Palo Alto ponders changes to term limits, council seats

City Council committee to consider possible Charter changes

A proposal to cut the number of seats on the Palo Alto City Council continued to gather momentum on Monday night when Councilman Pat Burt joined three of his colleagues in offering tentative support for the change.

The reduction is one of several reforms to the City Charter that may appear on the November ballot this year. Though the council on Monday didn't decide on specific changes that would appear on the ballot, it voted unanimously to have the council's Policy and Services Committee go through all the options and issue a recommendation to the full council.

The menu of possible reforms the council considered was long and varied, including such things as higher compensation, district-based elections, direct election of mayor and vice mayor, elimination of term limits and the reduction of seats from nine to seven. Two of these proposals, for district elections and direct mayoral election, fizzled during the discussion, and the council ultimately voted 8-1, with Larry Klein dissenting, not to send them to the committee for further discussion.

The rest are fair game, the council unanimously decreed. Of those, longer term limits and a smaller council are on top of the list. The conversation over these two reforms was spurred by a June 2013 colleagues memo from Mayor Nancy Shepherd, Vice Mayor Liz Kniss and Councilwoman Gail Price. In the memo, they advocated extending limits from the current two terms, arguing that this would allow council members to build up seniority and gain influential seats on regional boards such as Association of Bay Area Governments and Caltrain. The city had adopted term limits in 1992.

Even though she had signed the memo, Kniss on Monday said she doesn't believe extending term limits is all that critical. Between the 1960s and 1990s, an average council term was 6.5 years, she said, about the same as it has been since. She suggested that extending the limit to three terms is "a good idea" but acknowledged that for the most part, people are "self-limiting."

The trio also suggested cutting the number of seats from nine to seven, arguing that "this could bring efficiencies of meeting effectiveness and workload which deserves discussion and consideration while also reducing costs."

Though it remains to be seen whether the council majority agrees to place this change on the November ballot, the likelihood increased on Monday when Burt said that he is leaning toward supporting the proposal from his three colleagues.

"I believe a smaller council size would in all likelihood lead to more efficient and more effective government," Burt said.

The committee will also consider other less drastic reforms, including holding swearing-in ceremonies for newly elected council members on the first business day of the year, rather than during the first regular Monday meeting. This proposal, as well as one that would replace the largely ceremonial first meeting of January with a regular meeting, was proposed by a memo from Councilmen Larry Klein and Greg Schmid.

The council didn't spend much time Monday going over the various reforms, opting to reserve the bulk of its discussion for June, when the item comes back. Meanwhile, the committee is scheduled to vet the issues on May 20.

Several members of the public addressed the council on the proposed changes, offering a range of opinions. Roger Smith, founding CEO of Silicon Valley Bank and a former council candidate, made a second pitch in as many weeks for a smaller council.

"I'm a big believer in taking the council from nine to seven," Smith said. "I just think it would be much more efficient. It would take less time, and staff would be more productive."

Council watchdog Bob Moss argued that it's not the size of the council that matters, it's how the members conduct themselves in their discussions. Historically, some council members enjoyed hearing themselves talk, Moss said, while others rarely asked questions. He also pointed out that Palo Alto has more boards and commissions than other cities and runs its own utilities and concluded that if the council's size is reduced, members will have "more on their plate."

Klein urged his colleagues not to get too deep into the issue on Monday but to wait until the committee and the public have had a chance to weigh in.

"We've had virtually no discussion by the public so far," Klein said. "We've heard from a half dozen people. I hope we hear from a lot more."

The council plans to consider the potential ballot measures on June 16. The city has until Aug. 8 to finalize its November ballot, which will also include a hotel-tax increase, reforms to the utility-users tax and five City Council seats.


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Posted by David Pepperdine
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 13, 2014 at 12:37 pm

1. No more benefits/raises for these guys until we achieve a surplus.

2. Don't re-elect anyone unless they fix the asphalt.

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Posted by Attitude of Gratitude
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 13, 2014 at 1:41 pm

Council members are not paid a salary. They are paid a stipend which covers expenses. They also get health benefits. That's all they get...for what has become a full time job.

Also, the asphalt is being fixed on an established schedule. Have you looked at Alma lately?

They are responsible for managing a tangled web of budget, development, economic and political threads. There are few "simple" solutions to the problems they grapple with on our behalf. Unlike you, they volunteered to serve. Perhaps you'd like to help instead of just criticize? There's an election coming up.

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Posted by JerryL
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on May 13, 2014 at 2:59 pm

It is hard to see how a smaller Council can get more done or pay proper
attention to the many and varied subjects we expect them to master.
Yes, Palo Alto may be of a certain size but we do run our own utilities and have Stanford to deal with and many other complexities that may not be faced by other, similarly sized, cities. I think it must be more or a matter of trust in each other. Normally, I would expect Council members to specialize in certain subsets of city management and work in smaller groups, thus spreading the workload. Then the full council would address the issues leaning heavily on the findings of their peers most knowledgeable of each given area.

Apparently the efficiency is expected to come from the reduced number of points of view. I'm not sure that is necessarily a good thing.

With 9 chances, I think I have a better chance of finding a sympathetic ear than with 7 entrenched incumbents.

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Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on May 13, 2014 at 5:51 pm

There is a separate stream on this same subject. Reducing the number of cc members is a very bad idea - for the reasons stated above, as well as we need more representation spread out from all areas of Palo Alto.

The Vice-Mayor is evidently ill - from notes on other streams - which may reduce the physical and mental energy available for working difficult issues. There are also times when members are unavailable for work related travel so we need a full count to maintain the flow of business.

The idea above to spread out the topics so groups within the cc become familiar with the issues is a very good idea.

We need to bring in more younger members from the business community who have the energy to tackle difficult issues.

If the number of cc members is reduced it will shift the power to the city staff who will end up making the decision on hard issues but have no accountability for the results.

Given the complexities hat this city has to deal with it does not make sense to reduce the number.

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Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on May 14, 2014 at 8:23 am

Reading the full story above where and how do they expect the public to weigh in on this topic?
Roger Smith has weighed in. He represents the money group.
The council has rejected the idea of representation by district and voting for a mayor and vice mayor. Given that some cc members are going to be termed out that leaves us with the status quo. That means we are still not in the "big boy" category regarding the city like San Jose who votes for their mayor.
Membership on specific bay area boards has been accomplished - we have a good member on the Caltrain board who is an experienced business person.

It all comes back to the background of the specific cc member - what is their knowledge of managing a city. Very wide-spread on background. We need more representation with a wide background of experience who can spread out the topics so we have knowledgeable people making decisions.

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Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 14, 2014 at 8:48 am

> If the number of cc members is reduced it will shift the
> power to the city staff who will end up making the decision
> on hard issues but have no accountability for the results.

This is the way the current strong City Manager/Weak Council government is structured. The only thing the council can do is to agree to the budget and hire/fire city managers. They are free to opine all they want—but unless they use the extremely limited power that they have to get rid of unproductive/non-responsive city managers—-then they are pretty much bumps on a log.

BTW—the county of Santa Clara, with a $3-$4B budget, and the county’s largest employer, has only five supervisors. Somehow they manage .

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Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on May 14, 2014 at 10:32 am

The County Supervisors are managing the County responsibilities. Each city has a staff and city council who manages at the city level. Look at the city of Santa Clara - they are arguing over parking spaces for the stadium, taking away soccer fields, putting them in a natural reserve, blocking Joe Montana's development, all TBD. The city is working that issues - I do not see any Supervisor working that issue. The cities are working the hard issues.
The city of San Jose has hard issues including police protection. The city budget has to address that issue.
There is a big difference in the city vs county and who is responsible for what. A possible difference is whether a mayor is elected vs moved about on a rotational basis. Is that what the reduction in cc members is all about - everyone will get a chance to be the mayor?

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Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 14, 2014 at 11:15 am

> I do not see any Supervisor working that issue.

Are you looking? One problem with the current Supervisory system is that there is not much transparency. Most of us have no idea what they do with their time, with whom they meet, and just how much time they actally spend on issues before the Board.

> The cities are working the hard issues.

Well .. the cities are working the issues local to their jurisdictions. Whether these are "hard" issues, or even "harder" than those being worked at the county level is not something that any one person is likely to have much insight into.

It's pretty clear that most Palo Alto City Council members do not provide the public any information about how they use their time, either. All-in-all, it would be a good thing to have a general airing of the residents' view of the council, and the local government, before we decide to vote on any changes in the number of council members.

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Posted by resident 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on May 14, 2014 at 11:49 am

The Supervisors support the Sheriff's Department and Santa Clara County Educational systems. Also county response to homeless. That is where I see their names come up.
I agree that we need to get a total break down of who is responsible for what here before any changes are made.
Possibly the Weekly Staff can provide some input on that topic.

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Posted by Republic
a resident of Downtown North
on May 14, 2014 at 4:57 pm

What is the complaint of Council justifying the decrease in council members and increase their terms, “This has become a full-time job and therefore we should be paid like the professionals we are to do the work of making decisions for Palo Altans and then we need people with experience on council once they are their so as to make decisions for Palo Altans.”

Paid representatives are the root problem of every bad policy created in our nation and city. If Palo Altans’ want good representatives to make decisions that benefit Palo Altans’ interests then a cross section Palo Altans who will not benefit individually in a direct manner from compensation from the city or indirectly in a back door manner from their local business associations once they leave office. Palo Alto needs to elect teachers, nurses, firemen, bus drivers etc.. if Palo Alto wants good policies made for Palo Alto.

If there is not enough time for 9 council members to make sound decisions on policies, then council should be increased to 15 members spreading the work out to more members of the community, not less.

Less council members would essentially cement Liz Kniss' fiefdom from her and to those whom she beqeuths it to.

Article IV Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution states:
"The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government..."

In order to have a true Republic there needs to be one elected official for every specific interest group in order to represent each group's interests. Without representatives advocating for the interests of particular groups the Republican Form of Government ceases to exist and turns into an elected despotism.

With that sentiment in mind, the less representatives that are in congress or in this case on council the less likely that many specific group's interests will be represented with the exception of that one group that is elected, as it appears now to be in Palo Alto.

The more representatives on council the greater our republican-democracy is, the less representatives on council the lesser and more futile our republican-democracy becomes.

We should go back to a 15 member council in order to provide greater representation of those groups who are not currently nor are adequately being represented on council.

Terms should be staggered, but all 15 members should be elected on one election date in order to provide the greatest possibility of electing a true cross section of Palo Alto.

This would have the affect of spreading the controls of our government to a greater number of citizens, sharing more of the government with more people creating a stronger democracy and a more powerful government of the many People for the People.

Liz Kniss, Nancy Shephard and Gail Price don't want to share the controls of the government because they want to dictate for their special interest group and in so doing create a very weak democracy made up of a special interest group of the few for the special interests of the few.

"If, then, the control of the people over the organs of their
government be the measure of its republicanism, and I confess I
know no other measure, it must be agreed that our governments
have much less of republicanism than ought to have been expected;
in other words, that the people have less regular control over
their agents, than their rights and their interests require."
Thomas Jefferson

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Posted by Sunshine
a resident of Barron Park
on May 16, 2014 at 11:50 am

The only change that makes sense is to have voting by district.
Otherwise, keep the council as it is.
They have not fixed Alma. It has rumply parts and steel plates everywhere. Fix the streets and sidewalks. Don't let work crews leave badly installed steel plates to cover their holes at the end of the day. Along Matadero the plates stick out from the tar, sharp edges everywhere.
No pay or benefits increase for council. No increased term limits. What we do need is voting by district.

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

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