Will the Great Recession usher in an Era of Engagement?

Palo Alto officials see citizen participation as key to city's success in the coming decade

The national economy is sluggish, the state government is sclerotic and counties are pinching pennies, but Palo Alto's future will be warm, sunny and increasingly democratic.

That, at least, is the prognosis of City Manager James Keene, who gazed into his crystal ball at Ming's Restaurant Tuesday afternoon to talk about what the city will look like in the next 10 years. Things are looking bright, he concluded.

By his forecast, Palo Alto residents will have more power in the coming years than ever before to shape their own, and the city's, destiny.

To be sure, there will be some challenges, including Caltrain's ongoing financial struggles and the city's crumbling infrastructure, but Keene said residents have much to look forward to, including a new hospital, rebuilt libraries and major transportation improvements.

The key to success, Keene said, will be civic engagement. He predicted that with national and state governments mired in partisan battles and budgetary woes, local governments are emerging as the people's greatest hope. In that sense, increased citizen participation locally could be one of the upsides of the nationwide gloom, he said.

"If there's any hope and focus for us, it's got to be at the local level, in our ability to come together and make decisions," Keene told a group of attorneys and businesspeople at the luncheon, which was sponsored by the local chapter of the American Bar Association and the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce. "We're going very much to an era of city-states in many ways."

As a charter city, Palo Alto is less beholden than many of its neighbors to state regulations and has more independence to experiment and innovate with local policy, he said. Residents have the power to change the City Charter and, in that sense, the power to alter the city's future.

"In a lot of ways, we're chartered to create the kind of city we want to have as citizens," Keene said. "In many respects, our destiny is definitely in our hands, even though we're buffeted by lots of economic, social and political forces from afar.

"I'd say for the most part we're in real good shape in comparison with most places."

The nationwide economic downturn has made Palo Alto's status as a charter city more important because of all the changes in the air. Palo Alto's revenues have slumped, prompting officials to re-evaluate services the city offers and its commitments to employees -- a process that has resulted in a shrinking City Hall bureaucracy and consideration of radical new ways to raise funds.

At the Tuesday luncheon, Keene emphasized the importance of change and cited several authors who shaped his thinking about the subject. There's researcher Jim Collins, who claimed that "good is the enemy of great"; scientist Peter Senge, who argued that "success is the enemy" when it comes to innovation because what made an organization successful won't necessarily prepare it for where it needs to go; and Thomas Friedman, the jet-happy pundit who has written extensively about America's governance problem, which he sees as the nation's biggest obstacle in battling global warming and other major challenges.

Perhaps the most surprising influence is G.W.F. Hegel, the 19th-century German philosopher and theologian best known for his insights into human consciousness and development of the "dialectics" technique for reconciling disparate political thoughts.

"He said we won't know if the American democratic experiment has worked until the Americans have expanded out enough that they're compelled to fall back in upon each other -- and then we'll see," Keene said. "That's exactly where we are right now."

Palo Alto officials have been talking for years about ways to get residents energized about local government. In 2008, the City Council adopted "civic engagement" as one of its top priorities for the year. The following year, they changed it to "civic engagement for the common good." In 2010, they scrapped this priority in favor of more easily defined objectives.

But the phrase still crops up every now and then. In his State of the City speech in January, Mayor Sid Espinosa talked about the need to reach out to the city's increasingly Asian and aging population. The council had agreed to move that event from City Hall to Cubberley Community Center to accommodate south Palo Alto, the section of the city with the greatest share of new residents. Earlier this month, dozens of residents from all parts of town attended a council meeting that began with a bike ride along the city's present and future bike boulevards.

Espinosa said at the luncheon that one of the city's most critical objectives in the coming years is getting its growing population of retiring Baby Boomers more involved in local policymaking. Palo Alto, he said, has many people who "don't fancy themselves anywhere near retirement age, but they are."

"Many of them have an incredible capacity and financial capacity as well," Espinosa said. "Shame on us if we don't figure out how to actively engage with these folks who want to not just golf but engage in their community in the coming decade."

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