Guest Opinion: New mayor's priorities include 'how we communicate' as a community


The political shift in Palo Alto became official Monday night with the unanimous election of Councilwoman Karen Holman as the city's mayor for the 2015.

The only surprise was that Holman was nominated for the mayorship by Councilwoman Liz Kniss, who served as vice mayor in 2014 and who in the normal tradition of the council might have expected to be mayor this year.

Even Holman was surprised. She had expected to be nominated by Councilman Pat Burt, who was a candidate for vice mayor this year. Burt had twice earlier nominated Holman for vice mayor, and the two have often agreed about curtailing growth when specific projects came before the council. They also have pushed for increased funding for social services, to restore cutbacks.

A secondary-level surprise was the single-vote win for the vice mayor slot by Councilman Greg Schmid, a soft-spoken council member known for his diligent research of agenda items.

But the election of new "residentialist" council members last year shifted the political landscape, and some harsh language surfacing in emails and tweets has raised concerns about a serious split in the community, similar to a bitter 7-to-6 bloc-voting pattern that split the council and community in the 1960s.

Holman was ready for the win, complete with prepared remarks "just in case." She noted that "Palo Alto is a remarkable place," with many accomplishments of which it can be proud.

"We must, however, never be so proud of our good fortunes that we lose sight of the fact that also have people without a warm place to lay their heads on cold winter nights," she cautioned.

"And we are fortunate also to have an engaged, intelligent public that cares deeply about this, your community," she added, welcoming "continued engagement. We are all in this together. We are all neighbors."

She listed several "central initiatives" that need addressing, noting that "Seldom do we have second chances to get it right."

Those include reform of the architectural-review process to promote "architecture that enriches our daily experience."

Another big one is how information is presented by city staff on items before the council, including earlier release of council packets and other ways to "further support transparent decision-making process" and how information is presented "for better and easier understanding."

Another priority is strengthening the diverse voices of neighborhoods and fostering "a sense of attachment" through improved access to timely information and resources.

Three related priorities are to (1) increase retail opportunities and protect local independent retail; (2) get ahead of changes on the California Avenue commercial strip so "changed market forces" don't "dominate and define the future of this vital part of Palo Alto"; and (3) address the issue of office development and its "significant impact on parking, traffic, housing demand, quality of life."

She skipped over the updating of the city's Comprehensive Plan and other initiatives that are already underway.

"Clearly we have a lot of work in front of us," she noted in almost an understatement.

Holman then returned to her opening theme: how members of the community communicate with each other — with a special invitation.

"We are all truly in this together," she said. "We up here (on the council dais) also live and work, recreate, raise children, shop and dine and move about here.

"I ask that you carry the momentum of this past election forward by continuing to ask questions, speak up and ask your neighbors to join in this civic discussion as we set forth.

"And to help us set a tone for responsible and productive communication," whether at formal council meetings, less formal town-hall meetings or any other venue.

The lattermost, though unsaid, presumably includes online comments, tweets and neighborhood listservs, now in common use in most neighborhoods.

"Your voice matters," she concluded.

In a telephone interview Tuesday, Holman, noting she was a bit sleep-deprived from the excitement and celebration Monday night, elaborated on some of her concerns.

The "political divide" in town and on the council is a big one, which she alluded to Monday night.

"I said a few words but didn't elaborate about how we communicate with each other. I think that's really important, because communicating in a manner that other people can hear, that not only is clear and factual" but is also productive and constructive, is vital.

"How information is presented and how concerns are presented makes a big difference," she said.

"So if someone has concerns about a 'bias in staff reports,' then raises the concern about biases — and those concerns should be raised, they absolutely should be raised — but to describe somebody as being corrupt rather than being in the context of raising that concern, that's not a way to get to a concern that's well-heard or productive.

"Go after the issue and not the person," she emphasized. "After we raise the hard questions, also be mindful about how they're posed."

Staff reports themselves deserve a look also, and beyond clarity and completeness need to include how a project fits with the city's zoning ordinance and Comprehensive Plan — sometimes referred to as the city's "bible" for development but really more of a loose guideline, with just about something in it for everyone.

Including alternatives in staff reports would also be helpful in the council's decision-making and discussion and would help "eliminate the appearance" of bias, while including more tables and charts might help with clarity — especially when considering cumulative impacts and development limits for commercial areas such as downtown Palo Alto.

"Personally I want to set a playing field that's fair for the applicant, the public, the staff and the council."

Holman said increasing the clarity and focus of reports should reduce questions from the public and council members and actually shorten council meetings — one goal that has proved elusive for decades.

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at He also writes periodic blogs at

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1 person likes this
Posted by Ethics
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 10, 2015 at 9:04 am

Make stronger ethics rules, please, so that when the person really is the issue, there can be a transparent review. When city hall protects people who prbably should be dismissed for questionable ethics, it undermines trust in everyone in city hall.

I agree with the mayor that it can be difficult to separate people from the issue, but you can't change the public reaction by criticizing it, only by doing a better job that creates better transparency, trust, and (an apt word that now feels tarnished) engagement.

Make it so rather than telling us so.

5 people like this
Posted by Agenda
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 10, 2015 at 10:12 am

"Those include reform of the architectural-review process to promote "architecture that enriches our daily experience.""

And what exactly does that mean? That sounds like another typical Palo Alto sound bite. As holman should know by now, EVERY structure in Palo Alto will produce a wide range of opinions on its appearance. Do we want to let people like holman decide what " enriches our daily experience"? I think not.

I agree with Ethan about the need for ethics rule. Clearly over the last few years the council, including holman, has been involved in ethically questionably incidents ( the foothill land issue, 27 university) etc.

2 people like this
Posted by senor blogger
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jan 12, 2015 at 10:52 am

Put the "citizens comment " portion of the Council meetings as the first item instead of the last item.

Like this comment
Posted by Need stronger ethics
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 12, 2015 at 11:13 am

Among the ethical rules we need are stronger rules about the revolving door for both staff and city officials.
Some recent flips by staff and by commissioners going to work for developers with projects that come before the city is a shameful lapse.
It will be interesting to watch the careers of those leaving government now.

1 person likes this
Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 12, 2015 at 12:11 pm

Holman had better do something concrete soon. Her predecessors have thoroughly poisoned the ethics well over the past couple of decades, and citizens are rightfully cynical. Not to mention she has four councilmembers and the whole of city staff opposing her. I do not envy her the task.

Like this comment
Posted by Carol
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 12, 2015 at 12:31 pm

Congratulations Karen. The City is looking forward to strong leadership with consensuses building and respect from the council toward all of our City's diverse opinions.

1 person likes this
Posted by Veritas
a resident of another community
on Jan 12, 2015 at 2:27 pm

An end at last to the disgraceful back door meetings and deals of various present and former high-level City staff and elected officials! They may leave through the revolving door to be "consultants", but the shady shenanigans won't be on the public payroll.

Like this comment
Posted by Sea SEELAM REDDY
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 12, 2015 at 2:36 pm



You will do great for the city of Palo Alto.


Like this comment
Posted by Duped
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 12, 2015 at 3:43 pm

The residents are skeptical and cynical of the city staff and rightly so.
Jaime Rodriguez, the chief Transportation official for Palo Alto, runs and operates at least two outside companies, in addition to his full time city job. One company, Traffic Patterns, LLC., designs street patterns. His other company is American Asphalt. This constitutes a complete conflict of interest, or at least the appearance of a conflict of interest with his PA staff job. It is unethical. He is using his Palo Alto Transportation Department job as a vehicle to get outside consulting jobs. He has been caught answering his Traffic Patterns work phone during the day when he should be working at his PA staff job. Why do you think he is putting up so many ugly, meaningless street signs and street markings all over town? He is using them as an "example" to get jobs for his private outside businesses. Palo Alto is being "used" and no one is holding him accountable or watching what he is doing. It strikes me as eerily similar to the trees being cut down on California Avenue. No one at city hall was paying attention to the tree cutting. And no one at city hall is watching all the meaningless, unnecessary signs and hideous green markings being laid on our city streets. Of course Palo Altans question the ethics of city staff, when you have employees like Jaime Rodriguez and City Manager Keene, who turns a blind eye or even condones and defends such unethical behavior.

Like this comment
Posted by Agenda
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 12, 2015 at 4:29 pm

Veritas-- are you sure it is the end. Many of the elected officials that engaged in these shenanigans are still on the council. And, in fact, two have them have been chosen to occup the mayor and vice mayor positions this year.

Like this comment
Posted by Veritas
a resident of another community
on Jan 13, 2015 at 8:40 am

Agenda, I trust that those two and the others still in office they have learned their lesson through public shaming, therefore will "go and sin no more". The crafty ones who have gone on through the Palo Alto City Hall revolving door at 250 Hamilton Avenue from senior City staff or commission appointee positions to become "consultants" for big time land developers got out while the getting was still good "one step ahead of the sheriff", so to speak.

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

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