Editorial: Missteps on council 'reforms'


Considering recent controversies suggesting a lack of sensitivity of current City Council members to the need for transparency and public outreach, the council showed more of the same tone deafness this week in dealing with two very old ideas that suddenly re-emerged as urgent items.

Were it not for a new state law about which the council was informed just prior to its meeting Monday night, two dormant but significant changes to the way Palo Alto is governed could have been on their way to a special election ballot this November at a cost of $350,000 or more.

We have no objection to re-opening a community discussion on reducing the size of the council from nine to seven members or of increasing the term limits from eight years to 12, but doing so by seeking to rush these changes through in two weeks, as three council members (Nancy Shepherd, Liz Kniss and Gail Price) proposed, is both mystifying and a disservice to the community.

As Councilman Pat Burt appropriately asked, what was so important or urgent about these proposals that they required action after 11 p.m., directing the city attorney to draft ballot language without any agreement on what it should say and without any effort to seek public input?

Amazingly, Burt's motion to continue the item to a future meeting failed when it only received support from council members Karen Holman and Greg Schmid.

So what's going on here? And why, having rushed to direct preparation of a ballot measure to make an undetermined change to the current eight-year term limit, did the council then decide to postpone discussion on reducing the size of the council?

While Vice Mayor Shepherd told the Weekly she was relieved that there is no longer any time pressure because the changes in state law mean the earliest any measure to change the city charter could appear on the ballot is next June, and possibly next November, she couldn't explain why she and her colleagues felt urgency in the first place.

The most logical explanation of why the issue has suddenly re-emerged is that it would allow Larry Klein, the only member of the council who will be termed out next year, to seek a third, four-year term in the November 2014 council election.

If that is the hidden agenda of the sponsors of this change, Klein didn't help it any by attacking all term limits as "undemocratic" because they denied the rights of incumbent office holders from running for office for as long as they wanted and were re-elected.

Since voters in Palo Alto already rejected that argument when they passed term limits in 1991 (by 58 percent,) Klein came off as both arrogant and disrespectful of the voters. For someone who is on his way to having served 17 years on the council, including three terms as mayor, it is difficult to feel that extraordinary and urgent steps are needed to give voters the opportunity to elect him again.

And it is particularly galling that the council would give any thought to holding a special election instead of placing it on a regular, general-election ballot.

Although we don't find the reasons to extend term limits particularly compelling, the best case for it is that our council representatives to regional bodies are never able to advance to leadership roles in those bodies.

If that's the best argument, there better be some clear and convincing examples of where our interests were trampled because of this lack of leadership service. So far, we've seen none.

While we believe term limits have been shown to cause problems at the state level, at the local level they ensure a regular flow of fresh talent and healthy turnover. In the 10 years since being implemented in Palo Alto, we can't see how the city has suffered because council members had to step down after eight years. No one individual is irreplaceable, and we prove that repeatedly with the election of capable, new council members.

Perhaps most telling at Monday's meeting were the comments of the council's newest member, Marc Berman, who made clear he had many questions and concerns, including whether increasing term limits and reducing the size of the council would inhibit diversity on the council and make it less likely that new people like him could be elected.

As Berman and council member Schmid pointed out, both measures enhance the power of incumbency.

To underscore that point, in the last 30 years, only two incumbents seeking reelection have been defeated, Sandy Eakins (2001) and Nancy Lytle (2003.) Both lost due to intense controversies they helped create and after political organizing efforts in the community.

The nature of politics in Palo Alto is that good people do not step forward to run for City Council unless there is at least one "open" seat (where an incumbent is either termed out and can't run or who has decided not to seek a second term).

Reducing the council size and extending term limits is a double-strike against turnover, and therefore must be approached very cautiously, with lots of public discussion. The City Council showed great disregard for this Monday night when they prematurely set in motion the drafting of a ballot measure and cavalierly threw out the idea of repealing term limits altogether.

Regardless of intent, it sure smacks of pure self-interest.

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Like this comment
Posted by Mac Clayton
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 7, 2013 at 9:04 am


Like this comment
Posted by senor blogger
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jun 7, 2013 at 9:41 am

Why don't we just re-name Palo Alto to
Kleinville, or Kleinberg?

We should have 5 yr terms for City Council with an ELECTED Mayor who only votes in case of a tie.

Council terms should not be increased. * years is WAY ENOUGH!

Like this comment
Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 7, 2013 at 9:50 am

That good ol' eleventh-hour razzle-dazzle works every time.

Like this comment
Posted by Palo Altan
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 7, 2013 at 11:29 am

Palo Altans must be so ashamed of their city council members.
These joksters don't care about the folks. "Let them eat cake," is their motto. No one with a good career runs for city council. Only career politicians looking for good health benefits run for office. This city council has no common sense or understanding about what the people of Palo Alto want. They are only concerned about term limits, the color of the PA flag, bridges to East Palo Alto, building ugly monster buildings with no parking, and gaining monetary favors from developers. They are absolutely ruining the feel of this once beautiful, inviting town.

Like this comment
Posted by Marie
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 7, 2013 at 11:44 am

Marie is a registered user.

While I agree that it is ridiculous to have a special election to determine whether to extend term limits from two to three terms, I support the extension from two terms to three. I want a city government that is more responsive to the voters in Palo Alto, not the developers, who for the most part are not residents and whose primary goal is profit, not what is best for the city as a whole. I also want a city government that does not prioritize their own employee benefits over the financial stability of the city. This will happen only with a strong city council that can stand up for the residents.

I think it takes time for council members to become familiar with city processes. It seems to me that often the city planning department is setting policy, not the council. Their priority seems to be to raise the city income, via increased property tax from development, no matter what impact it has on the quality of life, particularly on traffic and parking. I suspect that there is also support within the planning department for the theory that the best way to encourage mass transit is to make it painful to drive by increasing congestion and increasing the cost and difficulty of parking.

Council members, I hope, are less likely to share such opinions. However, they need experience in order to be able to effectively set policy and ensure the implementation of that policy. Thus I support extending term limits (NOT eliminating them) for both the council and the state legislature in hopes that they will become more adept at ensuring that city administrations reflect the values and priorities of the voters rather than their own.

Like this comment
Posted by Thank you Weekly
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 7, 2013 at 12:28 pm

Thank you, PA Weekly, for the informative and important editorial.
The power-grabbing council members have identified themselves more clearly for those who hadn't noticed who votes in the $$ interests of big developers rather than the livable community we want.

Like this comment
Posted by Not an issue
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 7, 2013 at 3:33 pm

This is one of the very few times that i actually agree with a weekly editorial -- and as an aside it is about time that the weekly spoke out against the party line that they have supported for years.
I wonder how the three council members came up with this idea? Did they decide amongst themselves? We low what that may mean.
If this being done for kleins benefit, the it is truly outrageous. And given his disdain for the public, i find myself revolted by his actions. Klein is truly a smarmy politician.

Like this comment
Posted by Sheri
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 7, 2013 at 3:59 pm

Great editorial. Self-serving, tone-deaf to residents and process, full of hubris. I'm not a fan of term limits, but at a local level 8 years is enough to make an impact. We also don't want to go back to lifetime medical benefits for serving on Council. Frankly, it's not a perk most who serve even need.

Like this comment
Posted by Julia
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 7, 2013 at 4:11 pm

Your article mentions Larry Klein perhaps benefitting soon from such an election.
It seems clear that Liz Kniss would benefit by enabling herself to stay longer in an important role. She was instrumental in getting Palo Alto to change its election schedule, which helped her transition from the role of Supervisor to P.A. Councilmember. And she's clearly part of the group which tried to rush this election, paving the way for her longer stay.

Now that Liz Kniss is on the Council, we should go back to electing local leaders in between presidential, etc. elections. Going back would enable us to pay much more attention to the issues and selection of local leaders. And the reason given, re saving money, doesn't seem to be so, because we end up having a special election for some reason(s).

Like this comment
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 7, 2013 at 4:15 pm

@ Marie: [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

This current council (who, for the most part) have been on the council for multiple terms. Including career politicians Kniss and Klein. And if you look at what developments have been approved or supported in the last few years, let alone in the last year, I don't see how you could say that they stand up to developers. It is quite the opposite.

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Posted by Not an issue
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 7, 2013 at 5:24 pm

Let's not forGet that kniss does not do ANYTHING that she will not personally benefit from. It has been that way for years. She is the definition of a self serving politician. Klein has also worn out his welcome.

Like this comment
Posted by Neighbor of Kniss
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 7, 2013 at 6:10 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

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Posted by Kniss was Mayor
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 8, 2013 at 7:58 pm

When Kniss was Mayor, in her final meeting as chair of the Council, she RAMMED through the downtown SummerHill development. She cut off other council members, she allowed few questions, it was amazing to watch. I saw it. Cant forget it.
I dont doubt that SummerHill rewarded her handsomely here and elsewhere in the county.

Like this comment
Posted by Been There
a resident of Green Acres
on Jun 8, 2013 at 9:27 pm

Everyone needs to remember that elected officials start out like everyone else, wary of taking a job low on pay and high on abuse. The difference between them and everyone else is they stop being afraid to get out of their little box.

Like this comment
Posted by change needed
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 10, 2013 at 12:22 pm

Palo Alto is not just being ruined compared to its previous character
and qualities which made it such a unique place. It is being ruined
in an absolute sense by almost any standard. We have a broken govt
here. So we need a new balance on the Council to start with and a new
process. The ARB needs to be disbanded and any design/aesthetic functions performed by the staff, any action which creates a visual impact, needs to be under the review/control of a single professional design person hired by the Council who can be replaced if he/she performs below expectations. This will remove the decision-making process from political influence and vested interests and staff agendas and break the status quo of continuing failure to protect the public interest and create a viable and attractive city.

Like this comment
Posted by Change Council only
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 10, 2013 at 7:23 pm

Yes, reduce Council from 9 to 7 members. No, to an elected Mayor because he or she would demand a high six figure salary. Palo Alto can't afford a highly paid City Manager and a very highly paid Mayor doing roughly the same job.

Like this comment
Posted by Good Grief
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jun 12, 2013 at 10:47 am

Why doesn't the current council simply admit that they want to keep city policy power in the hands of a few non-diverse group of people in Palo Alto who are aging, and then hand it over to the off-spring of this same non-diverse group of people, until infinity and beyond! This is the way to keep the impression of Palo Alto to the world as an all white liberal government doing great deeds for its residents, and the nation while co-existing with one of the world's greatest educational institutions, Stanford. The fact that Palo Alto is definitely more diverse than one currently sees on that dais would never be brought to light with this current council's plans. Too bad they cannot see for themselves how very selfish, and unfair the very gesture appears. So much for looking at the man/woman in the mirror and asking them to be the change needed in the world.

Like this comment
Posted by Apropro
a resident of Greenmeadow
on May 22, 2014 at 4:08 pm


Can you rerun this editorial in the paper this week? Everything in here still applies to the current discussion these same council members are having. Why fix something that isn't broke?

Like this comment
Posted by Yes
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 22, 2014 at 5:38 pm

"Apropro" thanks for highlighting this old editorial. It sums up the issues so well.

Like this comment
Posted by Mr.Recycle
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 22, 2014 at 11:12 pm

@Been There - some elected officials start out like everyone else, others start out as power hungry sociopaths, and "ruling" is the ultimate fulfillment of their ego, not to mention their coffers.

Like this comment
Posted by Stay Vigilant
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on May 23, 2014 at 7:29 am

Hopefully council will see the light and kill this before it goes any further. Who on council proposed this?

Democracy all the way.

Like this comment
Posted by Watch how they vote
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 24, 2014 at 11:45 am

With Shepherd, Kniss and Klein joined by Price, this could pass the council. Berman, with family real estate interests, usually joins them.
The only one we can vote out is Shepherd, the others are not up for election in 2014.
And watch how Scharff votes.

Like this comment
Posted by Undemocratic
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 26, 2014 at 10:21 am

The whole council structure is undemocratic--almost no representation south of Oregon or east of Middlefield. We should be divided into council districts and have one representative per district, like other cities.

And members with conflicts of interest ( Kniss, Berman, etc) should be disqualified completely from even running for council seats, like other cities.

Like this comment
Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on May 26, 2014 at 4:32 pm

I am less concerned about where a council member lives, than what values they will vote by. We need council members who will represent the interests of the residents no matter where they live. No more up zoning no matter which neighborhood. More emphasis on solving traffic, reducing crime, and providing for recreational facilities. A focus holding city staff accountable for things like the Mitchell Park library delay, the El Camino Park delays, etc. A focus on spending for infrastructure, and reducing the hidden pension liabilities.

Like this comment
Posted by Timothy Gray
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on May 27, 2014 at 3:38 pm

Two important choices were deliberately removed from the election reform choices:

1. District representation to assure that we reach out to, and are represented by, someone in our neighborhood.

2. I asked that the council not take any action that benefited them directly, or else the whole reform would be self-serving. Well, they acknowledged the request, but went forward with having the term limits implemented as soon as possible.

I want to make sure we are all fully aware of the deceipt that is being brought to us by the council. First they purposely leave out the option of district elections (let the people decide!) and they rush things through to promote their political aims.

So much for offering a reasonable time for public imput, and for assuring the citizens that the intent of the changes is not self interest.

They have proven that it is all about self-interest, and they have only offered the staff-recommended changes that are self serving. And I suspect their might be a little manipulation going on with health-care benefits for "employees" (Council Members) serving greater than 10 years (reached in three terms.)

It smells bad and is packaged with a few elements of reason and logic to permit a spin -- there is no such thing as 51 percent transparency.

If district representation was included, and the current voting council was prohibited from the conflict of interest of benefiting themselves, then I would be open to some of the reforms.

As a self-serving package of manipulation that it is -- forget it.

The Council's action cannot be seen as anything but insulting to the residents. Stop the nonsense.

Tim Gray

Like this comment
Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on May 27, 2014 at 3:58 pm

"I dont doubt that SummerHill rewarded her [Kniss} handsomely here and elsewhere in the county."

They did, through their front man Jim Baer, in her county supervisor election that year. The Weekly documented it thoroughly: Web Link, as did others in the local press: Web Link and Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 28, 2014 at 3:41 pm

@ Marie,

"I support the extension from two terms to three. I want a city government that is more responsive to the voters in Palo Alto, not the developers,"

This extension is a power grab by the current development-crazed group, and if you vote for it, you will get the exact opposite of what you say you want. Do not let this current group continue to do this damage to our town. No extension of term limits.

[Portion removed.]

If you really want a more reasonable approach to development, vote against this extension, as it's there purely for the benefit of continuing the power of exactly those Councilmembers who have pushed all this overdevelopment on our town.

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

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