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By Douglas Moran

Council Priorities 2015: Honesty, Focus, and Listening about Listening

Uploaded: Jan 23, 2015

At the annual retreat to set the top-3 priorities for City Hall, I suggest that Council create two separate sets of priorities, one for Staff and one for themselves, with the latter being the focus here. (Retreat Announcement).

Listening about Listening:
Council after Council after Council has said that they want to improve public outreach, but what we get is just more of the same. The latest version is the "Our Palo Alto" initiative. During the candidate debates, now Council member Cory Wolbach said that he had attended sessions and was disappointed. He later told me that the groups he had been in had produced lots of interesting ideas that didn't make it into the Staff summaries of the meetings. At one session, other members of his group included Council member Pat Burt and then-Planning Commissioner Arthur Keller. So ordinary residents shouldn't feel that it is just them having their inputs ignored.

If there is going to be real improvement, Council is going to have to make concern about the adequacy of the public input an integral part of their hearings, and they need to hold the City Manager accountable for making improvements (Council does not manage Staff directly, but only through the City Manager). If you are interested in the details of these problems, I refer you to extensive writings on this by me and others. (foot#1)

It is routine to hear from City Hall that they are behind on developing crucial policies because of staff shortages. Think of the long-delayed Residential Parking Policy for the University Avenue area. Or of the Comprehensive Plan update. When I was on the Citizens' Advisory Panel for the Housing Element update before the recently completed one, staff shortages were the reason given for the "monthly" meetings happening less than quarterly, and for failures to incorporated input. Yet there never seems to be a shortage of staff time, funding, or Council attention for a myriad of projects that are justified by phrases such as "further bolster the city's position as a leader?" (foot#2)

These projects tend to be highly controversial because of the costs, both individual and cumulative: A few hundred thousand here, a half million there, the occasional couple of million. While there are many like me who see this as vanity, hubris and conspicuous consumption, there also seem to be many residents who believe that Palo Alto should be a "lighthouse", or example, to the nation, if not the world, on a wide range of issues.

The conventional way of handling competing demands for resources is through budgeting. I suggest that Council create a new category in the budget for Leadership so that the many leadership projects are being prioritized against each other, and not overwhelming basic services.

Focus should also be a theme for individual agenda items. Council should emphasize to the City Manager that one of his key responsibilities is that when he brings an issue to Council for decision, the presentation of that issue should facilitate Council being able to focus on making the decision. Currently, competent decision-making in Council hearings is impeded by the mass of clarifications needed and the public comments, both written and oral, supplying important information omitted or misrepresented in the Staff Report.

Underlying much of the contentiousness of various local issues is an increasing belief by many residents that City Hall does not, and will not, deal with them honestly. Start with wasting their time in purported public outreach meetings which have little/no effect on decisions that often seem predetermined. Take Staff Reports that are so badly skewed that they cross the line from being simply biased to being deceptive. Worse are the Staff Reports where the skew and misrepresentations are so transparent that they can be seen as insults?flaunting the ability to get away with not having to have a legitimate case for the recommended decisions. (foot#3)

City Council needs to remember that most of the public views City Hall as a unified entity, and the public badly over-estimates Council's ability to influence individual events.(foot#4) Even those who understand the difficulties view the responses by previous Councils as underwhelming, often to the point of condoning, if not encouraging, dishonest behavior. Council needs to prioritize changing the City Hall culture. Take the redevelopment of 240 Hamilton as an example. The obstructed attic storage space had very recently been converted into accessible space, and was falsely presented as both larger than it was and providing an exemption for parking requirements for the new building (and costs thereof). Was this a case of a (low-level) Staff member failing to check the developer's claims? If so, why? Or was it part of a larger pattern where Staff helps developers find ways around City rules and impact fees? If so, this is a serious management problem and one of corporate culture. If you expect an answer, I will have to disappoint you?because I don't know, because to my knowledge, these questions were not even asked by Council of the City Manager.

I started to write that to often there were no consequences for deception and dishonest behavior, but realized I needed to add the qualifier "negative" to "consequences". Over the years, I have seen too many instances where Councils allowed various parties to profit from (revealed) deceptions and dishonesty because they didn't want to expend the time and effort to "get it right." My suggested priority of "Honesty" has strong interactions with my two other priorities. Without "Focus", there is the strong inclination to continue an unending sequence of "We'll let it slide just one more time." And many of these problems do not suddenly emerge during the hearings before Council, but were revealed, or should have been revealed, in the public outreach meetings and the hearings before commissions and boards.

You shouldn't get a trophy for simply participating:
Over the years, I have heard from newly elected Council members their surprise and aggravation at being told they are expected to praise Staff for their work, regardless of its quality.(foot#5) Council needs to recognize how toxic this practice is. They have a chamber full of residents who have come to speak about problems in the Staff recommendation and deficiencies in the Staff report, yet before they have a chance to speak, Council member after Council member praises the Staff for their "excellent work" on the issue. And then Council can't conceive of why residents would walk away muttering that "The fix is in."

Similarly, you will routinely hear Council members describe a proposed project as "an exciting addition to the city" when speaking from the Council Chamber dais, but refer to it as a "non-starter" in other venues. Charles de Gaulle summed up this situation nicely: "Since a politician never believes what he says, he is surprised when others believe him."

What City Hall Does preempts What Council Says
This is about Council's credibility, and for the City Manager and Staff, a lesser used sense of honest. When newcomers to local politics ask why Staff isn't following official policy, or is actively working to undermine it, they get an explanation of the complex power dynamic between Council and the City Manager and the difficulty of putting together a Council majority willing to act. Historically, when Staff says "Don't wanna!", they often get away with it because Council members have to carefully pick their fights.

On place to start is to monitor the composition of the various forms of citizen advisory panels. For example, Council states that protecting single-family neighborhoods is a priority, but you would never know it from the composition of the advisory panels on housing: They are packed with appointees with varying degrees of hostility to those neighborhoods. Yet past Councils seem to be surprised by what results.

The Duck Test and "Caesar's Wife"
* The Duck Test: If it looks, swims, walks and quacks like a duck, it's (probably) a duck.
* "Caesar's wife must be above suspicion."
In response to various episodes of City Hall misrepresenting facts and providing skewed analyses that would financially benefit favored individuals to the detriment of the city (to the tune of hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars), various commenters have characterized City Hall as "corrupt". Rather than attacking such comments as "uncivil", the proper response of City Hall leadership should be "We shouldn't be putting ourselves in the position of passing the Duck Test."

Your suggestions for priorities?
It is a week to the Council retreat (Saturday January 31). People need to start putting out their ideas so that others can critique and refine them, and so that the better ones can find enough support that Council might consider them. (The email for Council is [email protected]).

---- Footnotes ----
1. A sample of readings related to listening about listening (commenters are encouraged to suggest more):
Improving Palo Alto's Stakeholder Group Process, Guest Opinion by John Guislin, Palo Alto Weekly, 2014-11-09.
Visioning or Potemkin Villages, earlier blog entry here (2014-05-08). A number of the comments have interesting details and perspectives.
Part 2 of Why the City doesn't hear residents' perspectives? It doesn't want to, earlier blog entry here (2013-12-03).
Why not "constructive engagement" with City Hall?, earlier blog entry here (2014-10-23).

2. This particular phrase was used to justify requiring all new single-family homes to have their garages wired for electric vehicles ( Proposed law aims to make new home EV friendly, Palo Alto Weekly, 2013-11-19). The question is not whether such wiring is a good thing, but whether it was worth the City requiring it. At an estimated cost of $500 per house, what builder wouldn't want to advertise his house as "EV-ready"? Or risk having fewer bidders because he couldn't? Or that someone who has paid several million for a house is going to forego buying a Tesla because the addition of wiring would cost a few thousand?
But City Hall doesn't ask these sort of questions because the purpose of these kind of laws is not to promote electric vehicles, but rather to promote their vanity as being a "leader".
Additional consideration: There was a similar law for new hotels ( Palo Alto speeds ahead with new electric-vehicle requirements, Palo Alto Weekly, 2014-07-03) that is a similar example of vanity: Hotels are very competitive and could be expected to respond to the market. There is a hotel at the end of my street that installed chargers (Creekside Inn) and I remember only once seeing either of them being used (I look because I am curious about trends).
One situation where such a requirement could well be justified is for apartments with detached parking: There would be negligible market pressure on the landlord to provide it (minimal vacancy rates), and there could be no practical means for the tenants to provide it themselves.

3. The Maybell rezoning (2013 Measure D) is a case-in-point. For example, part of the justification for underparking the housing for low-income seniors was that there were walk-able facilities nearby, and cited a Walgreens (0.3 miles) for groceries. It also ignored that a significant part of the route to these purportedly walk-able destinations did not have a sidewalk?seniors would either be walking over badly uneven ground, or walking in the travel lane of an often busy street (cars and bikes).

4. Palo Alto has a Strong City Manager form of government. (Aside: For those who want to find more about it, it is also known as Council-Manager Government). Briefly, Council's interactions with Staff are either through, or supervised by, the City Manager who is a rough correlate of a corporate CEO, with the Council being a rough correlate of the Board of Directors. Note that I said "rough" because there are some very significant differences.

5. Required praising of Staff: The rationale for this practice is that it would be inappropriate for a powerful Council member to be criticizing low-level staff members. However, this ignores a crucial fact: When a Staff report goes to Council, it is redesignated a "City Manager's Report", indicating that he now owns it. The cover letter/summary is typically signed by him and one or more higher level managers. This is not a mere formality (rubberstamp): Over the years, I have made suggestions to Staff members about more effective presentation of materials in the draft reports and been told that that was not how the City Manager wanted it.
Consequently, criticism of the report is not being directed at that low-level Staff member, but at the City Manager, who in most situations is more powerful than not just the individual Council members, but the Council itself.

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An abbreviated index by topic and chronologically is available.