Guest Opinion: Improving Palo Alto's stakeholder group process


At the end of October I completed six months as a member of the RPP Stakeholders' Group -- a group of residents and business owners tasked with recommending a model for a Residential Permit Parking program for the neighborhoods surrounding the downtown commercial core.

We will not fully understand the results of our efforts until the new regulations are adopted by the City Council late this year, the completion of a six-month trial beginning in early 2015, and then full implementation in mid-2015.

I applaud the city for bringing together interested parties to address complicated local issues, and I hope more people will consider serving in these groups. Local knowledge and insight are invaluable in creating solutions to local issues.

However, based on my experience, there is much we can do to improve the process. Below are recommendations to strengthen and accelerate the impact of citizen-guided solutions.

First, stakeholder groups would benefit from independent and competent group facilitation. The city hired Circlepoint Consultants to support our group, but it quickly became clear that the Circlepoint facilitator was not up to the job, and the role was eliminated. This put an extra burden on Palo Alto's parking manager to both moderate and participate in the discussions, slowing our progress.

Recommendation No. 1: Ensure that competent, independent group facilitation is offered to future groups.

Second, after generating a list of issues to be addressed, members were assigned to groups, each to propose solutions for a subset of issues. All groups included both resident and business representatives, ensuring multiple points of view. I found this to be the most productive group exercise and a powerful tool to create consensus from divergent views. Unfortunately, this process was abandoned after four meetings, resulting in the loss of much of the collaborative spirit that had been created.

Recommendation No. 2: Get opposing sides talking quickly and task them with proposing solutions that could be acceptable to the entire community.

Third, at our July meeting, city staff proposed a survey of residents and businesses near the commercial core to collect data on how people view the permit parking proposal. The concept is fine but the execution was terrible. The city lacks surveying expertise. At the launch of the survey, the permit proposal was incomplete, the questions failed to address the complexity of the issues and the city used a mailed, paper survey that, to many, looked like junk mail. When questioned about their expertise in survey use, staff simply said that they do surveys all the time but admitted lacking specific training or expertise.

Recommendation No. 3: The city needs to acquire expertise in survey design, implementation and analysis in order to more accurately understand resident opinions.

Lastly, at our initial meeting the city asked the stakeholder group members to comply with the "spirit of the Brown Act" (a 1953 law mandating the public's right to participate in legislative meetings). A stakeholder group is advisory and has no legislative authority. It's both unrealistic and counterproductive to discourage stakeholder participants from talking about issues with as many people as possible outside of the meetings.

Recommendation No. 4: Encourage more dialogue, not less.

Our group has just been shown a revised draft of the RPP Ordinance and it is clear that, for the most part, staff listened to our guidance and priorities. However, there is one key area where the proposal utterly fails. Section 4C, b, ii states:

"The Director (of Planning and Community Environment) will limit commuter permit sales according to a threshold listed in the Administrative Regulations ..."

The Administrative Regulations are yet-to-be-written rules for administering the parking district. Giving a city staffer authority to set the number of commercial parking spaces allowed in residential neighborhoods is not an acceptable model. Proposing a model that's unlike most residential permit parking programs, Palo Alto's stakeholder residents have recommended allocating up to 20 percent of parking capacity to commercial parking in residential areas in order to support a vibrant downtown core while other solutions are developed. This is a generous offer, and an allocation must be reduced over time.

After months of difficult discussions, it is unrealistic and unfair to grant a city staffer the power to determine the acceptable volume of commercial parking intrusion into residential neighborhoods. Staff has missed the mark on this issue.

If you are a Palo Alto resident, then you are by default a stakeholder in the regulations and ordinances that govern our community life. If asked to participate in a stakeholders' group, I encourage you to accept. If you do, please remember that speaking out for what you believe is fair is your right and obligation.

In the group, you'll get a glimpse of the sausage-making that is local government, work with other concerned citizens and perhaps make some surprising new friends from the "other side" of whatever issue you tackle.

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2 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 8, 2014 at 9:57 pm

Appreciate your comments concerning your experiences in RPP meetings. I hope the new council will listen to residents and take action on your suggestions. Stakeholder meetings should definitely have more residents and I agree with your reasons for not applying the brown act.

2 people like this
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 9, 2014 at 7:12 pm

> The city lacks surveying expertise.

This is undoubtedly true. But the taxpayers are paying for some very high-cost PR people, both working out of the City Manager's Office, and the Utility. Why shouldn't these people, being paid as much as they are, be expected to have such expertise, and to be involved in these surveys?

2 people like this
Posted by Sunshine
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 10, 2014 at 8:06 am

John, thanks for shining a bright light on the corrupt and manipulative practices of Palo Alto Staff that have been fully accepted by the current and past Councils.

Staff sets up incompetently managed citizen groups that are used solely to justify that there has been community engagement. Staff then maintains the decision making authority which serves the few they choose to favor. Council approves of this since a few bullies on Council can then control the outcomes in private meetings within the walls of city hall.

Citizens have been saying this over and over the past 10 years. Hopefully the new City Council can effect change. Staff needs to serve the needs of the voters too or they need to be gone.

2 people like this
Posted by Joe Baldwin
a resident of University South
on Nov 10, 2014 at 11:07 am

Attended all stakeholder meetings, spoke at several.
John Guislin's cogent summary is 100% accurate.
I heartily endorse his well-reasoned recommendations.

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

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