Four game changers of 2014

They worked behind the scenes to bring big changes to Palo Alto

Jessica Sullivan

Her task has been compared to herding cats and rolling a boulder up a mountain, and by all accounts Jessica Sullivan has excelled.

Sullivan, who in 2013 became Palo Alto's first-ever parking manager, spent her year working on more than a dozen parking initiatives, from new garage technologies to establishment of a nonprofit to manage downtown's commute programs.

Sullivan's crowning achievement in 2014 was the creation of a downtown Residential Parking Permit Program, which aims to provide frustrated downtown residents with relief from commuters who park their cars all day on neighborhood streets. Drafted after nine months of bickering, negotiations and compromises by downtown residents, employers and property owners who participated in a stakeholders' group, the program won unanimous approval from the City Council on Dec. 2.

Her leadership did not go unnoticed. Toward the end of the year, Sullivan was feted and applauded by those who participated in the process at just about every meeting where the parking program was discussed.

"I have heard so many positive comments about your efforts, work and diligence and your commitment that we all should applaud you, and I do," Councilwoman Karen Holman said at the Dec. 2 meeting.

One of the few people who did not laud Sullivan at that meeting was downtown resident Neilson Buchanan, a member of the stakeholders group and a long-time proponent of the parking program. That was not, however, because he disagreed with those who celebrated her accomplishment.

"The most important thing to do is to quit complimenting Jessica because someone is going to hire her away, and the whole thing is going to collapse," Buchanan warned the council.

Andrew Swanson

Despite its name and location, the Palo Alto Airport wasn't under the city's control until August, when the City Council and the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors agreed to transfer operations of the small but busy Embarcadero Road airport from the county to the city.

The agreement was the conclusion of a turbulent ride that began seven years ago. The county, arguing that it was losing money on the venture, sought to terminate early its 50-year lease of the airport, which was set to expire in 2017. The city accused the county of letting the airport fall into disrepair and agreed that local control would be best. The county's ongoing disagreement with the Federal Aviation Administration, unrelated to Palo Alto, didn't help matters. It ensured that there wouldn't be any federal grants for any county-run facility, including the one in Palo Alto.

Into this bureaucratic mess stepped Andrew Swanson, whom the city hired in April 2013 to fill the new position of airport manager. It fell to him to complete the negotiations with the county and begin fixing up the airport.

This year, he hit milestones on both fronts. In a quick conclusion to a long process, the council unanimously approved the transfer agreement on Aug. 11. Two months later, the city announced that it had received a federal grant: $500,000 to repair the airport's dilapidated runway and taxiway.

The airport still faces plenty of questions about its financial future. It will need at least a few years of loans from the city's general fund, though Swanson predicts that it will be in the black in 2018.

In September, the council approved a construction contract to begin improvements. The funding and repairs wouldn't have been possible without the airport transfer, and Swanson deserves credit for getting the job done.

"It was multiple different things that needed to happen to be able to get to this point," he told the Weekly after the construction contract was awarded. "Over the last year, those things have all got us to where we are today."

Elaine Uang

There are two camps in Palo Alto's debate on city growth: one that sees a split between slow-growth "residentialists" and a pro-growth political establishment and another that rejects the very notion that there are two camps. If the citizens group Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning espouses the former view, the fledgling group Palo Alto Forward epitomizes the latter.

Nobody personified the spirit of collaboration better than Palo Alto Forward co-founder Elaine Uang, a mother of two who lives downtown and whose passions include design, architecture and transportation. This year, Uang served on four different citizen committees: ones devoted to exploring a limit on downtown development; getting residents involved in the Comprehensive Plan update; passing a new Housing Element, which plans for future housing; and establishing a downtown Residential Parking Permit Program. She has become a familiar face at City Council meetings, and Palo Alto Forward now has an email list of more than 1,000 people.

In discussing Palo Alto Forward, Uang highlights the diversity of views that its members espouse. Though its stated goal is to work for better transportation and housing options, Palo Alto Forward includes members with different perspectives about what exactly that means and how much more growth the city can handle. Uang said she'd like to see Palo Alto get more people out of cars, further reduce greenhouses gases and make downtown more vibrant. But rather than advocate for particular measures or candidates, she is hoping to bring together for a civil discussion residents who have been pushed apart by Palo Alto's recent land-use debates.

"I think there is a really good opportunity and space to say, 'Let's step up. Let's talk about the things that we value and the things that we want,'" Uang told the Weekly. "A lot of things happen in other towns that we can really learn from. We have a lot of diversity of perspectives and we welcome more."

Roger Smith

"I'm a big believer, spending my career in the private sector, that time is money," Roger Smith told the City Council in May, when he made his case for reducing the council's size from nine members to seven.

For the next few months, the founding president of Silicon Valley Bank devoted plenty of time and money to a crusade that faced significant skepticism and opposition at just about every step. Though Smith argued that many Palo Altans share his view that trimming the council will make governance more efficient and effective, most council members weren't so sure. The measure only landed on the ballot after a 5-4 vote, with an ambivalent Marc Berman casting the swing vote. Even Mayor Nancy Shepherd, who in 2013 co-authored a memo with Liz Kniss and Gail Price urging that the item be placed on the ballot, characterized her support as "51 to 49" hardly a vote of confidence. The group Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning came out against the measure. Strikingly, not one of the 12 council candidates seeking a seat on the council spoke out in favor of it (though many spoke out against it, characterizing it as inimical to democracy).

Undeterred, Smith funded a campaign in support of Measure D and enticed dozens of dignitaries to lend their signatures (if not their cash) to the effort. His once-quixotic quest proved successful on Nov. 4, winning 54 percent of the votes.

The victory was pure vindication for Smith, who briefly ran for council in 2005 but ultimately withdrew from the race. Smith told the Weekly he was "very pleased" with the vote, saying it will "make staff more effective."

"I've never talked to someone who prefers to have nine bosses to seven bosses," Smith said.

The change will take effect in 2018.

Related content:

2014: The year the game changed

What is democracy worth to you?
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9 people like this
Posted by Deceptive sweettalk
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 26, 2014 at 9:29 am

Describing her as "Elaine Uang, a mother of two" is deceptive.
Most of our leaders have children but do not use them for their public image. She has applied to become a city commissioner and the City Manager appoints her to many development-connected committees. And lots of photo ops.
Uang is an architect who advocates for more, denser housing. Just look at the leaders of the organization. That is its basic value despite the cover about greenhouse gasses and civility.
People need to look behind the sweettalk. Incivility developed because the majority of residents have been ignored and steamrollered by big development.
The pressure for civility is a plea to continue the system that is in place. More honesty would reduce the conflict.

8 people like this
Posted by from the office of...
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 26, 2014 at 10:18 am


It would be better reporting if you disclosed how you or the Weekly arrived at these four names.

Was it an Editorial evaluation, did you do a survey?

SInce it's "behind the scenes" I imagine you had to ask someone who would know.

Without disclosure, it sounds like a press release.

15 people like this
Posted by Mike Greenfield
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 26, 2014 at 3:48 pm

Gennady: thanks for the informative article. I know Roger Smith through other channels and hadn't realized he'd been involved with that legislation; it's good to read.

"Deceptive sweettalk": I'm Elaine Uang's husband. I think I'm in pretty good position to assert that she is in no way practicing "deception" when she refers to herself as a mother of two. I'm all for you stating your perspectives on issues, but I hope that next time you talk about someone in this manner online, you'll choose to use your real name.

To the editors of Palo Alto Online: There are lots of services that allow you to authenticate commenters, forcing them to use their real names (I use Facebook on my blog). I hope you'll choose to implement one -- it significantly improves the quality of discourse.

6 people like this
Posted by Jetman
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 26, 2014 at 5:22 pm

Have to agree with some of the other posters. This article has the feel of a PR "puff piece", or maybe it is just one of those easy end of the year "list" articles.

Particularly striking is the superficial coverage of PACC's acceptance of a $500K Airport Improvement Grant. This issue has been vigorously debated in the comments section of an article published by the writer's own publication. "Council votes to take over Airport" is one of the most viewed articles of 2014, and the comments section of the article provides a much more in depth exploration of the issue, than is provided by the current piece.

FAA Airport Improvement Grants come at a cost. There is no such thing as a free lunch. When the PACC entered into an agreement with the FAA, they gave an opaque, and impervious, federal bureaucracy control of many aspects of PAO's operation, that are most important to the residents of Palo Alto.

AIP grants usually have a 20 year term, so on an annualized basis the PACC gave the federal government control of a municipal asset in exchange for $25K/year. Grant money is not "free" money. AIP grants are funded by Palo Alto residents federal tax dollars... but that is how the government grant scam works. Residents think they are getting "free" money when they are actually paying for the grant.

This move also stands in stark contrast to recent developments in Santa Monica, which only this year finally regained control of its airport after decades of struggle with the FAA over regulating the noise and air pollution created by aviation operating out of the Santa Monica Airport.

"Council votes to take over Palo Alto Airport"
Palo Alto Online ~ August 12, 2014 Web Link

"Santa Monica Voters Pass Measure LC for Local Control of their Airport"
Aviation Impact Reform ~ November 5, 2014 Web Link

8 people like this
Posted by Agenda
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 26, 2014 at 7:17 pm

Mike-- I do not agree with deceptive sweet talk'so comments, but there is nothing wrong with them. Your wife is in the public eye. If you and her cannot take some criticism, perhaps she should retire to private life. And why do you think it would matter if the poster used his own name?
The weekly will never switch to postings using a posters real name. That would cut traffic on this forum by about 80-90%

9 people like this
Posted by Bob McGrew
a resident of Menlo Park
on Dec 26, 2014 at 8:21 pm

Congratulations to Jessica, Elaine, Andrew, and Roger. From what I've seen of their efforts this year, this recognition is richly deserved.

3 people like this
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 27, 2014 at 1:52 am

I don't like the parking systems. I think Palo Alto Parking should be free. I also do not like the City trying to pick winning technologies or lifestyle in the name of the people or the environment - or trying to be world class. Trying to pick winners is what people seem to be against as part of government's role. There is some justification for it at the Federal level because we desperately need coordination there and there is also more of an oversight function.

I don't like the airport. I think the Baylands is a precious resource that the presence of the airport, along with the smell of an outdated sewage treatment plant takes away from Palo Altans. It would be nice to see a more natural Baylands with locations and businesses that were less industrial and more recreational, but always with an eye towards preserving the environment.

Don't much care for most of the new development, but particularly the way things are done in Palo Alto. Everything big that happens in Palo Alto is done by a few elite folks with very little taste, judgement or interest as to what the pubic wants or needs, but more because it will develop some income stream to the City or its elite. I do like the new library. It's not without faults and the process was terrible, but at least we have new library finally. It would be worth it if the City and its government learned something ... which is speculative at best I guess.

I know dealing with the public is a big pain you know where, but if we were really world class we would be developing our City Community more inclusively. If this was being looked at on the national level people would decry it as "federalism" or central planning, but since it is at a lower level we don't really see it, except in some of the good work Palo Alto Online has begun. I think we'd all like to see that work continued and extended. That is what would develop a real Palo Alto community again, because we have lost it.

To have a real discussion about things, to develop a real Town Square, these discussions are like votes. If one is forced to use their real name it becomes about what one can say and not develop animosities over, or it becomes about the name and not the content of the comment. I think it is better to deal in ideas than pesonalities. Powerful people can produce a chilling effect, which is the reason our democracy has a secret ballot. Well, the workings of democracy also benefit from anonymity. This city is far too political already,

2 people like this
Posted by Douglas Moran
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 27, 2014 at 3:38 am

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

I find your inclusion of Roger Smith disturbing.

His accomplishment was to push through a major change based not on a convincing logical and factual arguments, but rather lots of (unopposed) advertising (he spent $11.8K).
Aside: As the article points out, the ultimate responsibility for putting the measure on the ballot without having adequate preparation resides with the (feckless) City Council.

His arguments for the change were not only questionable, but potentially disingenuous. See the Weekly's recommendation (Web Link) and my blog entry on this (Web Link).

And he failed to make the legally required disclosures in his ads and he failed to file the required financial disclosure forms until well after the election (missing three deadlines).

This may well be a "game-changer", but I don't think it is one that should be honored.

10 people like this
Posted by Eric Rosenblum
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 27, 2014 at 7:08 am

Congratulations to all!

I haven't worked directly with all four, but I have worked with Jessica and Elaine. Both are taking on some of the thorniest problems in Palo Alto in a productive way, and both are achieving results. I admire anyone who steps up to accomplish hard things, and they have certainly done that. Huzzah!

11 people like this
Posted by stephen levy
a resident of University South
on Dec 27, 2014 at 11:25 am

stephen levy is a registered user.

Congratulations to all four.

A special shout out to Jessica Sullivan. The job of city staff usually brings lots of complaints, long hours and little thanks. I was in several meetings with her on the parking and other issues. She handled the job with grace and persistence. This is a well deserved acknowledgement of a job well done.

I first saw Elaine Uang this year in one of many housing committee meetings with regard to the city's housing element. I have since gotten to know her and watched in the parking and leadership group committees she is on. She is an example of what I hope for in these busy times--a young professional, raising a family and making time for community service. I am sure there are others doing this and they also deserve our thanks and recognition.

8 people like this
Posted by Deceptive sweettalk
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 27, 2014 at 12:50 pm

And she is an architect in favor of more dense development (as are Stephen Levy and Eric Rosenblum)- which the community has strongly indicated it does not want in two elections:
This November, residentialists won overwhelmingly and
the Maybell Referendum won by citizens despite the support of the big development by the city council and developers big money.

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

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