From pension reform to airplane noise, Palo Alto's elected leaders routinely find themselves wrestling over issues over which they have no jurisdiction and little influence.
The list of such issues has been growing in recent years, with the latest entries including grade separation (an under- or overpass) on the rail corridor, protection against sea-level rise and reform of a state law that allows developers of affordable housing to exceed local zoning regulations. These topics, as well as many others, make up the legislative agenda that the City Council approved last month -- a document that officials hope will help raise the city's clout in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.
The semi-annual document, which the council approved on June 22, functions as a set of instructions for Palo Alto's state and federal lobbyists: the firms Townsend Public Affairs and Van Scoyoc Associates, respectively. It establishes the city's positions on various initiatives currently going through the state and federal legislative processes and flags certain legislative areas as particularly suitable for tracking and taking a stance on.
"This is intended to help us both react to legislation and legislative policy that comes before us and also to help form policy as we move forward," said Richard Hackmann, a management analyst in the Office of City Manager who is coordinating the city's lobbying policies.
So what exactly are the city's lobbying priorities? On the state level, reforms to Proposition 13 and to the city's pension system top the list. The city is officially supporting a proposal by state Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, to amend Proposition 13, a landmark law that was passed by the voters in 1978 and that caps real estate taxes. Under the proposed change, property values for commercial and industrial properties would be reassessed to reflect the current market value, potentially raising billions of dollars in tax revenues for local schools and governments. Currently, reassessments only occur when a property changes hands. If Hancock's effort succeeds, the reform would be included on the November 2016 ballot.
Curbing the rising pension and health care costs for city employees also remains among the highest City Council priorities. The list of strategic initiatives includes an entire section dedicated to the topic, with the city pledging support for laws that reduce cost for public employees' health care; expand its ability to offer health, welfare and wellness services for workers; and promote long-term stability of CalPERS, the state's pension fund.
At the same time, the city is officially opposed to legislation that would increase medical costs; expand workers' compensation coverage for illnesses and injuries that are not work-related; or impose state-mandated training programs without offering a reimbursement to the city.
During the June 22 council discussion, City Manager James Keene said it's important for Palo Alto to work with other cities to address CalPERS issues. Currently, he said, there are many regulations in place that "lock cities into some pretty stuck positions" in terms of the services they have to provide. Like other cities, he said, Palo Alto is looking for more "flexibiltiy" in this area.
"One of the things we want to be doing in our legislative strategy is having some follow-up conversations about how we take it to the next level, as it relates to ongoing legislative engagements and activity and coalition building over time," Keene said. "Obviously, we won't have any success in this arena as a single city ourselves and we won't be able to accomplish anything near to what we want to accomplish in this single area."
Another topic on which the city hopes to find partners around the state is opposition to the existing formula used by the Association of Bay Area Governments to allocate how much housing each community has to plan for. One of the council's top legislative strategic initiatives is to advocate for reform to the allocation process, as well as for changes to the State Density Bonus law, which gives projects with affordable-housing components density concessions (the law recently allowed a mixed-use development at 441 Page Mill Road to include more office space than the city's zoning code otherwise allows). Some of the law's elements, the city's legislative document claims, are "counterproductive to the jobs/housing imbalance."
The list of legislative initiatives also includes a dozen environmental issues, including supporting energy sources that don't emit greenhouse gas; conservation pricing for refuse; a ban on Styrofoam food containers; and a requirement that cigarettes sold in California are manufactured with biodegradable cigarette butts.
The latest entry in this category is an issue that has become more pressing in recent years: airplane noise. Over the past year, members of a new citizens group called Sky Posse have been lobbying the council to do something about the increasing number of planes flying over their homes at all hours of the day and night.
Mayor Karen Holman pointed out at the June 22 meeting that other communities, such as Phoenix, have had "some success in terms of getting some kind of relaxation," via revised routes.
But even with lobbyists' support, getting the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to do anything on this topic could prove difficult. Last year, the city had a tough time persuading the FAA to make revisions to its Environmental Assessment, an analysis of new flight-management practices and airplane routes. The FAA ultimately approved the document after finding that the new program would have "no impact."
Keene noted in a February report that cities have "a limited role in the area of airspace and that this resource is administered by the federal government." Thus, he is relying on Van Scoyoc Associates to work on behalf of the city to address this topic.
The outcome is far from certain. Steve Palmer, vice president of Van Scoyoc Associates, noted at the June 22 meeting that the FAA isn't known for quickly responding to suggestions from cities.
"The FAA has a terrible 'not invented here' syndrome," Palmer said. "They are not stopping quickly to change their minds. They have to get dragged into these things."