this is not the first time that you have cast aspersions on council members, with comments from unknown 3rd persons and yourself, in which you make claims, such as being an airhead or lazy or dim bulb.
Why don't you man up and tell us who these council members are/were? You claim that it is "uncivil", yet your actions are no better.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by citizen, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Sep 27, 2014 at 12:37 pm

Thank you, Tom, for your very cogent explanation and history.


@Bob, "There is no law that says staff has to make a recommendation. In other cities staff reports are prepared to be as unbiased as possible in order for the council to make the policy decisions. '

Why aren't our staff reports prepared to be unbiased? Is this an artifact of the staff themselves and deserving of an ethics investigation, is it an artifact of the city manager, what is causing this - I wouldn't have believed it until I witnessed it. This should be illegal. As a resident, I feel like I have the challenge of both refuting a grossly inaccurate staff report and trying to make my own public statement about an issue. How is there actual public input if no one reads letters that must be longer than a paragraph because of staff inaccuracies/biases, and verbal statements are limited to 3 minutes or even less (on an arbitrary basis on the fly by the mayor at the meeting, so it's impossible to prepare properly in advance).

Why can't staff reports be unbiased? Then concise reports be made public for online commentary before the actual public meeting? It seems like that would shorten meetings.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park,
on Sep 27, 2014 at 1:08 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

RE: Disgruntled reader/voter:

I chose not to name the Council members not just because it was unnecessary to the argument, not just because it would have added nothing to the understanding of the issue, but because it would have been a distraction.

The argument is that Council size needs to accommodate "dead wood". The only reason to name the "dead wood" on past Council would be if there was a dispute that any such instances occurred.

> "You claim that it is "uncivil"..."

No I didn't claim such. The closest I came is "For our political elite, it is impolite/uncivil to publicize this info. ... (...I am not going to spend any of my foolhardiness budget on this)"

> "yet your actions are no better."
Explain. The assumption seems to be that the limitations of Council members are not to questioned, even the possibility that some unnamed ones of them might have limitations. This is the argument of an extremely privileged and entitled Establishment.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park,
on Sep 27, 2014 at 1:26 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

RE: "citizen" of another neighborhood

Staff reports as recommendations rather than unbiased presentations goes back as far as I can remember. When the previous City Manager Frank Benest was hired in 2000, I highlighted it to him as a serious problem. When the current City Manager Jim Keene was hired I made several unsuccessful attempts to talk to him about this.

Over the many years, I have talked to many City Council members about this. Some have been sympathetic, even supportive, but have said that there wasn't enough support on Council to make the change.

And it should be noted that the Staff recommendations routinely contain substantial elements and changes that were not part of the earlier public process. This is part of the problem of public testimony at Council meetings: Council considerations should be for oversight and choosing among well-developed alternatives. Council meetings should not be the venue for the first debate of significant choices. But they are.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Sep 29, 2014 at 10:17 am

"Council meetings should not be the venue for the first debate of significant choices."

I totally concur. But there is no council debate anyway. There is only a sequence of monologues about why each councilmember is voting the way he or she has already decided and written in stone.

In our strong city manager government, staff rules. They make the real decisions. But staff needs the formality of council's nominal approval for serious items. Objectivity is superfluous, even detrimental, to this purpose.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by The Shadow knows........., a resident of College Terrace,
on Sep 30, 2014 at 10:49 am

[[deleted by blogger: ad hominem attack and core falsehood: Fabricated a position of earlier contributor in order to attack him for it.
]]


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Marie, a resident of Midtown,
on Sep 30, 2014 at 10:50 am

Marie is a registered user.

Maybe we need a mayor. Our city managers too often seem to see increasing revenue as the main goal of city government. Doug, have there ever been any serious proposals to switch to a mayoral system, given the complexity of Palo Alto's government?

And thanks for the rational presentation of information on Measure D. I plan to vote to keep the current 9 members.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by The Shadow knows......., a resident of Crescent Park,
on Oct 1, 2014 at 9:29 am

[[Deleted by blogger: Commenter opened with belligerence and then repeated false claims about what had been said.]]


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park,
on Oct 1, 2014 at 2:15 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

Marie:
By "mayoral system" I presume you mean at "Strong Mayor" system as opposed to the current "Strong City Manager" system we have now. Most cities Palo Alto's size have the Strong City Manager form. I don't know of any serious considerations of switching. There have been lesser proposals to switch to a directly elected mayor who would serve a term of 2 or 4 years, vs the current system where the mayor is elected by Council for a 1-year term. A directly elected mayor would have more power than the current "leader of the Council" form, but exact what that would mean has never been fleshed out (to my knowledge).

My archival info on the 2005 consideration is at Web Link


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

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