As a Palo Alto native, I credit the city's culture of civic engagement, enriching community resources and inclusive schools for childhood experiences that inspired my values and lifelong dedication to public service. Although our schools were a big part of that, they were not the only motivator to raise my family here. No, I wanted them to have the big prize -- a whole community that embraced, comforted and inspired them. And I wanted to spend my adult life serving the community that did that for me.
When we moved "home" to Palo Alto, old friends warned that the city had changed. Yes, it felt busier and more crowded, but the things I loved remained: a diverse and welcoming community, easy and safe to traverse on foot or bicycle; neighbors citywide who cared for each other and the environment; and most importantly, a participatory and collaborative culture -- a sense that we were in it together. For me, that's what quality of life is all about.
Sadly, in recent years I've seen that culture slipping away. It breaks my heart to hear my teenage children describe a Palo Alto that seems intolerant and entitled, where worth is measured by superlatives honoring competition over collaboration. A place where community service is a resume builder rather than a responsibility. To them, our quality of life feels "toxic."
For my part, I have watched our city fall prey to increasingly sophisticated commercial interests and an ambition for "world-class" status that far exceeds the capacity of our municipal budget and our staff's earnest efforts -- a course too often pursued at the expense of fundamental services. People complain that our staffing budget is bloated, yet residents donate countless hours to fill gaps in city capacity. They do so out of desperation to keep our roadways safe, our neighborhoods healthy and our parks and green-space vital in the face of rapid, unsustainable development.
Despite the planning challenges we face, our City Council-appointed Planning and Transportation Commission (PTC) has canceled a full third of this year's meetings. I've seen a commissioner publicly disparage residents contesting compliance deficiencies as "unmeaningful minorities." In private conversation, another has said that the details of the Comprehensive Plan just don't really matter that much. Attacking opponents of unfettered growth, a recently departed commissioner has asked, "How long will ... baby boomers ... be allowed to keep strangling the younger working generation?"
Such disregard for noncompliance, disinterest in the details for which they're responsible and divisive rhetoric does not engender confidence in this important commission. Nor does it reflect inclusive, effective or civil service.
I've seen a sitting council member brazenly suggest that Palo Altans concerned about quality of life are simply demagogues like Donald Trump. Alongside his assertion that they use "quality of life" as a calculated code-phrase for excluding others, he posted a picture of Trump with the caption: "Trump says Syrian refugees aren't just a terrorist threat, they'd hurt quality of life." That intentional distortion of our words and values with such false equivalencies is irresponsible and dangerous. It encourages outrage, not cooperation and empowerment.
Worst of all, I've seen an accompanying rise in public distrust in the intentions and ability of officials to hear and serve constituents' interests and to faithfully and transparently enforce city policy. That distrust takes form, not only in the controversial revolt behind the Maybell referendum or the activists who doggedly fight for code compliance, but in the more insidious context of the resident who won't attend a public meeting because "(t)hey're just gonna do what they want anyway." I see it in the neighbor who abandons a repeated enforcement complaint, having seen no redress despite official findings of violation. And in the park-lover who's encouraged to embrace roof-top gardens because all we have room for is more buildings.
It no longer feels as if we're in this together; and I don't like what I see. On Nov. 8, we as voters will choose whether to perpetuate that decline.
Municipal government is where our voices as citizens have the greatest impact on our daily lives. We cannot accept public officials who pick and choose which of our rules, or residents, "really" matter. We cannot succumb to partisanship, letting others define what our words mean and what we're for or against.
Instead, we must vote to elect candidates who will hear all of our voices, appoint responsible advisers, take an even-handed approach to growth, and enforce our rules. We need solutions that address, not compound, the localized impacts of having shouldered a disproportionate share of regional jobs. We need leaders who care about all the city's needs and actively invest in the mundane goal of community well-being.
Most Palo Altans are neither "NIMBYs" nor "Stack and Packers." We all want housing to be more affordable; neighborhoods that are inclusive, diverse and rich with parkland; roadways with fewer cars; and retail we can use. Where we disagree is on what strategy will sustainably achieve that end and who we can trust to get us there.
In this crowded council election, where all candidates seemingly offer warm promises to address our local ills, we must look beyond their campaign rhetoric. We cannot blindly follow endorsements by organizations to whom we're just a cog in a regional wheel. Local needs and challenges must be critical components of growth management in our city. We must confirm that candidates' purported growth strategies are backed by their actions, affiliations, statements and public record. Then we must hold them accountable for our trust, in this and future elections.
Quality of life is the heartbeat of our community. It is uniquely local, and we as voters are responsible for it.
Jennifer Chang Hetterly is a longtime member and former chair of the Parks and Recreation Commission and serves on the Comprehensive Plan Update Committee. She also chaired the facilities subcommittee for the Cubberley Advisory Committee and served several years in PTA and Site Council leadership.