Talk of reducing the size of the Palo Alto City Council from nine to seven has come and gone for decades, but has never generated enough traction to get on the ballot.
This year, with great ambivalence and on a slim 5-4 vote, the City Council put Measure D on the ballot to let voters decide. It has stirred almost no voter interest and very little campaigning.
Even Mayor Nancy Shepherd, who pushed last year for putting both the council size reduction and increasing council term limits on the ballot, now says she has no position on the proposal even though she voted to place it on the ballot. And Councilmember Marc Berman, who also voted to put Measure D on the ballot, said at the time he wasn't sure it was a good idea.
If enacted, the size of the council would be reduced in 2018, when the candidates we elect next month will be up for reelection. Instead of five council slots in that election, there would only be three, so theoretically there could be four incumbents running for three slots, a situation sure to discourage additional candidates.
Proponents of the measure, who are mostly former office holders, argue that other cities do just fine with five- or seven-member councils and that Palo Alto's unusually large council drags out meetings late into the night, is costly and inefficient.
The real issue, which proponents acknowledge privately, is that they don't believe there are enough qualified candidates interested in serving to sustain this size governing body, and that unless the size is reduced less capable people will wind up getting elected.
Although reducing the size of the city council to seven is unlikely to cause real harm, or alter the direction of city policy, there is very little evidence to support any of the arguments in favor of the measure.
The length of city council meetings is far more dependent on agenda planning and the skills of the mayor. Meetings should never go past 11 p.m. and uncompleted agenda items should be postponed, just as they are in meetings of any other organization. We would much prefer that solution to the problem of late meetings than reducing the size of the council.
Opponents argue that reducing council size not only decreases the diversity of voices, but could present problems when one or more council members must recuse themselves due to conflicts of interest. If, for example, two council members had Stanford conflicts, it could reduce the effective size of the council to five for any matter involving the university.
Proponents of council size reduction couldn't have picked a worse time to push this proposal forward. The division in the community over current and future development has inspired a large pool of candidates in this year's council race, aided by two incumbents stepping down.
The fact that support for the measure comes almost entirely from those who have held office or already have political influence in the community and not from neighborhood leaders or others who have an equal interest in good, transparent government leads us to believe Palo Alto is not ready for fewer voices representing them on the city council.
We don't rule out the possibility that in the future a reduction in size might become non-controversial and beneficial. But in the heat of today's political environment, it's bad timing.