Palo Alto to weigh smaller City Council

Three council members say it's time to consider fewer seats, more years of service

When the Palo Alto City Council meets for its regular meeting on Monday night, it will find itself grappling with a question with existential overtones: Is a nine-member council really necessary?

The question is one of two being served up in a colleagues memo by Vice Mayor Nancy Shepherd and councilwomen Liz Kniss and Gail Price. In the memo, which was released Wednesday afternoon, the three propose both shrinking the council to seven seats and extending the limit of council service from two to three consecutive terms.

The idea of reducing the number of seats on the council is hardly new, though it's been a long time since the council has considered the issue. Rather, it's popped up periodically at candidate forums during the election season, only to quickly die down once the new council is sworn in.

Shepherd, Kniss and Price are hoping to change that. The memo recommends that the council direct the Office of City Attorney to draft a measure for the November 2013 ballot that would reduce the number of open council seats from five to three in the 2018 election.

The memo notes that other cities of Palo Alto's population (about 65,000) have smaller councils. Menlo Park, for example, has a council of five. Mountain View's has seven members.

"The size of the Palo Alto City Council body of nine members is unusual for municipal

government for a city of our population," the memo states. "Although reduced in 1971 from 15 to nine members, we believe that council should discuss the merits of reducing the body of government further from nine to seven members. It is typical for municipalities to have a smaller council."

Shepherd, who was elected to the council in 2009, told the Weekly in an interview Wednesday that the idea of reducing the size of the council has been floating around for so many years that she felt it time for the council to have a "substantive discussion" on the topic. Having a nine-member council, she said, requires a lot of work by staff. It means longer meetings, more comments and more questions for staff to answer.

"We should consider what the benefit might be to reduce it and whether the benefits outweigh the fact that having a nine-member council means we can spread out and serve in all the different liaison roles (with local commissions)," Shepherd said.

Because a smaller council would mean more work for each member, the three council members propose increasing the council stipend by $600. This suggestion would be taken up by the council's Finance Committee if the council and the voters were to decide to move forward with the change.

At the same time, Shepherd said she feels strongly that the city should consider extending the term limit for council members from two to three, a change that Santa Clara County voters recently undertook with respect to the county's Board of Supervisors. Palo Alto council members have been restricted to two four-year terms since 1992.

More consecutive years on the council, Shepherd said, would enhance the ability of Palo Alto's elected leaders to represent the city on various regional boards, including ones dealing with public transit, housing mandates, the rail corridor and utility regulations.

"To effectively represent Palo Alto's interests, the city's representatives need time to gain expertise and build seniority on these bodies," the memo states. "Term limits interrupt this process. Under the current charter, members can sit out an election cycle and re-run for two more terms, but we consider this disruptive and not in the city's interest. We think Palo Alto will be better served by extending consecutive terms."

The city, Shepherd said, is currently facing many "external forces," including a housing mandate from the Association of Bay Area Governments, a controversial high-speed rail system planned for the Caltrain corridor and various issues relating to transportation and utilities. Longer terms would make it easier for city leaders to represent Palo Alto on these regional issues.

"If we do make seniority (on the regional boards) that would be fantastic because we can then be representing Palo Alto's interests on a greater level," Shepherd said.


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Posted by Douglas Moran
a resident of Barron Park
on May 30, 2013 at 2:59 am

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

Documents from earlier iterations of this issue: Web Link

I was involved in the aborted discussions in 2005, but also saved in those web pages the documents I got from the 1994 consideration.

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Posted by Sick of 'em all
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 30, 2013 at 7:26 am

Personally I think the city council should shrink to six. The fewer the number, the less contentious they are likely to be. They are too many in number now, and as we are a small town, we do not need so many council members. The more members there are, the more likely they are to disagree with each other. As it is, they make the meetings far too long in duration.

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Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on May 30, 2013 at 7:51 am

> More consecutive years on the council, Shepherd said, would
> enhance the ability of Palo Alto's elected leaders to represent
> the city on various regional boards, including ones dealing
> with public transit, housing mandates, the rail corridor and
> utility regulations.

The last downsizing of the Council came as a result of a Council Recall in 1967 (if memory serves)—which downsized the Council from fifteen members to the current nine by 1974, or so. From reading the papers of the time, it seems that the behavior of the Council was close to that of a circus, as well as the Council probably in the pocket of the property developers.

As to Council Members “representing” the City on regional boards, most of the Council members do not report back to the residents about the issues before these boards, and certainly do not provide us with how they have voted on the various issues before these boards. The performance of our Council Members on these boards certainly never comes up as topics for discussion during election cycles. In short—we (the residents), have no idea what our locally-elected representatives are saying, or doing, when they are “representing” the City. Government transparency is an increasingly worrisome issue—and authorizing three consecutive terms for Council Members would tend to decrease transparency, not increase it. (Downsizing El Camino Real is one of those issues that seems to have emerged from the VTA—supported, it would seem, by Council Member Nancy Sheppard. Anyone remember her campaigning to reduce the flow capacity of our major highways and byways?)

The reasoning for the three authors of this Colleague’s memo is not compelling. In the past, folks have complained about too much influence from the North-of-Oregon part of town on the Council. Suggestions that candidates should represent sections of town have been rebutted by the argument that Palo Alto’s “sections” are too small to provide “qualified” candidates--leaving us with the current system of “at large” candidates. South Palo Alto usually manages to see one, or two, of its residents elected to the Council. Reducing the number of seats sets the stage for reduced representation for the South end of town.

This issue has also been intermingled with the question of whether Palo Alto should have an “elected” Mayor that serves for 2-4 years, or continue with the “selected” Mayor—having a “Strong City Manager” form of government running the City without any direct control by the elected Council, or an elected Mayor. Again, the argument about Palo Alto being too small to provide a qualified pool of candidates to be a full-time Mayor with strong managerial powers has prevailed.

Suggestions about a smaller Council requiring more work begs the question of whether the Council should have one (or more) full-time aides. Time-and-again, Staff has complained about the work Council has imposed on them. Aides reporting to the Council would help to reduce some of the work loads imposed on Staff, while at the same time providing the Council (and the public) with information/data that might not be biased by Staff, which certainly seems to be the case, from time-to-time.

If the Council is downsized—there needs to be better reasons than those reflected in this article. The County of Santa Clara has five supervisors, and is probably the largest employer in the country, with a budget in the billions. So, why does the City of Palo Alto need seven (7) Council Members, when most City governments in the area do fine with five (5)?

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 30, 2013 at 8:05 am

Good idea. After all the last election didn't produce a dearth of candidates, to reduce the quantity to quality makes sense when we don't get much choice.

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Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 30, 2013 at 8:55 am

Yes - a smaller council is what Palo Alto should have.

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Posted by Council Watcher
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on May 30, 2013 at 8:56 am

Good idea and about time. I'm for quality over quantity any day. Seven members is just right, it will reduce time spent on agenda items because so many issues require all members to speak on them and seven members is enough.

As for serving on sub-committees, 7 can manage those assignments.

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Posted by A real change
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 30, 2013 at 11:13 am

Six councilmembers would lead to tie votes, so you need an odd number UNLESS there is an elected mayor.

There are three main regions in Palo Alto: north, south, and west. But most councilmembers come from the north, leaving the south and west under-represented and under-served.

How about three districts: north, south, and west, with each district electing one councilmember every two years, plus a mayor elected every two or four years.

Then we would have real representation in the various areas of the city, and the elected mayor would be a counter-balance against an often staff-led process.

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Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on May 30, 2013 at 11:28 am

> Six councilmembers would lead to tie votes, so you need an
> odd number UNLESS there is an elected mayor.

Check the Charter. The City Manager can vote when the Council tie-votes (if memory serves), and there is currently no provision for an elected Mayor in the Charter.

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Posted by Debbie Mytels
a resident of Midtown
on May 30, 2013 at 1:21 pm

While I agree that a smaller council would probably create more efficiency, the idea of allowing for an additional term is not a good idea. This would further reduce the number of people who could participate in leadership roles, since many might choose to stay on the council for the full 12 years (3 terms). Eight years is plenty of time to develop the expertise needed to be an effective advocate for Palo Alto's needs on the various regional boards.

Both of these proposed changes would tend to reduce the opportunity to engage new voices and fresh minds in our community's leadership, and we should not enact both changes at the same time.

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Posted by Can We...
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 30, 2013 at 1:41 pm

Can we un-elect Pat Burt? Before he does too much more damage?

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Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on May 30, 2013 at 2:10 pm

YES to reducing the Council size. Frankly I'd like to see the number drop to 5. NO NO NO to extending the terms. I sure hope there's something in the charter that prevents that.

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Posted by architect
a resident of Downtown North
on May 30, 2013 at 2:12 pm

agreed. smaller city council would be more ideal.

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Posted by Lorin Krogh
a resident of Downtown North
on May 30, 2013 at 2:53 pm

Palo Alto deserves an elected mayor and a smaller council which serves only 8 years instead of a possible 12. The city manager is not an elected official and usually serves what is deemed the best interests for the City of Palo Alto, often bypassing the voting public's interests.

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Posted by No term increases
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on May 31, 2013 at 12:03 am

Decreasing the size: fine. 3 consecutive terms: no thanks. Given local politics, it's hard to lose a re-election campaign. The downside of having someone awful in perpetuity is too high. Just look at the school board. Not only do we have Camille Townsend for 13 years (maybe more), but Dana Tom and Barb Mitchell could decide to stick around.
I'm not surprised that Shepherd thinks this is a good idea, Gail Price I'm a little more puzzled by.

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Posted by Arnie
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on May 31, 2013 at 10:16 am

Downsizing the city council from 9 to 7 members makes NO SENSE given the prime reason stated by the sponsoring council members - that of added more seniority on regional committees would better represent Palo Alto.

Seniority has NO connection to reducing council size. None. Size reduction only gives Palo Alto residents fewer representatives making decisions about our lives. And fewer overworked (according to them) council members would be spread even thinner to attend the very committees cited as justifying a term limit increase. There is nothing in this for residents, but much for most council members in consolidating their power and holding it longer.

Remember all those times that Stanford issues were before the council and as many as 3 or 4 members had to recuse themselves due to a legal conflict from all discussion and voting, leaving a bare 5 or 6 members able to make sometimes major decisions? In this town? What would we have done if we only had 7 members? Stanford issues are frequent and justify having 9 members to cover the conflict bases when necessary.

Fewer council members give residents no advantage but only consolidates power in fewer hands for a longer time. I want greater, not less representation, 9 not 7 members give more chances to have at least some people that reflect the voter's view on issues. And I want the current 2 term limit to remain so we can get new thinking on the council. 12 years is too long.

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Posted by Anon
a resident of Downtown North
on May 31, 2013 at 10:51 am


You made a great argument. I was on the other side, thinking smaller is better, but you make some really really valid arguments. I think I agree with you. Thanks for your thoughtful and well spoken comments.

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Posted by Hilary
a resident of St. Claire Gardens
on May 31, 2013 at 11:03 am

A simple rule of meetings applies here. . . the more people involved the longer the meeting (and greater the paralysis).

Most peninsula cities have 5 on Council, 7 for PA would be fine. The current 9 just bogs things down and wastes Staff time. Three year term makes sense too, as it takes a year for a new council member to learn the ropes.

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Posted by Here's an idea.
a resident of South of Midtown
on May 31, 2013 at 11:06 am

Actually, it would be far more useful to make sure that all areas of the city are fairly represented.

Presently, 7 of 9 Council Members live NORTH of Oregon Expressway. 6 of those live in what the school district describes as the "north cluster", which includes only about a quarter of the city. It would be nice to have four districts with an more even distribution of Council representation.

Council representation has been weighted toward the north for most of Palo Alto's history. It's hard for south PA candidates to compete with the north cluster affluence during election cycles. Creating districts would give south PA candidates a better chance to be elected.

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Posted by Douglas Moran
a resident of Barron Park
on May 31, 2013 at 4:29 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

On the creation of districts:
Districts would reduce the cost of reaching voters and _help_ people outside the current political elite get elected. However, it also makes it easier for members of that elite and outside special interests to overwhelm a local "insurgency".

In various cities, election by district has had the undesirable effect of having that Council member be treated as the mini-mayor for that district with undue deference being granted by other Council members.

And a district can suffer when its Council member is not part of the dominant coalition on the Council -- That coalition deprive that district of its fair-share of resources as punishment or as a maneuver to "encourage" those voters to oust that Council member.

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Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 31, 2013 at 4:43 pm

I would like to see actual data that supports the above claim that the north vs south issue is a money thing vs available and electable candidates. Not saying you're wrong, just want some data instead of subjective opinions.

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Posted by What's the story
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 1, 2013 at 11:14 am

So what are the city's council members doing on the regional boards? Do they ever tell us? Nancy, Liz, Gail--care to step up and tell us?
Sounds like this term limits thing is just a way for the council members to make their jobs permanent. These council members are always gaming the system to achieve their goals (move the election year, get rid of term limits).
I guess when your high flying political career has hit a brick wall, you want to make sure you can be on the council for years on end.

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Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jun 2, 2013 at 9:38 am

> North Palo Alto vs South Palo Alto Council Representation—Is It A Money Thing?

Anyone who has lived in this town for any length of time comes to realize that North Palo Alto has far more representation on the City Council than the Southern neighborhoods do. Attempts to understand this issue often are shouted down by proponents of the status quo, without there ever being much discussion leading to shared understanding of why the candidates that are elected get elected.

Money is always a part of getting people elected—so where is this money coming from? While campaign contributions are in the public domain, they are rarely investigated in any meaningful way. From time-to-time, I’ve obtained the FPPC campaign contribution filings for various City Council candidates, and tried to make some sense out of the information. The following link is to my “cloud drive” directory for City Council emails:

Web Link

There should be a synthesis of the campaign contributions of various candidates up to the last filing before the election at the end of each of these documents.

Example: pa_2007_candidate’s_name.doc

Look through these documents and then let’s talk.

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Posted by Nancy
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 3, 2013 at 6:18 am

There are probably many factors playing into the historic absence of S. PA representation on the council. For instance, no council member has kids at home. Kids take a lot of time and it takes a lot of time to be a council person - clearly not many do both.

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Green Acres
on Jun 3, 2013 at 2:36 pm

I would go for this only with two limitations:

1) The proposed change could not be applied to existing City Council members. This ensures the change isn't a power grab for certain individuals.

2) The reduced Council moves to a district representative system, where Councilmembers are chosen from every area of the City so all of us are represented. Currently, we are facing some tough challenges on this side of town made far worse by the fact that no one on the City council lives in our neighborhood or is even familiar with it. The Council should represent all of Palo Alto.

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Posted by Constituent
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 10, 2013 at 11:48 pm

During this evening's City Council meeting, Klein sat playing on his iPhone for half of the passionate open forum arguments . Can we just start with him and go from there?

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 11, 2013 at 7:57 am

Tim Gray gave the last election some credibility. Unfortunately, he was unable to get the voters to blindly follow the recommendations of the Weekly et al.

The only way to get some better people on the council is to get the voters to use their own common sense and not be blind sheep.

Tim, if you are reading this, I hope you will run again. Thank you for your time and effort and we desperately need you.

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Posted by Not an issue
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 11, 2013 at 2:51 pm

I agree , resident, about Tim gray.
He did not get endorsed by the weekly for a variety of reasons:
1. He is not part of the network thatbthe weekly is beholden to. Check out the stuff you get next election. Current and former council members all endorse one another. In some years they endorse more candidates the three are seats. These are the people the weekly plays to

2. Tim. Wrote a blistering post on this forum a while ago. You can look it up. He ripped into the weekly and their practices. He was very bold but it cost him an endorsement

3. He did not by advertisement in the weekly during the campaign season.

Too bad. He would have been a breath of fresh air on the council.
Now we have to make sure that. Condescending members like Klein are not given a chance for another term
Has the weekly looked into how 3 ( brown act alert) council members came up with the idea to change the council.

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

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