Seeking to bring more transparency to Palo Alto's development process, a City Council committee is calling for an end to last-minute changes to development applications and private meetings between council members and applicants with projects in the pipeline.
The council's four-member Policy and Services Committee unanimously recommended on Tuesday night changing the council policies to "discourage" members from privately meeting developers whose applications are undergoing reviews by the city's Architectural Review Board or Planning and Transportation Commission.
The policy was prompted by concerns from council members, commissioners and neighborhood leaders that developers are short-circuiting the city's process by ignoring the commissioners' recommendations, and lobbying council members directly.
"The problem being addressed by this policy is a perception that there's backroom dealing, or there's a bias on the part of council members who have these exchanges," Interim City Attorney Don Larkin said Tuesday.
Land-use watchdogs Tom Jordan and Bob Moss and College Terrace resident Fred Balin all urged the committee to support the changes.
Moss pointed to last year's example of Alma Plaza, John McNellis' mixed-use development. The developer, he said, submitted changes to the application just before the City Council meeting, make it impossible for city officials and members of the public to review the changes.
"Staff had no chance to look at it. The community had no chance to look at it. It's not a way to do business," Moss said.
If the full council approves the committee's recommendation, developers will be required to submit all materials no later than five days before the release of the council packet. The packets, which include staff reports for the council's Monday meetings, typically get released on the Wednesdays before the meeting.
While no one opposed the new deadlines, former Mayor Jean McCown urged the council to not discourage the ex parte meetings. McCown said the council should be "encouraging communication with the public and citizens, not discouraging them."
The policy change would send the wrong message to the community, she said.
"The implication of it to me is that the City Council can't be trusted to gather information or talk to people and hear opinions about the projects other than in public settings," McCown said. "That's a very negative message to send."
But the committee decided to back the changes, with Councilwoman Karen Holman saying they will "provide good process, transparency and fairness for all parties." Her committee colleagues, Yiaway Yeh, Nancy Shepherd and Gail Price, agreed.
The full council is scheduled to consider the committee's recommendations early next year.