Reducing Council Size? Against | A Pragmatist's Take | Douglas Moran | Palo Alto Online |


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By Douglas Moran

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.

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