Espinosa pledges openness, urges civic involvement

Mayor celebrates city's accomplishments, lays out plans for 2011 in his State of the City speech

Palo Alto has much to cheer about in 2011, but challenges that dominated the city's attention last year will remain front and center, Mayor Sid Espinosa told the crowd during his State of the City speech Monday night.

Listen to the speech (Editor's note: Windows users need to save the file in order to listen to it).

Speaking in front of an enthusiastic standing-room-only crowd, with about 50 more watching in an overflow room, Espinosa celebrated the city's recent accomplishments, went over the city's 2011 priorities and urged the crowd at Cubberley Community Center to become involved in civic life.

The annual State of the City speech normally takes place at the City Hall, but the council decided to move it to the Cubberley Community Center Theatre to appeal to the residents of south Palo Alto. The crowd responded by filling the theater and spilling out into the gymnasium to follow the speech on television.

Espinosa's speech was in part a summary of the council's recent accomplishments, in part an explanation of the challenges ahead and in part a celebration of the various volunteer groups and neighborhood leaders who continue to help the city address such priorities as emergency preparedness, environmental sustainability and youth well-being.

Espinosa also discussed the City Council's two other official priorities: city finances and land use and transportation planning. The Great Recession has precipitously reduced the Palo Alto's tax revenues, Espinosa said, and the city is still recovering from its devastating effects.

At the same time, he highlighted the series of actions the council has taken over the past two years to bring the city to solid financial footing, including eliminating 60 positions, outsourcing some programs and adjusting employees' pension and benefits.

"There is no more critical issue facing our city," Espinosa said. "If we do nothing else, this City Council will balance the budget and we will put the city on a path of financial strength, which is a foundation for everything else we want to do."

Though the deficit is projected to be smaller in the next fiscal year than in the previous two, Espinosa pointed to other fiscal challenges on the horizon, including the city's infrastructure backlog, which is estimated at about $500 million.

Espinosa also said the city will continue to ramp up its emergency-preparedness efforts. He said he intends to help local neighborhood associations recruit block captains who would take charge during emergencies. He also said Palo Alto will once again hold a citywide emergency drill -- a sequel to the Quakeville drill the city conducted in 2010.

"We are of course seen as leaders in this area, but the magnitude of problems we're facing could be overwhelming," Espinosa said.

Though his speech was punctuated with jokes and asides, it hit a somber and personal note when Espinosa addressed the subject of teenage suicides. At one point, he talked about a friend of his who last year took his own life.

"The pain and grief of even one suicide is unbearable," Espinosa said. "We feel lost, frustrated, and powerless. We want to help but we don't know how."

The topic took on a sense of urgency over the past two years in Palo Alto after a string of teenage suicides on the Caltrain tracks. The community responded by starting Project Safety Net, a broad program aimed at promoting youth well-being and educating people about suicide prevention.

Espinosa also pledged to make city government more transparent and urged the citizens to hold their leaders accountable.

As mayor, he said he will establish weekly office hours, put out a monthly newsletter and travel around the city to talk to citizens. The city will also ramp up its social networking tools and unveil a new program that makes it easier for citizens to report maintenance issues directly to the departments responsible for the repairs.

"The way in which people receive and process information are fundamentally changing around the world," said Espinosa, who moved to Palo Alto to work for Hewlett Packard and who now works at Microsoft. "We need to adapt and evolve."

He concluded the speech by urging the community to become more involved in civic life by joining one of the city's many neighborhood groups and volunteer organization.

"We want you to be engaged," Espinosa said. "Please leave here with a commitment to be involved."

VIDEO: The full program and speech are online at

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Like this comment
Posted by Scott
a resident of Southgate
on Jan 25, 2011 at 7:04 am

Mayor Espinosa, speaking to an overflow audience of nearly 300, was inclusive and hit good notes.

Among the things that impressed me favorably:

1. The mayor seems to have real ideas of how to energize more citizens of all ages and financial means for community service. There are ample opportunities from non-profits to boards and commissions to preparedness and Project Safety Net.

2. City staff seems committed and enthusiastic. Virtually all the leadership and dozens more were in the audience, none in union T-shirts. A cooperative spirit will be important in times ahead.

3. The infrastructure backlog is being attacked like many other Palo Alto challenges, develop thoughtful plans, then work them.

4. Transparency and inclusiveness will be enhanced with new ways for citizens to communicate with the city, and get prompt feedback. The mayor and participating council members will be available at least weekly at various locations around town other than City Hall.

Dozens of city leaders were there including Gary Fazzino and Jim Baer who each overcame health set-backs last year. All in all, an excellent start on the Palo Alto challenges ahead.

Like this comment
Posted by svatoid
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jan 25, 2011 at 9:22 am

Another year, another mayor and another "more of the same speech". I would like to see our elected councilmembers actually deal with the important issues facing the city--the infrastructure repair backlog, the Stanford hospital remodel, the fate of Alma and Edgewood Plaza etc.
How many mayors will bring up this "civic engagement" issue? Maybe there is too much civic engagement in the city--that may explain nothing ever gets resolved.
And wasn't emergency preparedness the goal of Judy Kleinberg when she was mayor? At least we did not hear much about our "green" agenda.

Like this comment
Posted by You-Get-What-You-Pay-For
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 25, 2011 at 10:39 am

> "The way in which people receive and process information are
> fundamentally changing around the world

So .. did Mayor Espinosa insist that this meeting be streamed live on the Internet? Will it be uploaded to Youtube? If "da Mayor" really believed his own words, he would have made certain that his address to the residents of Palo Alto would have been available through the ubiquitous Internet, both live, and on-demand. Additionally, DVDs of his address should be on-file in the library.

Espinosa talks about "transparency", by holding office hours and "traveling around the community". Has he never heard of e-mail? And with the advent of video-phone services, why would anyone want to drive/walk/hop/skateboard downtown to his "office" when they could have a face-2-face with him on their laptops, or smartphones? Guess Espinoza is good with sound-bytes, but not much with what they mean?

The Mayor talked about people calling in pothole locations and other maintenance issues through their mobile phones. Presumably he was talking about an APP for smartphones, but people can do that now--by calling the Field Services number that is staffed 7/24, and ask them to forward the message to public works. It would help if there were a general purpose number with a menu that would allow people to get to a number of infrastructure services, but maybe that's what Espinosa is talking about. (It might be interesting to ask him if he has ever called in a pothole, or a darkened street light?)

This might be a good "4th of July" speech, but what good is it to address the issues of the city for the coming years? All-in-all, another of a long line of "mayors" that is long on "form", and short on "substance".

Like this comment
Posted by Ronna Devincenzi
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 25, 2011 at 11:26 am

RE: "We want you to be engaged."

After having been engaged in Palo Alto for 20 years, I would caution citizens to be leary of "civic engagement" now, for two reasons:

1) no one on City Council, or in City Hall, could define what it is.
2) when you are engaged in Palo Alto, it puts YOU personally, as a volunteer, in an ideal position to be blamed for the city's lack of transparency, public accountability, and basic common sense; justice will not be served, or truth told, due to politics and elbow-rubbing.

Bottom line: a volunteer is an ideal scapegoat, for an overall leaderless city government. Even internal "Executive Summaries" of situations gone bad will prove disappointing & amusing fiction.

I think Sid means well. But one man does not make a well-run city.
Palo Alto needs a complete overhaul, and from the top, down. Perhaps then, civic engagement might work.

But until then, ask what the city will do for you, because citizens pay through the teeth for it, not what you will do for the city.

Like this comment
Posted by Its not a remodel
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jan 25, 2011 at 11:41 am

When svatoid refers to Stanford's 3.5 BILLION dollar demolition and construction plan as a "remodel" you know he's writing propaganda and public relations.
The developers themselves now call it a "renewal." Cute!
Yes BILLIONS of dollars and it's just a remodel, you know, just like installing a new sink in the kitchen.

Like this comment
Posted by svatoid
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jan 25, 2011 at 11:46 am

"When svatoid refers to Stanford's 3.5 BILLION dollar demolition and construction plan as a "remodel" you know he's writing propaganda and public relations."

Call my comments what you want, Its not a remodel, my point is that it is an issue that has been on the council table for years and needs to be dealt with.Support or opposition of this matter is a topic for another thread.

Like this comment
Posted by Thank you, Mayor.
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jan 25, 2011 at 11:50 am

Mr. Espinoza just stepped into the Mayor's role. Give him a chance to do the job. If you think you can do better, run for office.

I thought he gave a fine speech last night. Mayor Espinoza is strategically focused and extraordinarily productive leader. He has demonstrated this in many other roles. He are lucky to have him.

I'm grateful he has volunteered to take on this mantle of huge responsibility for our community. Many thanks to Mayor Espinoza, Council, and staff. This will be another challenging year, but I know you will do your best to guide us through the challenges in front of us.

Like this comment
Posted by anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 25, 2011 at 12:39 pm

You-get-what-you-pay-for, Sorry to make you sound like a fool but the address was streamed live on the internet, it is available on-demand, and can be watched at the library. Having office does not mean one can not have a video conference call. An app for reporting potholes would mean I don't have to use my minutes to place a call.

I think before you spout rhetoric about a person and a situation you clearly have no information what-so-ever on, you should consider how you are discrediting no one but yourself.

I disagree with Ronna's stance on the issues, but at least she speaks with actual knowledge and isn't spewing non-sense.

Like this comment
Posted by You-Get-What-You-Pay-For
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 25, 2011 at 2:33 pm

> Sorry to make you sound like a fool but
> the address was streamed live on the internet,

> it is available on-demand,

Going to the City's web site, there is no evidence that the session was streamed. The City has failed to develop its own digital technology capability, so this is outsource to the Media Center. In the past there have been links to the page on the Media Center's web site where the video stream could be found. This is not present (today). Moreover, there does not seem to be any video-on-demand of last night's session that is obvious on the Media Center's web-pages.

This brings up a bigger issue--which is the failure of the City to embrace video technology, making these sorts of recordings official documents, and giving them protection under the City's records disposition/retention policy. The City does not see videos as official, at the moment. Nor does the Media Center. It has no obligation to keep these files beyond a contracted period of time (if in fact such a period of time has been agreed to by the Media Center). It also has no obligation to produce these videos under a public information request. (They will sell them, however.)

> and can be watched at the library.

The point being made was that the City should create DVDs and the library should enter them into its catalog. That currently is not happening. And if the files are not available on the Media Center's web-site, no one can watch them .. be they in the library, or at home.
Many, many, people have noted that Palo Alto has no "institutional history". One of the reasons is that the records of City business are hard to come by, and few have been digitized, and indexed, for access from the Internet.

> Having office does not mean one can not have a video
> conference call.

Again true. But given that Espinosa has worked for two of the world's technology giants, and he said: "we need to evolve" .. this was a good time to make this sort of suggestion. (Who wants to put money on whether he is using a video app by the end of his term?)

> An app for reporting potholes would mean I don't have
> to use my minutes to place a call.

If the app is on a 3G smartphone, somebody's minutes are going to be used. If not your's, then whose? As someone who has called in many requests for pothole repair, and for out-of-service street lights, I can attest that it takes about 1-2 minutes to call the Field Services representative, tell him/her your location, and any details that might help the service crews understand the problem, and say: "goodbye". Anyone who is so stingy as not wanting to donate a couple of his/her precious cell phone minutes .. well, then they deserve streets with potholes and no street lights.

Call me a fool if you want, but your points don't hold much water.

Like this comment
Posted by anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 25, 2011 at 5:17 pm

Mayor's video on media center: Web Link

Mayor's video linked from the city website: Web Link

Video cannot be permanent record as the storage medium changes regularly. Records must be kept on actual phyical paper. Not the city's choice - but their duty. Electronic copies of all meeting agendas and minutes, all ordinances and resolutions are available at the city website - where it will be kept inperpetuity, and is thus a permanent record if you wish. But the legal permanent records are kept on paper - a medium that does not change (and yes it is preserved properly and protected from natural disaster).

I'm not sure about the library making a dvd available, what's the point? That's outdated tech. Why? The library is not the keeper of records, that function resides in city hall. The libraries have access to all the information - why does it have to be on that specific format?

Are you willing to donate video conferencing equipment to the City? Because for every one person saying they should do that, ten people will complain if they spend the money on it. They can have phone conferences which should suffice for anyone too lazy to get to city hall.

What's your point about the app for a phone? As the customer I don't want to spend my money placing a call for a pot hole. An app would not spend my money. This is not a difficult equation - it's cutomer service. It takes a real piece of work to complain about easy wins like this one.

Like this comment
Posted by oy!
a resident of Palo Alto Orchards
on Jan 25, 2011 at 5:23 pm

Continued overuse of consultants, senior management incompetence, perks and benefits to a city manager who continues deficit budgets, city council members who forgot they are supposed to represent taxpayers, monthly city hall scandals, .... Wake up Sid!

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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