Smaller City Council? Voters lean toward 'yes'

Measure D would reduce number of seats from nine to seven

Palo Alto voters were on the verge of reducing the size of the City Council from nine to seven seats on Tuesday night, with Measure D eking out an early but strong lead with the absentee ballots counted.

If approved, the number of council members would go from nine to seven, with the change taking effect in 2018.

The idea of shrinking the council size had been floating around for years before it finally landed on the ballot thanks to a 5-4 council vote in June. Championed by longtime community volunteer Roger Smith, it had won the support of dozens of past council members, neighborhood leaders and state representatives. Former mayors Sid Espinosa, Peter Drekmeier, Judy Kleinberg and Joe Simitian all endorsed it, as did Councilman Larry Klein and Vice Mayor Liz Kniss.

Reducing the size, proponents maintained, would bring efficiency to council meetings and align Palo Alto's council size with the governing bodies in communities of similar size. Menlo Park and San Mateo, for example, have five council seats, while Mountain View and Sunnyvale have seven.

Smith told the Weekly he was "very pleased" with the early results, even as he acknowledged that there are many votes left to count.

"People understand that this will save time, effort and money," Smith said. "My hope is it will make staff more effective. I've never talked to someone who prefers to have nine bosses to seven bosses."

John Fredrich, a council candidate who opposed Measure D, said he was on the "side that promotes representation and democracy."

"I wonder if Roger Smith and proponents will move on to the Supreme Court, where there's nine people and they seem to be bloviating quite a bit," Fredrich said at a special election event hosted by the Midpeninsula Media Center at City Hall on Tuesday night.

The proposal had split both the community and the council, with four members opposing even placing the issue on the ballot. Marc Berman was the swing vote.

During the campaign for Measure D, opponents of the proposal argued that Palo Alto benefits from having extra seats because it allows a greater diversity of views and makes it easier for council members to recuse themselves if they have connections with Stanford University and the council is discussing an item that has to do with Stanford. Council members Greg Schmid, Karen Holman, Greg Scharff and Pat Burt had all opposed placing the measure on the ballot. Mayor Nancy Shepherd supported sending the item to the voters but said she has no strong opinion on what the size of the council should be.

The majority of the voters appeared to back the change. With 7,483 votes counted, 4,250 were in support of Measure D and 3,233 were against it.

Palo Alto last changed its council size in 1972, when the number of seats was reduced from 15 to nine.

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3 people like this
Posted by Really
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Nov 4, 2014 at 11:27 am

Kniss, Shepherd and Berman just want more control over the council.

3 people like this
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Nov 4, 2014 at 12:10 pm

Many of the problems with the Council that have brought this issue to the voters could have been solved administratively, by the Council itself. Reducing the time Council members speak on an issue—particularly after a vote, would reduce the time Council spends on each item on the agenda. If additional comments were deemed necessary, Council could submit written comments to the Clerk, who would add them in an appropriate place in the Council minutes for that meeting.

Better use of technology, which would facilitate more public input would also be something that this, and future Councils, could direct the City Manager to implement. For instance, having non-binding “pre-votes” by the public on the City’s web-site, would offer the Council some better sense that whatever letters-to-the-editor pop up on a given matter. These “pre-votes” would also give the voters/residents some sense of how Palo Altans are feeling about a given topic, in general.

Council could also begin to tap into the Internet technologies that would allow people to use VideoChat (like Skype) to speak to the Council from home, without having to truck down to City Hall, find a place to park, and sit for hours just to speak for three (or two) minutes.

There is little evidence that the nine-person Council has been providing superior governance to any other City’s 5/7-person Councils. Claims that Palo Alto offers services to non-residents—like the Palo Alto airport—and that needs Council oversight, certainly does not seem to be borne out in terms of any real evidence to date.

And .. if it turns out that seven is too small a number, then we can schedule another vote in the future to return the number to nine.

Like this comment
Posted by Palo Alto Native
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 4, 2014 at 6:11 pm

I voted to preserve the 9 members. Representative Democracy over Direct Democracy has its own set of challenges. Reducing representation from 9 to 7 would increase those challenges. I would like to see specific areas of Palo Alto represented. For example, I would create district specific areas of say

Downtown Palo Alto
College Terrace
The Cubberley District
Barron Park

The other five slots could be at large. A mixed system.

This way, certain areas are ensured representation.

Meanwhile, for now, it is in my view to maintain 9 voices representing the rest of us - if for no other reason a check and balance on an over reliance of one perspective derived from one region of Palo Alto over other districts of Palo Alto.

Like this comment
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 5, 2014 at 2:36 am

I voted for this because I think with too many people in the council it makes it hard to know what is going on and who did what and remember it. There is no decent reporting or narrative about what is going on in the city or who stands for what.

This is great, so glad my fellow Palo Altans voted for this.

Like this comment
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 5, 2014 at 7:20 am

A better reform would have been district elections so the City Council represents the entire city.

Like this comment
Posted by Citizen
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 5, 2014 at 8:24 am

I voted against because incumbents have a built-in advantage and this makes it harder to get others on Council. Also, it's essentially a volunteer Council, having fewer means the workload is greater, with all the committees, etc. I'd have been in favor if we moved away from a strong city manager model, employees who don't care very much about the City and show open disdain for residents have too much power.

Like this comment
Posted by Citizen
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 5, 2014 at 8:28 am

@Palo Alto Native,
That is a great proposal. Given this vote, how do we make it happen? Can a referendum do so? Please look into it and let your fellow citizens know.

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

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