Something seems a bit askew at Palo Alto City Hall. What I sense is an escalating laissez-faire attitude, like “We’ll do it when we get to it.” The sense of urgency is gone, the art of delay is now in style..
I am tired of complaining to seemingly deaf city officials’ ears about how long it takes to get things done in town. My lengthy list of yore is still the same:
• Long ago the council approved installing digital parking space counters at the Bryant and High Street garages. Nothing has happened during the past two decades.
• A month ago, I heard about ideas for renovating the old Cubberley High School site at Middlefield Road near Charleston Avenue, owned by Palo Alto High School District and the City of PA. Heavens to Betsy, 20 years ago this was a hot topic – there were plans galore afloat; joint school board and city council meetings; community gatherings and discussions; architectural drawings -- but nothing happened. Now it’s a “new” topic once again in 2023.
• Remember the settlement Palo Alto resident Miriam Green finally got in a court case she filed in 2016 claiming residents were paying an illegal tax because the city was transferring electric and gas funds collected from utility bills to the general fund? Illegal because this was a “tax” that had never been approved by voters. The judge agreed the gas transfers were illegal and ordered the city in to pay back to the users the $12 million already collected.
Since then, there have been a series of lawsuits the city has filed for further clarifications on the distribution of the money. The result: Well, I haven’t gotten a cent yet – have you? I submit that the city has been collecting interest on all those millions they owe us. Seems like delays can profit the city.
• When Palo Alto had several electric outages during recent summers, the problem, in part, was lack of sufficient transformer capacity and lines to bear the load of increased customer demands.
When I asked at that time about progress on this issue, I was told by Utilities Communications Manager Catherine Elvert, that “We’re studying what can be done.” I called this week, a couple of years later, and this time Elvert told me that a report was recently sent to the city’s Utilities Advisory Commission for study and comment but their August meeting had been canceled for lack of a quorum, and has been resubmitted to the UAC for September comment. It’s “an ongoing study,” she added, Cost estimates have not been finalized. But I know these transmission lines are important, because if they don’t have more capacity, and as the need for electricity increases, we’re in big trouble. Ironically, the city continues to push residents to convert to all-electric, while the state wants us all to have electric vehicles. These delays in updating transformer stations and lines continues to amaze me.
• The Embarcadero Road-El Camino intersection has had consistent traffic increases ever since Trader Joe’s opened in 2009. The city’s then traffic director, Jaime Rodriguez, worked on it, announcing it was complicated -- and nothing happened. He left the city and then got hired as a consultant to fix that intersection at a $$$ contract, but still nothing happened. The traffic continues to be congested during morning commute hours, noon and mid-afternoon, i.e., most of the time. Coordinating the two traffic signals on Embarcadero would be a practical start – but that has not happened yet either.
• Midtown Shopping Center has had no official city interest in improving this neglected dilapidating area for years. A lot of people care about improving Midtown -- please, please, city council, do something about this.
• For months, actually years, I have heard complaints from residents, builders and developers about how long it takes to obtain a permit(s) from the city for renovations, adding additions, or building something new. Ten years or so they worked on streamlining the costly permit system, but I still hear the same complaints about very long delays.
This only part of my list of delays in town, and I am sure you, dear reader, have more.
So, what is the solution to lessen the delays? First, it is probably just the culture at city hall – the often-repeated phrases: “We’re studying it,” “We’re looking into it,” “We’ll get a report out soon,” We’re doing the best we can,” “It’s almost done” are the refrains I hear.
Some city council members have told me they tried to set staff deadlines, but that doesn’t seem to work. But, in my opinion, they not only have to try, but insist, and perhaps even threaten that they will put any delays in personnel reports. Or put them “on warning” or something like that.
Second, there should be some reward system for employees who work hard and get things done. So far that doesn’t seem to exist. Salary raises are usually across the board, and there are few, if any merit increases. Without any reward, employees may ask themselves, why hurry to get things done?
Let’s use lots of carrots here, but also some sticks to impel city staff to work hard.
Along those lines, City Manager Ed Shikada, with nearly a dozen assistants, seems to love hiring consultants, at steep rates, to solve the city’s big and little problems. Someday soon, I will find out how much we have paid consultants each year.
I believe city council members have to become more adamant that things get done quickly. Ask for quarterly updates, be demanding, and praise good results. Remember council, the city manager reports to you – and not the reverse.
Finally, I want to urge council and staff to come up with new ideas for improving the city. Should the city try to beautify the shopping centers and downtown by planting more? Add little tree lights to neighborhood shopping centers to make them sparkle more?
In fact, repair and renovate declining areas, particularly in the business districts and shopping areas, to make the whole town sparkle more.
I like that – “Palo Alto, the city that sparkles.”