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By Douglas Moran

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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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City Council & School Board: Leaders, Overseers, Technocrats or Advocates?

Uploaded: May 5, 2016
Candidates are starting to declare for the School Board and City Council. Although the public campaigning typically doesn't begin until September, between now and the official filing deadline (August 12?), potential candidates will be assessing if they have enough support for a reasonable chance of winning. "Support" doesn't mean votes, but people willing to work on your campaign to get you and your message known to the voters. In the 2014 election cycle, I wrote about this in my blog "Supporting a candidate for Council: Not too early to start" (2014-01-06). Commitments of support at this stage are especially important for challengers: The Palo Alto Weekly estimated that incumbents in local elections have a 10-15% vote advantage ("Editorial: The looming election", 2016-04-01).

I would encourage potential supporters to take a more hard-headed approach about whom they think would be a good candidate. Too often the judgments are based on friendships or activities with little relevance to the official position, for example, the effort that someone put in as a volunteer for youth soccer should not be taken as an indication of knowledge and judgment needed for City Council or the School Board.(foot#1) My first consideration of potential candidates is about their general philosophies related to the job. But before I get to questions about even general policies, I ask myself about their basic qualifications for the role.

Most residents incorrectly think of the City Council and School Board as having executive duties, when in fact they function more like a corporate Board of Directors, with the City Manager and School Superintendent being more like something between the CEO and COO. Notice "more like" is not "equivalent to". Because I am more familiar with City government, I am going to focus this discussion there, expecting commenters to point out differences in School District governance.

Palo Alto has a "Strong City Manager" form of government--also known as "Council-Manager Government". Only four members of City government are hired by, and report to, City Council-- City Manager, City Attorney, City Auditor, and City Clerk--although hiring decision for various upper level managers are often presented to Council for advise-and-consent. City Council members are not supposed to interact with City Staff, but instead go through the corresponding Council Appointed Officer (CAO). The rationale for this arrangement is based on broad experience, and is why most small and medium-sized cities use this scheme (details can easily be found online).

--Policy Oversight and Decision-making--
The City Manager is responsible for developing policy recommendations and presenting them to Council for decisions. There is a substantial range of ways this process can work. At one extreme, the presumption is that the City Manager's recommendation is the proper choice and that Council is doing little more than double-checking it. On past Councils, there have been a significant minority of Council members who openly acknowledged from the dais that their inclination was to simply accept the recommendation on issues that were not of primary interest to that Council member. In such a situation, there is little role for public input other than to convince Council that the recommendation is so fraught with problems that it needs a major rework. Even when such Councils recognize significant problems, they have routinely approved the defective policy with the rationalization that there isn't enough time to make the needed fixes/get it right.

Further along in this spectrum is what I would term "show your work" recommendations. Rather than the City Manager Report (CMR)--commonly referred to as the "Staff Report"--simply advocating for his recommendation, the CMR would describe the alternatives that were considered, the trade-offs and why the recommended choices were made. This has the advantage of showing whether the concerns of various stakeholders were fairly considered. It has the disadvantage of facilitating Council making tweaks and choosing alternatives that were not fully explored.(foot#2) While most of the tweaks have been innocuous or minor, some were definitely ill-advised, and a few have been disastrous. For example, Council torpedoed what turned out to be the last chance to retain Alma Plaza as a neighborhood retail center.(foot#3)

Further along the spectrum--into ain't-never-gonna-happen--has the City Manager Report identify what are the important choices to be made by Council. This has the advantage of forcing the CMR to be well-organized and thought out--contrary to my experience over the years of finding critical information scattered throughout boilerplate. This in turn has the advantage of focusing the debate and encouraging Council members to more carefully consider what they are approving--avoiding "I'm going to trust the City Manager" attitude (above)--but is a recipe for chaos if Council members aren't prepared and willing to operate in such a decision-making framework.

--Operational Oversight--
Making policy decisions and creating new programs can be very satisfying emotionally for Council members, with the result that it is easy to have more policies and programs than Staff can manage.

For example, at a meeting earlier this year, the City's Chief Sustainability Officer Gil Friend stated that City Hall had "hundreds of sustainability initiatives". I asked how one could manage so many programs and assess their effectiveness, and his response was that it was done with normal management reviews. I am highly skeptical.

Another example is the failed business registry--see Editorial: Palo Alto business registry has failed to deliver its promised value, 2016-04-29. It is such an ignominious failure that it is openly speculated that it was designed to fail. As the editorial notes (starting in paragraph 7 from the end), basic information technology practices were ignored: rational requirements and goals, debugging the design, small-scale test...

Overseeing operations can be unpleasant because it involves asking lots of probing questions. With the (powerful) City Manager intent on defending himself and his staff, not antagonizing him is a major consideration for Council members. Enter the City Auditor--who does process audits, not financial ones. The Auditor's staff can make these probing examinations and report to Council, but its taskings tend to tend to be for larger-scale issues, leaving little time for troubled programs. As a Council Appointed Officer, the Auditor is technically independent from the City Manager and the bulk of City Staff.

Most questions about operational effectiveness come up during budget hearings of the Council's Finance Subcommittee, but the opaqueness of the documents and the complexity of the hearings discourage public viewing, much less participation.

--Level of experience and knowledge: A technocrat?--
Many Palo Altans expect Council members (and candidates) to have deep expertise on the issues, or at least the issues important to that resident. This is wrong, but understandable--residents see Council members as their representatives in policy debates with the various special interests and advocacy groups--including City Staff--who do have that expertise on their issues of interest. However, it is impossible for Council members to have anything approaching this on the broad range of issues they have to deal with. Plus, the Strong City Manager structure prevents them from using this effectively. Often it is counter-productive: A Council member can burrow "down into the weeds" on minor technical issues, usurping the time that Council should be spending on the bigger questions.

Instead reframe the question as to how much a Council member needs to know for effective oversight. But there's the rub. What is needed to understand and make intelligent choices between the alternatives depends upon how well the alternatives are presented (above). Recognize that there is the City Managers Report that is supposed to reflect Staff analysis and public input. There is public input at the Council meeting, but this is largely ineffective beyond registering Like/Dislike.(foot#4) Then there is the input and expertise provided by community members. Remember that Council members' access to City Staff is filtered through the City Manager and other Council Appointed Officers, so effectively they have no support staff. None other than residents who volunteer their expertise, time and effort.

In considering candidates to back (and vote for), it is typically difficult to determine what pool of resident expertise they have to draw on: Candidates who have little or none are cagey to obscure that fact, and candidates that have a pool of advisors are cagey in avoiding identify them. However, sometimes that can be inferred from the candidates' public statements. For example, there have been many candidates who seem to believe that all Palo Altans live within easy walking distance of the University Avenue downtown. For example, during a discussion of taxes during a candidate coffee during the 2012 Council election, one (successful) candidate revealed a lack of awareness of the near-mandatory "voluntary contributions" for school district families, much less how big they are. At a candidate forum, that same candidate said to the audience that they could well afford more taxes because almost all of them had owned their houses from before Proposition 13 (1978) and thus had very low property taxes.

The term technocrat characterizes an official who has deep expertise in policy issues and who tends away from what is commonly regarded as "politics". Technocrats come to occupy a leadership positions in various situations. At the level of national politics, it is usually badly broken politics, with the various political factions of that country unable or unwilling to make the necessary decisions. At the City Council level it is very different. In Council meetings, Staff operates under "speak only when spoken to": They cannot respond to misleading or false information presented during the hearing by applicants (e.g., developers), special interests, advocates, the public, and the Council members themselves. You need Council members who know enough to spot the misrepresentation and ask for a Staff response, or respond themselves. A technocrat on Council can also be a counterweight to biases in Staff presentations. The potential downside is that a technocrat can become too focused on the minor details at the expense of the larger policy issues--the inverse of politician who ignores physical and financial reality.

Most Council campaigns have non-serious candidates who exploit campaign events to provide them with an audience for their advocacy of particular causes. However, there have been serious candidates who ran, and were elected, as advocates for a narrow portion of the issues that Council has to deal with. I believe that advocates--unlike technocrats--have no place on Council. First, the Council culture is for all members to vote on every issue, even if they haven't done the due diligence needed to make an informed decision. In the mid-2000s, several Council members told me that their time-management strategy was to not invest in becoming informed on various issues, but instead identify which Council member(s) they tended to agree with an follow their lead. Advocates very easily fall into this undesirable practice.

A bigger problem comes from the immense power difference in hearings. Over the years I have seen too many instances of residents being treated abominably from the dais--for example, having what they said misrepresented in order to be ridiculed--in a meeting format where they have no chance to response. I can't remember even once where that Council member was even chided by even one other member, much less being rebuked. Even in case where I felt a formal motion of censure was warranted. Even a well-intentioned advocate is going to have difficulty avoiding the appearance of inappropriately biasing the deliberations of the whole Council.

In a properly functioning democracy, laws codify what society has already accepted as desirable and right, along with enforcement mechanisms against miscreants. Citizen advocates play an important role is pushing changes in society's beliefs in this regard. However, advocates who are government officials face the strong temptation to shortcut this process: Instead of doing the hard work of garnering public support for that change, they think they can use a law to impose on others their notion of what is right and necessary.

The preceding sets up how you should think about what it means for a Council member to be a leader. Recognize that in addition to leadership on specific issues, there is also leadership on the "corporate culture". The latter can be more important because without it, efforts to lead on the issues can be easily frustrated.

Two intertwined aspects of corporate culture that I mentioned above--and in many of my previous blogs--are Staff recommendations and the handling of public input. Another is who are the primary "customers" of City Hall. For example, the previous City Manager introduced the paradigm of "customer service" for the Department of Planning and Community Environment, where the customers were those seeking approval for projects (developers ...). Those metrics focused on getting projects approved quickly without regard to whether they were good projects. Somehow the "Community" and "Environment" in the department name got forgotten. Council discussions and decisions strongly signal the desired balance between various stakeholders.

Leadership on specific issues overlaps with that over corporate culture, and provides ways to change that culture. For example, overseeing that content and structure of public outreach materials is such that the public can understand the choices and whether or not those choices warrant their participation. And ensure that public input is valued, not just a check-off item. When I was a neighborhood leader (Barron Park), one of my most important contributions was serving as a "translator" between the bureaucratic terminology and mindset and how residents approached the issues.

Another part of leadership is making the hard choices about where to focus your resources.(foot#5) For example, City Hall has the resources for hundreds of sustainability initiatives (above), but important planning tasks drag on for years and years because of lack of staff.

I am an long-time advocate for leaders and managers writing explanations of policies, even if it is only as co-author. First, the process of writing forces the author to think carefully about how things fit together, or don't. Second, the document allows for the transmission of the ideas and priorities without attenuation and distortion, and provides a framework for subsequent considerations to build upon. Council members do occasionally write "Colleague Memos", but the primary audience is City Hall, not the community.

--School Board: An observations--
A common complaint about School Board meetings is that they are dominated by oral presentations of what was already in the written reports, or should have been. And that status updates dominate the agendas, versus policy discussions and decisions. This was remarked upon in Palo Alto Online's Behind the Headlines - 2015 Year in Review (video, starting at 13:55). The need for extended oral re-presentation of written reports is ironic for a school district: It indicates that Board members and the audience are expected to have not done their "homework" before coming to the meeting.

1. Previous blog related to this: "Wisdom, Skills, Knowledge, Wits: Not the same", 2015-12-14.

2. Many of my previous blog entries have dealt with problems of the public being heard. See my topical index where "Public Input" is the initial topic category.

3. Housing development along the Charleston Road corridor had greatly exceeded projections, and the existing infrastructure (despite residents pointing out the developing problem for a decade). A moratorium was proposed to allow for City Hall to make an assessment and plans. At the end of the Council meeting on the moratorium, two public speakers asked to have Meadow Drive included in the moratorium. This had been raised, debated and broadly rejected in the public outreach and Staff deliberations. If Council had bothered to ask Staff or leading members of the public in the audience, they would have been told of the consequences, but that section of the meeting required Council members to explicitly ask, and none did.

4. On a controversial issue, the time limit on public statements is typically reduced from 3 minutes to 2, making it difficult to make more than 2-3 very basic points. Add to this the lack of interactivity--questions and follow-up are extremely rare. Then add the Council has no time to digest individual comments or synthesize the body of comments.

5. "He who defends everything defends nothing" -- Frederick the Great (Prussia).


An abbreviated index by topic and chronologically is available.

----Boilerplate on Commenting----
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 particularly 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", do not 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.

If you behave like a Troll, do not waste your time protesting when you get treated like one.
Local Journalism.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by Billy Sunday, a resident of Charleston Meadows,
on May 9, 2016 at 1:39 pm

[[Deleted by blogger: This and subsequent comments by the same person violated multiple aspects of Terms of Use: off-topic, personal attacks, using multiple aliases]]

Posted by Sea Reddy, a resident of College Terrace,
on May 11, 2016 at 1:56 pm

Thoughtful article. Good job.


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