More than two centuries after Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton forced the nation to weigh the merits of democracy against those of government efficiency, the debate is playing out in Palo Alto, where voters will consider in November whether to reduce the size of the City Council.
The proposal to shrink the council has been resurfacing sporadically since 1972, when voters agreed to bring down the size from 15 members to nine. The number would go down to seven if voters approve Measure D in November.
The latest proposal sprouted from a June 2013 memo from Mayor Nancy Shepherd, Vice Mayor Liz Kniss and Councilwoman Gail Price in which they wrote that a nine-member council is "unusual for municipal government for a city of our population." They noted that Menlo Park has only five council seats and that Mountain View has seven. A smaller Palo Alto council, they wrote, "could bring efficiencies of meeting effectiveness and workload, which deserves discussion and consideration, while also reducing costs."
Since the memo was issued, other community leaders have joined the movement toward a smaller council. Former Mayors Betsy Bechtel, Mike Cobb, Peter Drekmeier, Sid Espinosa and Judy Kleinberg all support Measure D, as does Roger Smith, founding president of Silicon Valley Bank and co-founder of Friends of Palo Alto Parks. Smith, who has spoken on the subject at several council meetings, said at the May 12 meeting that the smaller council would make running the city "much more efficient."
"I'm a big believer, spending my career in the private sector, that time is money," Smith said.
Measure D supporters emphasize this point in the official ballot argument. A seven-seat council will be "more efficient and productive, more accountable, save taxpayer money, and increase opportunity for public participation.
"Human nature being what it is, each council member feels the need to speak on every issue," the argument states. "City Council meetings often run past midnight and into Tuesday morning.
"We've spoken to many residents who say that they want to attend council meetings to participate in our local government process but they just can't stay at City Hall that late on a Monday night. This is bad for our democratic process of citizen engagement and participation."
For opponents of Measure D, the idea that trimming seats will improve democracy is laughable. The length of the council meetings, they say, has more to do with the fact that some members just love to talk while others hardly say a word. Land-use watchdog Bob Moss made this point on May 12, when he told the council that it's not the number of seats that matter but how the council acts (Moss' argument becomes potent when you consider the case of Menlo Park, where a five-member council routinely debates issues well into the night). Moss called the proposal to reduce the council size "nonsense." Opponents use the same word in their official rebuttal to the "Yes on D" argument.
"Councilmembers speak for as long as they are allowed to speak," the rebuttal states. "Reducing the council size is a drastic solution versus simply crafting sensible agendas and requiring council members to be concise."
If Shepherd and Smith represent Camp Hamilton in Palo Alto's big democracy debate, Moss and the city's leading residentialists align with Camp Jefferson. This group includes Councilman Greg Schmid, Councilwoman Karen Holman (who is running for re-election this fall) and all three of the candidates affiliated with the group Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning: Tom DuBois, Eric Filseth and Lydia Kou. All three took part in last year's successful citizen initiative to overturn a council-approved housing development on Maybell Avenue.
Unlike last year's Measure D, which failed despite having the support of the entire council, this year's Measure D has plenty of supporters and opponents among elected officials. The measure was placed on the ballot by a 5-4 vote, with Shepherd, Kniss, Price, Larry Klein and Marc Berman supporting it and Holman, Schmid, Pat Burt and Greg Scharff opposing it. The "No on D" camp also includes former Councilwoman Enid Pearson as well as former Mayor Vic Ojakian.
In their ballot argument, opponents of Measure D argue that putting power in the hands of fewer people is a bad idea. Their argument frames the debate as one of "democracy vs. efficiency" and makes a case that when it come to governance, being efficient isn't always a good thing.
"On one extreme, a one-member council would be highly efficient, but no one wants a dictatorship," the argument states. "In some situations, like juries and city councils, you want more participants not fewer."
Opponents of Measure D also point out that Palo Alto, unlike other cities, runs its own Utilities Department, has just taken over an airport Monday, and often has to deal with the impacts created by Stanford University.
Opponents also maintain in their official argument that trimming the number of council members would further increase each member's workload, effectively ensuring that serving will be a full-time job. Because this job pays only $600 a month, the argument goes, only the wealthy will seek council seats.
"Keeping our council at nine seats spreads the workload across more people and makes it more attractive for people to participate in the process. More seats means resident representation by people interested in their city and not professional politicians," the ballot agrument states.
Smith and supporters of Measure D take the opposite stance and argued on May 12 that reducing the number of seats will actually encourage more people to run because each council member will have "more of a say."
"In reality, reducing the council to seven members would result in both increased citizen engagement and a more efficient and less costly city council," the rebuttal argument states.