Names and faces will change but Palo Alto's official priorities should remain largely fixed when the new City Council convenes for its first meeting in January, with land-use and transportation leading the way.
According to a survey of current and future council members, the update of the city's Comprehensive Plan and the progress on a wide array of transportation initiatives should dominate the council's agenda in 2015, much like they did this past year. All council members and council members-elect except Councilman Larry Klein (who is termed out this year), Mayor Nancy Shepherd (who concludes her council term this year after failing in a bid for re-election) and Vice Mayor Liz Kniss took the survey, which asked for their top civic concerns.
The submitted lists in many ways reflect the wide spectrum of opinions and styles that current and new council members will bring with them to the dais next year. Councilman Greg Schmid, an economist whose musings on development trends often border on the abstract and academic, submitted a list of priorities that include identifying "big picture" issues that will influence the city over the next 15 years; making sure that "the right data is identified" to foster a public discussion of these issues; and scheduling public meetings that will allow "a robust discussion" of these priorities.
Councilwoman Karen Holman, who last year lobbied to include "healthy city" initiatives on the priorities list, is renewing her request this year. Gail Price, who is concluding her term and who did not seek re-election, also proposed including in the priorities list "collaboration and partnerships to promote a healthy community." Newly elected member Cory Wolbach made a pitch for "social services" as a priority, a term that encompasses new services for the homeless, youth, seniors and disabled community members.
Land use, however, emerged as the common priority on various lists. Councilman-elect Eric Filseth listed two priorities: updating the Comprehensive Plan, the city's official land-use bible; and the land use and transportation items that would be completed before the city finishes this update. Filseth notes in his list that the latter is a "huge topic that touches on a lot of things such as traffic, housing, the future of Cal Ave., etc.; but one root issue is that many recent development projects don't meet standards called for by many residents." The priority, he said, should include adjusting codes to "produce projects and outcomes more in line with residents' wishes."
For Tom DuBois, who like Filseth and Wolbach will be making his council debut in January, land use issues also loom large in 2015. He also includes "new land use and transportation initiatives" as a top priority, by which he means "immediate and short-term changes that will impact the quality of development and traffic," such as an annual cap on commercial development. A second priority for DuBois is the Comprehensive Plan update. The third is "technology and connected city," which includes implementation of a citywide fiber-optics network known as "Fiber to the Premises."
Land use and transportation also top the priority lists of council members Pat Burt, Greg Scharff and Marc Berman. Both Scharff and Berman also suggested leaving the existing priority of "infrastructure" in place for 2015.
Palo Alto's process of setting official priorities has changed in recent years, with members eschewing well-meaning but abstract items such as "civic engagement" and "youth well-being" in favor of more actionable priorities with a limited horizon. While priorities are officially adopted during the council's annual retreat, the city recently changed its practice to allow council members to submit their proposals far in advance of the retreat. In prior years, members would hold long brain-storming sessions and then mark their favored priorities by placing stickers next to them. Those with the most stickers would make it to the list.
Also, whereas in the past the list included as many as five items, the council now tries to limit it to three. The 2014 list includes "comprehensive planning and action on land use and transportation"; "infrastructure strategy and funding"; and "technology and the connected city."
The city defines a priority as "a topic that will receive particular, unusual and significant attention during the year."
"The purpose of establishing priorities is to assist the council and staff to better allot and utilize time for discussion and decision-making," a report from City Manager James Keene states.
The city also solicited input from the public and received 112 responses on its Open City Hall forum, with many calling for the council to adopt "airplane noise" and "increasing housing supply" as a priority. Other proposals from the public included "fight crime," "street beautification" and "bathrooms in the park."
The responses prompted Klein to observe during a Tuesday discussion of the topic that "the public hasn't quite gotten the difference between what is a problem and what is a priority." For example, he said, he was "distressed by the number of people who suggested that airplane noise should be a priority."
He also observed that many of the important things that the council deals with every year do not technically qualify as priorities precisely because of their recurring nature.
"It's hard to imagine the budget as a priority because you've got to do a budget every year," Klein said during the meeting of the Policy and Services Committee.
Otherwise, the committee was largely pleased by the heavy overlap among the lists from council members and members-elect. So was Keene.
"I think it's good that priorities are, for the most part, flowing out of the conversation and focus and work that the council is already doing," Keene said. "I'd be disturbed if everything was from Mars or something."