Palo Alto Mayor Greg Scharff has just a year as the ceremonial head of the City Council, but in just four months he has made some changes that are rankling some of his colleagues and should also concern members of the public.
Scharff has made clear he wants to use ad hoc committees of council members to focus on specific issues facing the city because he believes some issues are best addressed by a smaller group rather than in full discussion among all nine council members.
As the mayor, he gets to decide on who serves on these committees, and so far the result is the emergence of a sub-group of council members who appear to be gaining more influence than their colleagues over policy matters.
Some on the council, especially those who are left out, are not happy. But Scharff says the committee process is a good way for the council to look more deeply into a subject, formulate a policy and take it back to the full council for a vote. For Scharff, these committees are tools for exploring issues in more detail than would be possible at a council meeting, where nine members may all want to chime in on a topic.
Creation of a committee has been traditionally reserved for the council, but Scharff recently unilaterally created a new committee on Technology and the Connected City and named himself, Larry Klein, Vice Mayor Nancy Shepherd and Liz Kniss as its members.
In addition to that committee, Scharff, Klein and Shepherd also serve on the Infrastructure Committee and served on the Cubberley Policy Advisory Committee. Other committees that serve the city include the Rail Committee, which follows the high-speed rail project and the Regional Housing Mandate Committee, which addresses how the city should respond to the mandates handed down by the Association of Bay Area Government.
There are two permanent council committees, Finance and Policy and Services, which have no overlap among council members. Historically, an occasional ad hoc committee has been formed by the council to track a particular issue, but Scharff is taking this approach to a new level, and one that we think merits careful scrutiny.
One problem is exemplified by the recent scheduling of a closed session for the council to discuss the renewal of the city's lease with the school district for the Cubberley site. Without bringing the matter to the full council for discussion, Scharff scheduled the closed meeting based on his desire and the agreement of the other two committee members, Klein and Shepherd.
When other council members objected, arguing that the community expected and was entitled to a public discussion prior to negotiations commencing, the committee members backed down, the closed session was canceled and a public meeting scheduled for May 13.
But the larger issue is one of public participation and transparency. Issues that are important enough to warrant the formation of a committee of council members must follow a process that bends over backwards to ensure transparency and public input.
While Scharff has indicated his intention that these committees comply with the strict provision of the Brown Act, California's open meeting law that requires both public notice and open meetings, and the opportunity for full public participation, the law doesn't require it and there is no way to enforce it.
Committee actions, while only recommendations to the full City Council, can also have a powerful impact in determining the final outcome on an issue. If these recommendations are being formed by a small group of council members hand picked by the mayor, who also serves on the committee, the opportunity for other council members (and therefore certain segments of the community) to be marginalized is great.
Council committees are not a new mechanism for addressing important issues, but they will only be effective if their membership is not manipulated by the mayor to achieve his or her personal goals, and only if they take their direction from the full City Council. It is not acceptable, for example, for a four-person committee to instruct the staff to modify the timeline for the review of a development proposal, as the Infrastructure Committee did with a proposal for a huge office development next to the AOL building on Page Mill Road at Park Boulevard.
The City Council has a long and largely successful tradition of working through tough issues in highly visible public meetings of the entire nine-person group.
If Scharff prefers another approach, then he should seek the council's approval in advance, and if approved, then seek to ensure diversity and balance to whatever committees are formed. It does not serve the community for any committee to be loaded with like-minded members who will use the committee to pressure other council members to join them.
If Scharff wants to redefine the role of the city's mayor or change long-standing processes, then he should seek consensus, or at least majority approval, of his colleagues. Or change the city charter and establish an elected mayor.
Read the story by Gennady Sheyner about this issue.