Five months after Palo Alto officials approved a $4.3 million renovation of City Hall, council members made a public case for why the project was necessary.
Striking a somewhat defensive tone, several members of the City Council lamented the fact that the ambitious project became a political flashpoint during the recent election, with some members of the community criticizing the expanded scope and increasing price tag of the project.
The renovation, which includes a large new public room adjacent to the City Hall lobby and the refurbishment of two existing conference rooms on the ground floor, was approved on June 16 on the council's consent calendar, with no debate or discussion.
The project faced public scrutiny later in the summer after the Weekly wrote about its expanding scope and after some council members expressed surprise about how the project has morphed over the years from a simple renovation of a conference room to a complete overhaul of the ground floor. The Monday night discussion was prompted by requests by Councilwoman Karen Holman and Councilmen Greg Schmid and Pat Burt for a public explanation for why the project was necessary.
City Manager James Keene told the council Monday that the renovation "is a great project and is long overdue." He also said the 45-year-old building urgently needed the upgrade and that the project approved by the council has "thoroughly vetted over the years."
"It's very easy to question why you should invest in City Hall, but design does matter," Keene wrote. "This first floor is dead space. It is unwelcoming and ineffective. Unwelcoming for the public and for the staff who supports the council and the public."
He also said that the council currently "doesn't have a good place to meet," aside from its spacious and formal Council Chambers. The existing conference room, where local commissions and council committees often meet, is notoriously cramped and has an outdated air conditioning system that blasts cold air at participants.
The council discussion has been delayed for months because of packed agendas and by the time the council took up the item late Monday night, the Council Chambers was mostly empty and some members questioned whether the discussion is even worth having. Councilman Greg Scharff noted that the council didn't get a single email about the City Hall renovation from the public before this week's meeting (even though councilman-elect Tom DuBois wrote to the council, requesting that the item be placed higher on the agenda).
Councilman Larry Klein provided a brief history of the various City Hall renovations that the council had approved over the years and argued that the city had followed all the proper procedures in pursuing the project. He called the Monday discussion of the project "an exercise of bad procedure."
"Let's get real. Any time that the Palo Alto Weekly runs a story, we're supposed to bow and immediately take it up? I don't think we should do it as a policy, particularly when we did it in accordance with procedures," Klein said.
Mayor Nancy Shepherd, who did not prevail in her bid for a second term, also characterized the City Hall renovation as a non-issue.
"I'm sorry the Palo Alto Weekly had to do an article on it," Shepherd said.
Shepherd also lamented the way the City Hall project became a "political volleyball during campaign" because of the large amount of money being spent. Councilman Greg Scharff agreed and said it's a "shame" that this "good project really got caught up in the campaign."
But Burt and Schmid both argued that while the project has many merits, it's important to inform the public about it. Schmid said Keene's presentation about the project is "effective for the public to hear."
"You're talking to a group that spends maybe too much time in City Hall," Schmid said. "Together on consent we can say that this building needs it. It's sometimes good to do it in public so people can say, 'There are four other things you can do with $4 million.'"
Burt agreed and said it's a "responsible exercise for this to be done publicly." In a "community space" like City Hall, he said, the council owes the public "greater accountability."