The revolving door between Palo Alto City Hall and the high-stakes world of private development is opaque and well used.
In a city that depends on architects to volunteer their time for local boards and commissions, it's not unusual for a member to switch places during a meeting and assume the applicant's chair.
That's what happened to Randy Popp, former chair of Palo Alto's Architectural Review Board, who stepped down from the dais during a June meeting so that he could represent in front of the board a developer looking to build two Marriott hotels on San Antonio Avenue. In doing so, Popp didn't violate any local policies or state laws. He did, however, face criticism from neighborhood leaders for the dual role and resigned from the board shortly after the meeting.
Former planning commission Chair Daniel Garber faced similar scrutiny from the community for his work on 27 University Ave., a controversial project that included four office towers and a theater and that became a poster child for backdoor negotiations. This occurred despite the facts that Garber was hired by the city rather than by the developer to work on the project and he resigned from the commission after accepting the assignment.
Steve Emslie, a former planning director and deputy city manager, had a more direct role in 27 University Ave. as the chief negotiator on behalf of the city with billionaire philanthropist John Arrillaga.
Emslie resigned from his position shortly after the council shot down the project in the face of intense community opposition and swiftly transitioned to Goodyear Peterson Hayward Associates, a development-consulting firm whose client list includes Palantir and The Sobrato Group. Earlier this year, he was part of a development team that proposed a four-story project for the busy intersection of Page Mill Road and El Camino Real.
Situations in which a commissioner or former staff member appeals to the city on behalf of a private client aren't common. Nor are they, however, particularly rare. Former architectural board members Heather Young and David Solnick, both architects, have each made presentations to their former board colleagues. Current Historic Resources Board member Margaret Wimmer straddled the blurry line in January, when she represented a homeowner who wanted to make alterations to a historic home on Lincoln Avenue.
Now, Palo Alto officials are looking to tighten the rules and end this practice. Under a proposal that the City Council's Policy and Services Committee discussed Tuesday night, current board members and commissioners would no longer be allowed to appeal to their colleagues on behalf of private entities.
Committee Chair Pat Burt and Councilman Tom DuBois both strongly supported adopting the policy, while Councilmen Marc Berman and Cory Wolbach requested more time to deliberate before making a decision a request that was ultimately granted by their colleagues.
During its discussion, the committee didn't name any names and made only vague references to recent incidents in which a commissioner or staff member appeared to have a conflict of interest. DuBois alluded to the Architectural Review Board chair's recent predicament as "an uncomfortable situation" and lobbied for a rule change that would put an end to such situations.
"I think it would be very odd to be on a lot of these commissions and boards and then get up and pitch to the colleagues that you've been working with while you're actively on this board," DuBois said. "I don't think it's something we want to have happening."
Wolbach and Berman weren't so sure. Wolbach wondered whether this new restriction would significantly lower the city's applicant pool for architectural board seats and suggested a survey of past and present board members and applicants.
Berman agreed, saying, "I would be very hesitant to create any more onerous rules that would create a consequence of really narrowing the applicant pool to just retired applicants.
"Then you're really not getting the best review you possibly could," he said.
Burt agreed that there is "potential that we'd limit our candidate pool considerably with such a prohibition." Yet he also noted that most architects in Palo Alto work on single-family homes and, as a result, are unlikely to face public hearings in front of the board, which typically deals with larger project.
Burt said he favored a new policy that would ban active board members and commissioners from appearing in front of their own board.
"I do think it's problematic," Burt said of such situations. "It's not necessarily the fault of the architects who serve but by the nature of it. It's as close to certainty an appearance of a conflict of interest or a 'revolving door' as we have with some degree of frequency."
While DuBois agreed, the committee ultimately stopped short of adopting the change. Instead, they directed the City Clerk's office to consider conducting the survey that Wolbach requested before resuming the discussion next month.
In addition to considering this rule change, the committee unanimously agreed to expand the list of city officials who would have to wait at least a year after leaving office before they could represent any other person or entity at City Hall.
Palo Alto's existing policy already includes such a requirement for most senior officials, including the four council-appointed officers (city manager, city attorney, city auditor and city clerk), assistant city managers, planning director, police chief, fire chief and assistant city attorney.
The new change would expand the policy so that it applies to all department heads.