The City Council's closed-session discussion on the future of Cubberley Community Center was abruptly canceled Monday night after members of the community protested that the controversial subject deserves more transparency and public input.
The council was scheduled to meet behind closed doors to discuss the hot-button topic of Cubberley, a 35-acre community center in south Palo Alto. The city currently owns 8 acres at Cubberley and leases the remainder from the Palo Alto Unified School District, an agreement that is set to expire in late 2014. Over the past year, the Palo Alto council has been weighing its options for the well-used but dilapidated center. Last month, a specially appointed Cubberley Community Advisory Committee released a report on Cubberley which advocates a lease renewal, shared use between the city and the school district and space for a third high school.
On Monday, several members of this citizens committee spoke out before the closed session and argued against holding the private meeting. According to the council agenda, the council was to discuss real property negotiations regarding Cubberley and Ventura School.
Jennifer Hetterly, vice chair of the Parks and Recreation Commission and member of the Cubberley committee, told the council that there is "significant concern among residents about not only what will happen there, but about the process we'll follow" to resolve the issue. The council's closed session meeting, she said, "creates an appearance that the council's goals and priorities have already been determined, such that you can provide specific guidance to negotiators."
Diane Reklis, former school board president and member of the Cubberley committee, also counseled officials not to meet behind closed doors. She urged the council to hold a public hearing and give people a chance to understand the committee's report before discussing Cubberley in a closed session.
"There needs to be more openness before you get to the closeness," Reklis said.
Sheri Furman, who also served on the Cubberley committee, called the closed session "premature" and also asked for a public hearing.
The council agreed, with Councilman Larry Klein proposing a public hearing on Cubberley on May 13 and a closed-session discussion on May 20. Klein, who served on the Cubberley Policy Advisory Committee (which included council members and school board members), said he has heard from various members of the community, who urged against the closed session discussion. The council should respect their wishes, Klein said.
Vice Mayor Nancy Shepherd, who also sits on the policy committee, told the Weekly that the closed-session discussion was scheduled because some council members felt they had received enough information about Cubberley in recent months to enable a "substantive discussion" of the issues involved. But she agreed Monday that another public hearing would be beneficial in that it would promote transparency.
While Klein proposed the May 13 public hearing, he also pointed out that the main decisions when it comes to the community center will ultimately be made behind closed doors.
"There may be certain basic points, such as -- Should we have a new lease? -- that might be appropriate for a public discussion," Klein said. "But I think the people will be disappointed quite frankly that a public meeting isn't going to result in what many people would like to see. There isn't going to be a great moment -- at least I don't think there should be -- where a City Council or a school board member lays out a whole menu of things they'd accept in a particular lease."
Klein also noted, in response to Furman, that the city would like to reach a decision on Cubberley by the end of this year, which doesn't leave officials very much time.
"This is a major issue and I think we'd need to get moving on it and not put things off and put things off, which is of course a human tendency, but I don't think we can afford it on this issue," Klein said.
The council supported Klein's proposal with an 8-0 vote (Liz Kniss was absent). Councilwoman Karen Holman sided with the speakers and said that another public hearing would add transparency to the process. But it was Councilman Greg Schmid spoke most forcefully against the closed session, saying that he found the proposed discussion "striking" and tantamount to a broken promise to the community.
"It's critical we have a process that gains the public's trust and confidence," Schmid said. "Finally, I'm a firm believer that an open and transparent process leads government leaders to better decisions and I can see no value added by moving to a closed session."