While it acknowledges some sloppiness and poor judgment in keeping information from the public, the City of Palo Alto's defensive draft response to a highly critical and embarrassing grand-jury investigation hardly paints a reassuring picture of lessons learned.
The Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury issued a report in June that found the city failed to follow its own policies and procedures, and quite likely the law, by keeping from the public the fact that developer John Arrillaga was proposing to develop a massive office complex next to the downtown train station and purchase a 7-acre parcel of city-owned land next to Foothills Park until months after they were under consideration by city officials.
In the case of the now infamous 27 University Ave. proposal, the grand jury and the Weekly's own reporting found that city staff held extensive private and undocumented discussions with Arrillaga in 2011 and 2012, and kept city council members in the loop through one-on-one briefings, but intentionally did not put the issue on a public council agenda until March 5, 2012.
By then, the staff was well along in a process with Arrillaga to shape a development proposal to ultimately bring forward, having obtained informal support and encouragement from a majority of council members without a single public meeting or discussion.
Once released to the public, a ferocious negative reaction to the scale of the development and the unabashed staff enthusiasm for it succeeded in slowing and then stopping the process. And staff was then hung out to dry by a council that not only failed in its duty to inform and involve the public but then blamed the staff once it saw the public outrage. It was a low point for both the staff and the council and gave rise to the current public suspicion and lack of trust in how the city handles major development proposals.
The Arrillaga proposal to buy the city-owned parcel of land wedged between his private estate and Foothills Park was also kept secret from the public, until revealed by the Weekly after the paper investigated an obscure closed-session agenda notice in September 2012 that only listed a parcel number.
The Weekly's requests under the state Public Records Act turned up emails arranging small group visits to the site by council members to avoid violating the state's open-meeting law, the Brown Act, and a draft purchase agreement for the property prepared by Arrillaga. In other words, the city staff, with acquiescence from the council, kept Arrillaga's interest in buying the property intentionally secret from the public, at the same time it was working with him on the 27 University Ave. proposal.
As was later discovered, the property in question was actually given to the city by Russell Lee on condition that it only be used for conservation purposes, and contrary to this condition the city leased the land to Arrillaga nearly 15 years ago for use as a staging area for construction of his adjacent estate.
The draft response to the grand jury report, to be considered at Monday's city council meeting, reveals new details on the history of the 7 acres and portrays a city bureaucracy unable to keep track of past actions and its own real estate holdings.
In addition, the staff response shows Arrillaga had "a long history of attempting to acquire the parcel" that involved numerous discussions with staff over many years.
Without explanation as to why, it also reveals that the staff decided, apparently without approval of the city council, to pay for an appraisal of the property in early 2012 (which came in at $175,000). After informing Arrillaga that it was "not conceivable" that the council would sell the land for that price, staff suggested that some additional consideration would likely be needed. Arrillaga then returned with an offer to fund the construction of playing fields at the Baylands. None of this was made public at the time.
The handling of these two matters was clearly improper and the city further embarrasses itself by not owning the mistakes instead of responding with a nuanced dodging of the underlying issues and statements, such as "Recommendation 3 will be implemented in a manner that is consistent with the public interest."
The public was intentionally deprived of its legal rights to know about and participate in debating these proposals, and the fact they were ultimately revealed by the Weekly and were never acted upon by the council is irrelevant. "No harm done" is neither an acceptable nor honest response to violating the public's right to know and participate.
Harm has been done, in both process and to the integrity of city government. The city can't sugar coat it, no matter how hard it tries.