Editorial: New committees undermine transparency

Ad hoc council committees may fulfill mayor's wish for more efficiency, but they threaten the public's right to fully participate

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.

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Like this comment
Posted by Neilson Buchanan
a resident of Downtown North
on May 3, 2013 at 11:12 am

Surely there are similar cities who have proven best practices to contain this confusion. If the Council members are divided/frustrated, then what about ordinary citizens who want to be informed, but walk away as the most rational response?

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on May 3, 2013 at 11:13 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

" the law doesn't require it and there is no way to enforce it."

Wrong - such committees DO fall under the Brown Act.

Here is the relevant section of the Brown Act:
"54952. As used in this chapter, "legislative body" means:
(a) The governing body of a local agency or any other local body
created by state or federal statute.
(b) A commission, committee, board, or other body of a local
agency, whether permanent or temporary, decisionmaking or advisory,
created by charter, ordinance, resolution, or formal action of a
legislative body. However, advisory committees, composed solely of
the members of the legislative body that are less than a quorum of
the legislative body are not legislative bodies, except that standing
committees of a legislative body, irrespective of their composition,
which have a continuing subject matter jurisdiction, or a meeting
schedule fixed by charter, ordinance, resolution, or formal action of
a legislative body are legislative bodies for purposes of this

And here is the Attorney General's guidance:

"Any board, commission, committee or other body of a local agency created by charter,
ordinance, resolution or formal action of a legislative body is itself a legislative body.
(§ 54952(b).) Generally, this is the case regardless of whether the body is permanent
or temporary, advisory or decisionmaking. However, there is a specific exemption for
an advisory committee which is comprised solely of less than a quorum of the members
of the legislative body that created the advisory body. (§ 54952(b).) This exception
does not apply if the advisory committee is a standing committee. (§ 54952(b).) A
standing committee is a committee which has continuing jurisdiction over a particular
subject matter (e.g., budget, finance, legislation) or if the committee’s meeting
schedule is fixed by charter, ordinance, resolution or other formal action of the
legislative body that created it."

Like this comment
Posted by senor blogger
a resident of Palo Verde
on May 3, 2013 at 2:39 pm

This is clearly a violation of the Brown Act.

Shame on you.

Should the Grand Jury be involved now?

Like this comment
Posted by Maury
a resident of Barron Park
on May 3, 2013 at 3:02 pm

@Peter and senor blogger
I think you are misreading the Brown Act. You do not state the full text so I will ASSUME that the Act only applies to 'legislative bodies'. If that is so then, according to 54952(b) and the Attorney General's opinion, 'advisory' committees of only 4 members (less than a quorum) of the council are NOT legislative bodies and therefore are specifically exempt.
While it might 'improve efficiency' compared to the usual Palo Alto process, if the meetings are closed to the public, it sets a dangerous precedent for governance.

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on May 3, 2013 at 3:10 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Keep reading ---
", 'advisory' committees of only 4 members (less than a quorum) of the council are NOT legislative bodies and therefore are specifically exempt." EXCEPT that standing

committees of a legislative body, irrespective of their composition,

which have a continuing subject matter jurisdiction, or a meeting

schedule fixed by charter, ordinance, resolution, or formal action of

a legislative body ARE LEGISLATIVE BODIES for purposes of this


The AG gives a pertinent example:
"Advisory committee comprised of two councilmembers for the purpose of
reviewing all issues related to parks and recreation in the city on an ongoing
basis: This committee is a standing committee which is subject to the Act’s
requirements because it has continuing jurisdiction over issues related to parks
and recreation in the city."

PS - I did quote the full text of this section.

Like this comment
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 3, 2013 at 4:23 pm

The Weekly’s editorial suggests that the increased use of subcommittees will reduce the transparency of actions of the City Council, and presumably, the City, itself. Given the general lack of transparency of the City, and the PAUSD, this is a reasonable concern.

Which leads us to wonder if we should not be looking at the larger issue of transparency in general? The City has not adopted any of the transparency “tools” that have come into common use in many large cities—such as publishing the City Manager’s schedule, posting all of the projects that are in the “pipeline” which will be coming before the City Council in the next ninety days, and publishing, in a searchable format, all of the email that has been received by the Council.

Given how virtually everything that the City now exists in a digital format—virtually all of this information should be published on the City’s web-site. Items not now published, or not published in a convenient fashion, would be:

1) All email received by the Council (redacted only if necessary).
2) Telephone call logs of all Department Heads and above.
3) On-site schedule of the Mayor.
4) Schedule of all meetings concerning City Business.
5) Videos of all major meetings—accessible in a downloadable format.
6) All FPPC Form 700s.
7) Lists/Status of all Requests For Information Received by City.
8) Lists/Status of all law suits involving the City.
9) Lists of all votes taken by the City Council, in a convenient to read format.

10) Video processing software exists that can analyze a digital video file, and locate a person by name, make a list of “starting/ending points” where that person is speaking, as well as converting the audio tract to text. There is no reason that we should not expect the City to provide the residents with tools that allow us to review Council sessions at our convenience, obtaining video segments, and text, to help us in understanding the Council’s actions as a whole, as well as those of individual Council Members (or members of the public, for that matter).

11)Storage of all City documents “on the cloud”, in a fully indexed, and searchable format (which is now State law).

These items are but a few of those that I suspect that folks in this community would agree need to be made available to the residents. I also suspect that any number of us could quickly augment this list with dozens of other, equally, or more interesting, ideas.

I suspect that we would need to rethink the Brown Act, in light of having all of these technological innovations at our disposal. For instance—I have a problem with a premise that Council Members can not discuss issues among themselves, outside of a fully public meeting. Given that there is now video conferencing software that works well, it would make sense for Council Members to want to video chat with themselves. However, it would not take long for such an activity to collide with the Brown Act, I suspect. So—do we let this bit of 1950s legislation stand in the way of technological advancement, or do we rethink Brown—with an eye to allowing elected officials to communicate with each other in ways that have been illegal in the past?

There are so many issues here. Some of these posting tend to be longer than some folks might like to read—but Palo Alto is way behind in dealing with most of these issues, and so long postings result.

Like this comment
Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on May 3, 2013 at 8:14 pm


No worries, we have a "crack" team of council members - Scharf, Price & Klein on the technology committee, and they will make sure nothing happens.

And you missed this article, where Keene won an award for Open governement - Web Link - since he won an award - what are you complaining about?

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

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