A project that was intended to be a renovation of the cramped conference room next to the City Council Chambers has somehow mushroomed into a glitzy redesign of the entire Hamilton Avenue-facing lobby of City Hall.
Like the minor home-remodeling project that keeps expanding beyond the intended scope and sends costs soaring, the city staff quietly turned this relatively minor renovation into a major and complex project designed to change the entire experience for visitors to City Hall.
It also created a cascade of other impacts, including the relocation of staff members in four different city departments.
And it happened largely in stealth mode, slipping through on the consent calendar at the City Council's June 16 meeting without discussion as the council focused its time and energy that night on ballot proposals for reducing the council size and extending term limits.
Unfortunately the media, including the Weekly, was guilty of missing this item in advance of the meeting, although Weekly reporter Gennady Sheyner picked up on it and last week dug into the story and the city staff's explanation.
With contracts signed and work starting immediately, there is apparently no turning back on this project. It is a great example of how a lot of money can get spent with little, if any, public scrutiny, and how years of prioritizing and lamenting about needed infrastructure projects can be bypassed by a simple budget amendment placed on a consent agenda.
The entire council, which approved the items on the consent calendar by a 9-0 vote, is complicit in not raising questions about how this expansion came about and why it was not given the chance to approve it prior to the bidding process (which, by the way, only attracted a single bidder.)
For years, the city's leadership has undertaken a painfully detailed process, including establishing a blue ribbon citizens commission, to identify the city's most urgent needs for infrastructure improvements. At the top of the list is the need for a new public-safety headquarters, followed by renovation of two fire stations, street, sidewalk, park and bike transit improvements, upgrades at Cubberley and many more.
At a price tag that has grown to $4.5 million, the renovation of the City Hall ground floor should have had to compete with these other city infrastructure needs. It is inconceivable that most Palo Altans would have put this project ahead of the ones already identified, and its approval undermines the city's credibility as it wrestles to find funding for projects that are more important than this one.
So what is in store for the public when these improvements are complete? By the staff's description, it will rival the lobby of a high-tech company.
Visitors will enter a lobby equipped with an "interactive digital media public art element on the wall" and a new glass-walled community meeting room with multiple LCD screens, high-definition cameras, and sliding doors so the room can be opened to the lobby for overflow crowds. "Open government and technology are the key principles" of the project, according to the staff report, and City Manager Jim Keene says the focus is to make the lobby "welcoming to the public and also work for the public's business."
The utility department's customer service staff will move downstairs, which conveniently allows some of the costs of the project to be charged off to the utilities. Elevator interiors and bathrooms will be spruced up and new signage will help direct the public.
City Hall is 44 years old, poorly designed and compares horribly with that of neighboring cities. The city has already invested millions of dollars in other upgrades to the building, and these improvements solve identified problems. We don't dispute that.
But that is no excuse for how this project and expenditure received council approval. Presenting an expansion to the original project in the form of a budget amendment after the project had been bid and a contract negotiated is not good government, particularly with all the rhetoric about our infrastructure needs.
For a project whose goal is stated as achieving a "more open atmosphere to encourage public participation and community access to City Hall," it is ironic that public participation was so neglected in deciding if this was a good way to spend $4.5 million. Perhaps when the project is complete, the new environment will somehow enable the kind of discussion this project deserved.