Palo Alto council reduction heads to the ballot

Members split over Charter changes

Palo Alto voters will have a chance to reduce the number of seats on their City Council in November after a deeply ambivalent council voted Monday night to place the issue on the ballot.

A separate proposal to extend council term limits from two to three fell by a single vote and will not appear on the ballot.

The council's 5-4 vote not to pursue an extension of term limits was a surprising reversal from prior discussions, with the proposal gradually picking up momentum and last month winning the endorsement of the council's Policy and Services Committee.

Both decisions came after an extensive debate that touched on the meaning of democracy, government efficiency and Palo Alto's "special" status. While supporters of the terms-increase measure argued that upping the limits would give council members a chance to build up knowledge and gain seniority on important regional boards, opponents claimed that it would create a barrier for newcomers seeking to serve. The latter camp prevailed, with council members Marc Berman, Pat Burt, Karen Holman, Greg Scharff and Greg Schmid all voting against the measure.

The council followed that vote with another robust debate and split vote. This time, proponents of changing the City Charter carried the day, mustering just enough support to place a reduction in council seats on the November ballot. They argued that going from nine council members to seven would make governance more efficient. Holman, Burt, Scharff and Schmid voted against the measure.

Both proposals considered Monday came out of a colleagues' memo penned last year by Mayor Nancy Shepherd, Vice Mayor Liz Kniss and Councilwoman Gail Price. The pitch for longer terms was based on the idea that council members need longer tenures to secure leadership positions on regional boards, such as the Association of Bay Area Governments and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority. The reduction of seats "could bring efficiencies of meeting effectiveness and workload, which deserves discussion and consideration while also reducing costs," the memo reads. It noted that other cities of similar sizes have either seven seats (Santa Clara, Mountain View and Sunnyvale) or five (Menlo Park) on their respective councils.

During Monday's discussion, several council members said they were very much split over whether to proceed with these proposals. Councilman Greg Scharff was one of several council members who advocated keeping nine council seats. Having more members, he said, forces the council to work harder to achieve a compromise.

"It's much harder to get a motion through and you need to convince your colleagues," Scharff said. "There's always someone paying attention. There's always someone who reads the fine print."

Schmid also supported keeping nine seats and paraphrased attorney Clarence Darrow's dictum about democracy: you can't have enough of it without having too much. It's best, he said, to err on the side of having more democracy, even if it's less efficient.

Shepherd and Klein took the opposite view. True democracy, they said, calls for giving the voters a say on the matter.

"I think it would be unfair to not allow the community to vote on how they want to be governed," Shepherd said.

Klein made a similar point, even as he conceded that he doesn't expect it the reduction to make too big of a difference when it comes to efficiency. Like most of his colleagues, he offered only a tepid endorsement of reducing the council size and said he was deeply split on the issue. Still, he advocated bringing the issue to the voters. If approved, the switch to seven council members would take effect in 2018.

"I think it's undemocratic at this point not to let people vote when there's been a significant number of people who said seven would be an improvement," he said.

Marc Berman also supported bring the council reduction to the voters, though he said that he "doesn't care much one way or the other" about the outcome. While Scharff argued that Palo Alto is different from other cities because it owns its own utilities and has a particularly engaged citizenry, Berman questioned that logic.

"We're special here in Palo Alto? I absolutely think that in the best way, but I don't think we're that special," he said. "I think we can have a very representative city government with seven members. I think it makes sense to have this go to the voters."

The proposed Charter changes have already spurred some debate in the community. Roger Smith, a longtime business leader and civic activist, urged the council in recent months to proceed with the seat reduction on the grounds that it would be more efficient to have fewer members. Others aren't so sure. Tom DuBois, who is running for council this year, opposed both of the measures under discussion. Both the increase in term limits and the reduction of seats would serve to increase the power of incumbency, he said. Having more terms would favor incumbents and "professional politicians" over regular residents who want to get involved. Reducing the number of council seats, meanwhile, would sacrifice democracy in the name of efficiency, he said.

"On one extreme, a one-member council would be highly efficient but I don't want a dictatorship," DuBois said. "Nine seats spreads the workload across more people and makes it more attractive for people to participate in the process. More seats means more representation."

Cheryl Lilienstein, president of Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning, made a similar argument and told the council that reducing council seats "does not enhance representative democracy."

"Trying to decrease the number of council members seems to be a move to exclude newcomers to the council, and consolidate the power of presently seated members," Lilienstein said.

"I have heard a rationale that a smaller council would create greater efficiency," she added. "Perhaps we all might agree that concision -- and better preparation -- would create efficiency."

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Like this comment
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 17, 2014 at 9:43 am

It’s a shame that the Council didn’t schedule open hearings on this matter, as well as one, or more, study sessions. At the moment, there is virtually nothing on the table to justify downsizing, other than various perceptions of how ineffective the Council may, or may not, be.
(By the way—the word “efficiency” is totally inappropriate in this context. It only has an meaning when measuring the energy input/output ratios of machines.)

What’s also needed is a ballot question as to what the voters think of the Council, as a whole. The infrequent Council elections routinely ignore, or suppress, any discussion of the Council, and its inner-workings.

The Post carried a similar article today, in which it reports that one of the motivations for this downsizing is “peer pressure” from council members of other Bay Area cities. If this is true—why would our sitting Council be concerned about that their peers think, and so generally tone deaf as to what the residents of Palo Alto thinks?

Looking forward to the campaign. Who will be on the committee to reduce the Council size? Will be very interesting to see how much money flows into this ballot question.

Like this comment
Posted by Tom DuBois
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 17, 2014 at 9:59 am

Tom DuBois is a registered user.

My biggest concern at this point is how does the city handle issues that involve Stanford?

Palo Alto is not like other area cities – we have a huge entity, Stanford, with complex land use issues, which justifies our larger Council of 9.

In the past, Stanford issues were before Council and as many as 3 or 4 members had to recuse themselves, leaving a bare quorum to make major decisions. Sometimes there was concern that a quorum would not be met. To reduce Council size is a set up to poor governance. We may end up with 4 council members making all decisions that include Stanford.

Like this comment
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 17, 2014 at 10:03 am

Mr. DuBois:

This Stanford issue has been a problem in the past, to be sure. It's not clear that it was really a big problem, however. Can you provide us a list of previous Stanford-related issues that you believe would have been poorly decided with a smaller Council? And if you see some on the horizon, please feel free to add theese to your list.


Like this comment
Posted by Cheryl Lilienstein
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 17, 2014 at 10:14 am

I left while Larry Klein was explaining that the timing of implementation matters, as it will affect (or not affect) current seated members and candidates.

Did that result in any instruction to the city attorney about wording?

Like this comment
Posted by 37 year resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 17, 2014 at 10:51 am

Joe makes a great point when he asks "Why would our council members be concerned about what their peers in neighboring communities think?" Unfortunately, the city uses other cities as a measure of how we should run ours, including salary negotiations for city hires, i.e. "let's pay the city manager more because Menlo Park pays their city manager X. We have to be competitive with neighboring cities to keep good employees or ours will leave, blah, blah, blah. What a crock !!!!

Like this comment
Posted by Timothy Gray
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jun 17, 2014 at 11:17 am

The Council also excluded the creation of District Representation.


Because it would have broken up the concetration of power that the few enjoy.

While they give lip service to Citizen Participation, the real motivation is the concentration of power.

Reducing the number of seats only supports those that would preserve power and control to run "Palo Alto Development Inc.", a City formerly known as The City of Palo Alto."

Come on! Let's wake up and return our City to the residents.

Without district representation, reducing the Council is just a plain bad idea. -- a manipulative scheme brought to you by the same people that would change the zoning in your neighborhood and offer blind allegiance to ABAG.

Efficiency will come with true representation vs. the bullying that comes the council chambers. I know there are many that share my clarity on this.


Tim Gray

Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 17, 2014 at 12:33 pm

So, if the CC is 9 members, and they all vote in favor of high density housing in Barron Park (Measure D), will they, somehow, vote against it with a 7 member council? Gail Price, who lives in BP, voted in favor.

I don't like ward politics. I like politics that is open, online and in print. The current scandal with Karen Holman shows how the kabuki dance happens behind the scene, [portion removed]...we need better than that. We have the technology to make it happen, yet the hidden agendas seem to prevent it.

Stay with 9 CC members, probably...might be a better chance of getting one that actually puts forth their arguments (internal and external) online.

Like this comment
Posted by Bill
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 17, 2014 at 1:55 pm

The problem with district elections is almost the same as the problem with 9 council members - finding qualified candidates. In years with lots of hot issues and topics, there is usually no problem identifying at least a few citizens willing to take up the fight. But, when things calm down, it's tough to find people in each district willing to put their time and effort into the everyday business of running the City. Neighborhood associations are a great example. Most folks don't have the time to participate at the executive level of their local association, but are happy to be members and participate in individual events. Council member is pretty much a full time job, without the pay. That's a real problem with district elections.

With 7 members, 2 of the weakest candidates would be eliminated. The weakest members of council tend to be the most problematic. They simply join the majority, get influenced by monied interests backing overdevelopment and help create a voting block that's difficult to overcome. Look at the current council. Eliminating 2 seats wouldn't be such a bad thing, although I wouldn't be terribly disappointed if this proposal wasn't approved by voters.

Like this comment
Posted by term length unchanged
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 17, 2014 at 2:08 pm

I don't feel strongly about the size of the CC but am very happy that a proposal to extend term lengths from 2 to 3 years will not appear on the ballot.

Like this comment
Posted by Council protocol
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 17, 2014 at 2:28 pm

I wish the current Mayor would learn to announce a vote in the traditional accurate manner. Sometimes she just say "that passes 5 to 4" and does not report who voted which way. So casual about elementary executive behavior.
Also noticeable, she interrupts certain council members, not others.

Like this comment
Posted by Rupert of henzau
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 17, 2014 at 3:22 pm

Can we chose which two seats to eliminate. I vote for kniss and holman's be eliminated, especially since Klein us being termed out.

Like this comment
Posted by DGN
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 17, 2014 at 7:02 pm

Mayor Sheppard does not have the intellectual capacity to be a mayor. She does a sub par job of running council meetings, and her comments are not thoughtful or wise. [Portion removed.]

Like this comment
Posted by Rupert of henzau
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 17, 2014 at 7:09 pm

DGn-- on what do you base your conclusions. Her intellectual capacity is just fine-- it just seems that one perosn posts the same comment about her intellectual capacity in thread after thread-- without actually providing any proof. [Portion removed.]

Like this comment
Posted by Nonsensical
a resident of Green Acres
on Jun 17, 2014 at 7:21 pm

The number of council persons is secondary. The real issue is the distribution of the members--mostly in the more elite neighborhoods north of Oregon Expwy. This is NOT fair representation!

Like this comment
Posted by count it up
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jun 18, 2014 at 7:56 pm

"Palo Alto is not like other area cities – we have a huge entity, Stanford, with complex land use issues, which justifies our larger Council of 9. "

What does Berkeley do? Or some of the hundreds of other cities in the US in exactly the same situation? I find it very hard to believe that somehow Palo Alto is the only university town in the world.

Like this comment
Posted by Citizen
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 18, 2014 at 9:25 pm

The City Attorney will do another manipulation of the ballot language, same as she did on the incredibly biased Measure D ballot, so there's no telling what we are really voting for.

The only use for this election is to send this Council a message about just how their poor attention to serving the public translates to whether or not they can ask us for anything.

Send this one down in flames. It doesn't really do anything for us, but shooting it down bigtime will send an important message.

Like this comment
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 22, 2014 at 12:31 pm

Mark Weiss is a registered user.

This entire initiative is in violation in spirit of The Brown Act in that it discourages public involvement in matters of governance. The Grand Jury report, among other points, describes the act in those terms. The Grand Jury report, which came out five days after this article was filed. You can link to the report here, as was reported in GS's subsequent article.

Web Link

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

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