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By Diana Diamond

Palo Alto needs to prioritize its priorities

Uploaded: Feb 9, 2022

Palo Alto’s new priorities are nice. So very nice. The four the city council decided on for 2922 encompass many of this city’s worries and concerns -- all of which, the city seems to presume, are fixable because they are now “priorities.” Three of them are the same as last year’s. I guess those issues haven’t been solved yet, but it’s difficult to know because no measurements or goals were established, nor were deadlines.

The four official priorities are: A) Economic recovery and transition (cohesive vision for our commercial cores); B) Climate change – protection and adoption; C) Housing for social and economic balance; D) Community health and safety (crime, mental health, air quality, noise, sense of belonging).

D is the new addition. It’s such a basketful of wishes -- something for every problem in the city – like crime and leaf blowers and airplane noise. Are they each a priority, i.e., is air quality a priority in itself?? And what does the city specifically hope to accomplish? The council wasn’t quite sure although members offered many ideas.

And therein lies my problem. Each year the council gives us the city’s list of priorities, but then what. What are the specific objectives and goals of these priorities? Are they spelled out? How do we measure progress – monthly reports? If the city staff is measuring progress, how is it reported to the community?

Simply stated, I want something like a "to do" list. For example, if my priority was "Improve my back yard," I would list: a) trim trees and bushes, b) mow grass, clear leaves, c) buy 48 impatiens 5) buy four new rose bushes for back corner... You get the idea.

What is the goal for mental health, for example – or crime? Is it clearly defined? How does the council know the city has achieved what was wanted? If we don’t have measurements, then we can’t measure success. If the council doesn’t know whether the goal has been achieved, does it simply drop a priority after three years, as has been the case?

Some of the priorities, like climate, are good to put on the list because it acknowledges it is a local problem and well as a national and international one, and that the city will continue to work hard to do its part.
The areas of concern in the newest city priority (“D”) cause me concern, not because they are bad ideas, but they seem so vague, and intentions must be de.

Take airplane noise. Some residents have been upset about that for years, and have met with officials asking for less noise – or different flight paths to SFO or SJC. Flying over the Peninsula portion of the bay has been suggested. But Palo Alto is near two airports, both of which are international terminals, and it’s difficult to figure how all flights—going north and south – can fly over our little Peninsula bay. Will they bump into each other?

What about curtailing the use of gas-powered leaf blowers? Council passed a ban a couple of years ago, but police said they didn’t have the staff to go to those homes where residents have complained about the use of these gas blowers (and they can be noisy). I am guessing that this new priority will mean the city has to find a way to control gas-powered blowers. Yet gardeners like them because the battery ones are too slow, and in order to earn a decent living, they need to work fast so they can care for lots of customers.

Or take the “mental health” and “sense of belonging” goals, intended, I think, to look after the concerns of youth in this town. Are there specific issues here the city can solve? Or is this in there just because it makes us feel like a caring city – at least on paper.

I believe some of these issues can be worked on successfully. But the priorities are too broad to succeed in every area. They must be prioritized. And city leaders must decide what the city should do, create strategies and measurements, and continue to report every six months or so to the council and to a residents, so we know what is being done.