If an out-of-towner had to guess which American city had spent the past year squabbling with labor unions, battling a project aimed at reducing traffic congestion and pondering whether to build a waste plant in a nature preserve, Palo Alto probably wouldn't be the first name on the list.
The city prides itself, after all, on its progressive views toward labor, its devotion to public transportation and its support for all things green. Its politics are overwhelmingly Democratic; its traffic problems are evident; and its dedication to open space is well-documented.
But, as city officials are quick to acknowledge, 2011 was no ordinary year in Palo Alto. It was the year of hyperbole: the year in which the City Council approved the "largest" development in the city's history -- the colossal expansion of Stanford University Medical Center -- and took its strongest stance yet against the biggest infrastructure project in California, a $98.5 billion high-speed-rail system between San Francisco and Los Angeles. It was the year in which the city finally calmed the "most dangerous" intersection at El Camino Real and Stanford Avenue and renewed its efforts to overtake Portland, Ore., and become top bicycling community in the nation.
For those who like half-measures and hedged bets, Palo Alto was not the place to be in 2011.
City residents saw more than their fair share of festivities and snipped ribbons in 2011 as Palo Alto opened its freshly renovated Downtown Library, installed charging stations at local garages, made major progress on the new Mitchell Park Library and Community Center, refurbished Greer Park and installed a new restroom at Seale Park (a ceremony that Mayor Sid Espinosa marked with a "first flush").
But the council's most significant and difficult accomplishment of the year -- bringing the city's finances in order -- featured little pomp and much intense debate.
Palo Alto began the year in the midst of recovering from the national economic collapse of 2008. In 2009 and 2010, the city trimmed its staff by about 10 percent, privatized maintenance of local parks and imposed a new contract on its largest employee union, the Service Employees International Union, Local 521.
Having already trimmed SEIU's benefits, the council in 2011 took aim at the city's police and firefighter unions, to bring employee costs under control. In September, after 18 months of heated negotiations, the city and the firefighters union signed a three-year agreement that eliminates the "minimum staffing" provision in the firefighters contract -- a longstanding provision that required at least 29 firefighters to be on duty at all times.
At the same time as it was negotiating with the union, the council was targeting another labor-union sacred cow -- a clause in the City Charter that requires disputes between the city and its public-safety unions to go to binding arbitration. Councilman Greg Scharff and Councilwoman Karen Holman had been calling for repeal of the provision for more than a year, but their proposal fizzled in 2010 by a 5-4 vote.
When the proposal resurfaced again this, the council was deeply split over whether the provision should be merely modified or scrapped altogether. Holman and Scharff persistently argued that the provision is undemocratic because it allows a panel of unelected arbitrators to make decisions that profoundly affect the city budget.
"This isn't an issue of unions; it's an issue of accountability," Holman said at a June 20 meeting.
The following month, the council voted 5-4, with Vice Mayor Yiaway Yeh providing the crucial and surprising swing vote, to bring a repeal of binding arbitration to the voters on Election Day. On Nov. 8, residents spoke loudly and clearly, with nearly two-thirds voting to scrap binding arbitration.
The repeal of Article V gives the council more flexibility when it comes to curtailing costs in the police and fire departments. It also dealt a heavy blow to the firefighters union. In the lead-up to the November election, union officials compared Palo Alto to Wisconsin, where a Republican governor led a drive to strip workers of their collective-bargaining rights.
"Unfortunately, it's the mood of the country," Tony Spitaleri, president of International Firefighters Association, Local 1319, said on Nov. 8 as early results from Election Day showed the repeal passing by a nearly two-to-one margin.
The prolonged squabble over binding arbitration was neither the most complex nor the most passionate public debate in Palo Alto this year, however. The environmental war over the future of composting in Palo Alto claims that prize in a landslide.
The dispute was prompted by the closure of the city's landfill in the Baylands, and it centered on one question: Should Palo Alto consider building a waste-to-energy plant on dedicated parkland in the Baylands?
The feud had been brewing for more than two years but reached fever pitch when a coalition of environmentalists favoring construction of a new anaerobic digester gathered enough signatures to place the "undedication" of 10 acres of parkland on the November ballot. They faced off against another group of conservationists, led by former council members Emily Renzel and Enid Pearson, who argued that an industrial waste facility does not belong in a public park.
Both sides came out in full force at a March 21 City Council meeting, bringing more than 100 people to passionately debate topics such as carbon adders, contingency costs and the price of exporting compostable waste to Gilroy.
Former Mayor Peter Drekmeier, who led the effort to keep composting local, told the council the proposed plant would save Palo Alto millions of dollars in the long term while helping it meet its ambitious climate-protection goals. Renzel disputed his numbers and urged the council to think regionally.
"It makes no sense for every small city to make massive capital improvements rather than recognizing economies of scale regionally," Renzel said at the meeting.
Voters in November supported Measure E, the undedication of a 10-acre parcel in Byxbee Park, but the debate will extend into 2012 and possibly beyond after Measure E opponents filed a lawsuit in December.
The vote does not guarantee that a composting plant will be built, but Drekemeir and his camp hailed the passage of Measure E as a major step toward that goal.
"I think we will look back on this as the most important phase in this process," Drekmeier told the Weekly on Election Day.
When it came to other high-stakes issues, the council placed a strong bet against the California High-Speed Rail Authority this year. At its final meeting of the year, the council took its strongest position to date against the $98.5 billion rail line when it agreed to add to the city's guiding principles a provision calling for the termination of the project. Councilwoman Nancy Shepherd and Councilman Pat Burt, who jointly drafted the language, both stated that the project in its current form looks nothing like the one that the voters and the council supported in 2008.
Major issues aside, average Palo Alto residents were generally satisfied with life in their city in 2011.
At the Dec. 19 meeting of the council, City Manager James Keene pointed to the 2011 National Citizens Survey, which showed that 83 percent of the residents surveyed rated the services Palo Alto provides as "good" or "excellent" -- far above benchmarks jurisdictions and topping last year's total by 2 percent.
The percentage of responders who rated the city's overall image as "good" or "excellent" nudged up from 90 percent in 2010 to 92 percent this year while the percentage who said they're getting "good" or "excellent" service when compared to taxes paid moved up from 62 percent to 66 percent.
So when Keene declared at the onset of his year-end wrap up that 2011 was "another good year for Palo Alto," no one at the meeting dissented. Mayor Sid Espinosa, in his final full meeting as chair, seconded Keene's verdict and lauded the work of the council and staff in meeting the city's 2011 goals.
"I think at the beginning of the year we set a very aggressive agenda, and we accomplished even more than that," Espinosa said.
When the year 2012 kicks off, the city will have a new city auditor and a new chief technology officer (the latter two positions didn't exist at the start of 2011). While in the previous two years the council was busy slashing positions, this year it added six positions to the Development Center and created a new Office of Emergency Services, which will be overseen by veteran police officer Ken Dueker.
Espinosa said that he attended a meeting at the White House in early December with a small group of mayors from other cities. Others talked about foreclosures, high unemployment, crime trends and businesses getting shuttered. Palo Alto, by these standards, seems to be doing pretty well. Its downtown vacancy rate is a minuscule 3.8 percent, and city officials are projecting increases in sales- and hotel-tax revenues. The days of 2009, when Keene's budget presentation featured the title, "Hard Times. Tough Choices," now seem increasingly distant.
Espinosa said the mayors at the White House meeting earlier this month were "floored" by Palo Alto's priorities and accomplishments in 2011.
"We're continuing to be looked at as a beacon, a lighthouse really, for where their communities should be going," Espinosa said.