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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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How to Train your City Manager?

Uploaded: Jan 29, 2019
Like a dragon, the City Manager is very powerful and sits atop substantial assets, both capital and monetary. As seen in the movie, training a dragon is not about obedience, but figuring out how to work together.(foot#1) Ed Shikada became the new City Manager at the beginning of the year after almost 4 years as the Assistant City Manager.

With major turn-over in the upper ranks of City Hall management, this Shikada -- through his hiring choices -- has significant opportunities to change the culture, attitudes and practices of City Hall.
Aside: When Keene started as City Manager, he largely ended Staff openly using derisive terms for residents.

Priorities for the upcoming year are scheduled for discussion at a City Council retreat on February 2. It is past the stated deadline for the online public comment form (me bad), but the 285 statements submitted can be viewed online.(foot#2) However, you can send email to .

Most of the proposed priorities will be about specific issues -- traffic, housing ... -- but I believe that the top priority should be fixing a very broken process. As we have seen over the years, bad processes routinely produce bad results, or simply waste time without producing any significant results. Making it a priority would make it something that the City Manager had to include in status updates to Council, which would make it a priority for many City Staff managers.

A different view of the city: From the City Manager's lair high up in City Hall, much of what he sees are the tops of trees, which conveys a sense of calm. In meetings in conference rooms, the power dynamics are for him to be at the head of the table, which is facing the door, which means his back is likely to the window, if any. As a manager of many others, this time is dominated by their perspectives of the city and its issues, with only limited opportunity for direct experience.

----Background: Strong City Manager----

Most residents greatly overestimate the power of City Council and underestimate the power of the City Manager. As it common for cities its size, Palo Alto has a "^Strong City Manager^" form of government (alt: "Council-Manager Government"). City Council members are supposed to interact with City Staff only through the City Manager. Thus, the City Manager has a large staff and Council members effectively have none other than community volunteers. An analogy to businesses, the City Manager is the Chief Operating Officer (COO), the Council is the Board of Directors, with the CEO (Chief Executive Officer) role split/shared between them.

Many people believe that a high-level manager can issue an order and it will be obeyed. Wrong. First, the existing corporate culture may be more powerful. Second, the relationships within the corporation and to outside groups can result in cascading delays and discreet sabotage.(foot#3) For a manager to successfully bring on successful changes to corporate culture and practices, he not only needs to be seen as serious -- obstructionism can wear him down -- but also have strong outside pressures to make those changes.

For the City Manager and City Staff, the residents and their representatives -- City Council -- need to provide that outside impetus.

----Priority: Working with Residents----

The conflicts over several recent intersection "improvement" projects -- such as Ross Road -- have made City Hall management aware that various of their communication channels are "not working". However, these are regarded as individual, isolated mistakes, whereas this has been the pattern over my 20-some years of involvement in such issues.(foot#4) The former can be fixed by tweaking management processes; the latter involves changing the culture.

Bad presentations : Residents have suffered through long presentations with little information relevant to them. Recently, I walked out of one after 75 minutes -- they had only gotten up to discussing the administrative details of the state and region programs. Another notable one was a consultant's presentation on the ^LEED^ program. 40+ minutes on the awards and accolades received by the national program and other cities, but when they got to Q&A, they couldn't answer obvious, basic questions such as preventing misuse.

Resident input can never be timely: The period between when it is "too early" for substantive input from residents and when it is "too late" appears to be about a nanosecond.

Resident input can never be repeated to often: City Hall often "invites" input at each of the many stages of a project, but that input doesn't get carried forward to the next stage, so residents have to repeat it. Of course, input that supports the Staff's position does get cherry-picked for inclusion. But too often, the process seems designed win by exhausting the opposition, rather than the merits of the proposal.

Non-announcements: Over the years, many of the City's announcements of meetings seemed designed to provide the legal minimum, including obfuscation with jargon. Many was the time I ask what was to be decided at a meeting and City officials couldn't tell me.

Too many of the City's announcements have too little information to be worth reading by most residents, and are in a format that doesn't facilitate residents scanning for anything relevant to them. This can lead to residents ignoring these announcements and counting on watchful neighbors to forward anything important.(foot#5)

----Priority: Better meetings for Council, Commissions, Boards ...----

Council meetings seem designed to discourage public participation by having the important items start late in the meetings. Similarly to a lesser extent for other official meetings.

One thing that contributes to long meetings is officials reading out pre-prepared information for the official record. As if electronic document transfer wouldn't be vastly superior, including making an accurate version of that information available to be quoted and forwarded. I see this as emblematic of failing to respect the time of the people in the audience.

----Priority: Meaningful Outreach----

Establish a culture where the residents and other stakeholders are acknowledged to have valuable subject matter knowledge and expertise and knowledge of, and experience with, local conditions and details. Residents who don't have credentials in the subject matter have often acquired substantial expertise from earlier meeting and "independent study".

Insult to professionalism: Over the years, there have been Staff members who seemingly regard having to listen to residents as an "insult to their professionalism" (occasionally confirmed by other Staff members). From time to time, this has included residents who are nationally recognized experts on the topic (and author of a leading textbook).

Many stakeholders, not just residents, get ignored. Last year's hotel tax was put on the ballot with insignificant outreach to the hotel managers. Cal Ave businesses have been routinely ignored. On University Ave business issues, whole categories of businesses have been treated as non-existent/irrelevant. The business license/tax proposals were not designed to accommodate common situations for small business.

Utilizing these stakeholder resources requires providing them with appropriate preparatory materials and time to think about the issues. Also, valuable stakeholders are unlikely to attend meetings were they expect only to be lectured at and ignored.

"Outreach" is not a euphemism for "rallying support". The former requires including all stakeholders in order to improve the proposal, by critiquing the draft and developing options and alternatives. It does not mean working with groups cherry-picked in expectation of their supporting the Staff proposal.

Consultants: Too many outreach meetings are staffed by junior consultants with limited knowledge of local conditions and subject matter expertise much beyond textbooks, such as a range of alternatives and the make-or-break conditions and constraints.

----Priority: Better prioritization----

The previous City Manager (Keene) talked of providing "^white-glove^" (luxury) service for those who came to City Hall. Although your first impression is likely that this is good, how many of the city services that are important for you involve going to City Hall? A major initiative under his predecessor (Benest) was "stream-lining" or fast-tracking the development process. While there were many inefficiencies in the process, one of the "improvements" was to further reduce community input (residents and other property owners).

For issues affecting neighborhoods and the whole city -- traffic, parking, -- staff shortages are routinely cited as a major reason for deferring solutions for year after year after year ... Yet, developers with bad proposals get to jump the line repeatedly. This enables a long-time strategies of developers presenting proposals that are outrageously beyond what is allowed, and then, through a series of "compromises", accept an extravagant package of exceptions in their favor.

By default, residents and resident-serving businesses should receive priority.

----Needs, not vanity----

A major argument for the Strong City Manager form of government is to have a professional manager riding herd on the politicians, to reduce the unjustified programs that do little more than raise the profile of those politicians and/or promoting them to certain special interest groups.

Similarly, he needs to ride herd on the bureaucracy. Bureaucracies typically have laudable official goals, but quickly become focused on self-preservation, self-aggrandizement and growth. This can lead to Staff pushing to older, but still functional, solutions with (expensive) new ones to have what their colleagues and profession regard as "correct" and modern solutions.

Then there are the residents that push to have committees, task forces ... for them to sit on either to indulge their hobby (at City expense) or to ^virtue signal^. Remember, "sitting" is not an accomplishment, and hardly an "activity".

Council meetings are too often cluttered with "nice-to-have" and vanity items that the important agenda items can be robbed of time and pushed late into the evening when Council members are already being hit with mental exhaustion.

----Priority: Meaningful enforcement----

Policies and programs without enforcement are a waste of resources -- time and efforts by Staff, residents and others -- and breed even more cynicism.

Enforcement for proposed policies and programs needs to be designed in, and budgeted for, from the very beginning. Experience from a wide range of disciplines -- such as Computer Security -- has demonstrated the folly of presuming that retrofits will be satisfactory.

1. Training vs Obedience:
A cartoon from my youth:As they were leaving an obedience school, one dog says to the other "What I hate about this place is they never teach you anything you can use in real life."
And a ^The Far Side^ cartoon (Gary Larson) about failure to communicate:One dog introducing himself to another: "My name is 'No No Bad Dog.' What's yours?"

2. Public comments on priorities entered online:
Note: it is past the deadline for you to enter a comment by this form.

3. Orders from above:
Example: In one company, the CEO declared a policy that was lacked credibility and was unpopular.In a meeting lead by several VPs, they said that they themselves would follow the policy but wouldn't be enforcing it.I was amazed that that position was made directly and explicitly -- my interpretation was that those VPs saw maintaining their credibility with "the troops"as their priority.

4. City Hall Communication Problems:
Over the 5+ years of this blog, I have written repeatedly on this.If you are interested in the redundancy, see section "^Public Input^"in the Topics index of my blogs.

5. Non-announcements:
A classic Science Fiction story is 1950's "The Silly Season"by Cyril Kornbluth.The "^Silly Season^"was the doldrums of summer when the news media was filled with silly stories,such as invaders from outer space.The invaders spent years providing a stream of unprovable incidents.When the newspapers and the public got tired of these stories, the invasion was launched.The legitimate reports weren't taken seriously until it was much too late.

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.
A slur is not an argument. Neither are other forms of vilification of other participants.

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


Posted by Anon, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jan 30, 2019 at 4:25 pm

Most of what you have written above is indisputable, but, there is one point I would like to see more discussion on:

"Most residents greatly overestimate the power of City Council and underestimate the power of the City Manager. "

While this is true, it certainly appeared that Keene and the CC majority were usually on the same page most of the time. In fact, I think they believe(d) that he did a great job, and, they said so when he left. And they meant it. And, I think the staff mostly did what Keene and the CC wanted. That's the problem.

We have seen the quality of life in Palo Alto greatly diminished over the last two decades, but, let's face it: quality of life for residents was never -the- top priority, either by the staff, by the City Manager, or by the majority of the CC the majority of the time. Once in a while a slim majority of "residentialists" engaged in rear-guard actions, but, it has always been a temporary respite in an overall retreat.

If the CC really wants to make quality of life for residents a priority, then, the CC needs to set that as city policy, and, find a city manager who implements that policy. The CC -does- have the power to do that, even in a "Strong City Manager" system.

Posted by "government speak", a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Jan 31, 2019 at 12:11 pm

>Too many of the City's announcements have too little information to be worth reading by most residents, and are in a format that doesn't facilitate residents scanning for anything relevant to them. This can lead to residents ignoring these announcements<

City communications are usually in "government speak" which is wordy and full of references to irrelevant documents and meetings which could be in footnotes. The intention is to discourage understanding and response.
Writing clearly is not a city priority. Obfuscation is the priority.

Posted by Harry Merkin, a resident of Ventura,
on Jan 31, 2019 at 9:22 pm

"While this is true, it certainly appeared that Keene and the CC majority were usually on the same page most of the time. In fact, I think they believe(d) that he did a great job, and, they said so when he left. And they meant it."

Like his predecessors in this century, Keene did a masterful job of training his CCs. They sat, heeled, fetched, and barked respectfully as he commanded them, thrilled to bend to the will of the superstar CM du jour who had favored them by accepting the position they had offered with such humble supplication. We shall see how well Shikada learned his craft from the Master.

Our major civic shortcoming in any given era is the particular collection of rubes on the city hall dais. And it will remain so until the electorate wises up and pays attention.

Posted by margaret heath, a resident of Evergreen Park,
on Feb 1, 2019 at 4:56 pm

margaret heath is a registered user.

From my observation over the years, every time the council majority votes to allow the Planning Department staff permission to make "discretionary decisions and waivers" it appears that thereafter every project presented by developers already includes from the outset the "benefits" that come with these supposedly "discretionary" decisions.

Posted by Sunshine, a resident of Barron Park,
on Feb 4, 2019 at 10:04 am

Definitely this is one of your best, Doug.
Definitely the quality of life in Palo Alto has gone down over the years. A few neighborhoods have been protected, even leaving vacant lots without structures while other areas are overbuilt, including many residential neighborhoods.
Business areas have also declined. No one wants to shop in an area populated by exercise places. When I shop the last thing I want to see as I walk along the street is a store front window full of people clad in exercise garb bouncing up and down on some fool machine. Such places belong on a side street somewhere. Bring back the good retail that once lined University and California avenues. Exercise salons, doctors' offices, business offices and chain restaurants belong on secondary streets--easily found but not the focal point of a thriving downtown.
We have more than our fair share of traffic calming measures on main arteries, such as Arastradero, El Camino, Alma.
Children should be encouraged to walk or ride bikes to school. An alternative would be to bring back school busses and insist that any student who is physically able to walk or ride a school bus.
It is very telling that a council member who thought there are no traffic problems lives in Old Palo Alto.

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