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.