The five members who make up the new, more development-friendly majority on the Palo Alto City Council blatantly stuck it to their four colleagues and the community Monday night with what appeared to be a carefully orchestrated take-over of the critical land-use portion of the new Comprehensive Plan.
The four-member minority group on the council, which held a shaky majority before the November election results tipped the balance the other way, was as helpless as Democrats in Congress or Republicans in Sacramento. It was only the third meeting of the council since newbies Adrian Fine, Greg Tanaka and Lydia Kou were sworn in and Greg Scharff was unanimously elected mayor, and the new majority made clear they had no intention of seeking compromise or middle ground.
Surprise attacks like what occurred Monday night are not our expectation for how our non-partisan City Council should work and are certain to perpetuate political animosities from the last election. It was done with an arrogance that will further divide and anger rather than help unify the community around common goals.
The council meeting was supposed to be devoted to giving direction to the city staff and a 25-member citizens committee on key land-use and transportation strategy options that had been carefully teed up by the city staff. Nearing a scheduled completion of the Comprehensive Plan revision later this year after nine years of problems and delays, achieving council agreement on these sections of the plan was a tall order under any circumstances due to the complexity of the issues and the sharp divisions within the community.
It was also a huge opportunity for Mayor Scharff to use his influence as the presiding officer to show humility and respect for those with opposing views and to ensure a thoughtful, collaborative discussion that led to something other than 5-4 votes. That's what we all want leaders to do: find ways to craft solutions that can win more than a bare majority vote of approval.
Instead, it quickly became clear that Scharff, Vice Mayor Liz Kniss and Councilmen Cory Wolbach, Fine and Tanaka had every intention of ramming through their agenda to jettison elements that might limit the council's future flexibility. The action stripped the plan of all but the most general and visionary goals around which there is little or no disagreement.
The minority group of Tom DuBois, Eric Filseth, Karen Holman and Kou were stunned by the surprise proposals, put forth by Wolbach but quickly supported by the others in the majority, designed to move through a series of motions that culminated in a 5-4 vote to remove all the detailed implementing programs that support the broader policies in the land-use plan.
It was an in-your-face move to substantially change a process that has been underway for years and that has cost millions of dollars, consumed immense staff and consulting time and subverted the dedicated and diverse volunteer citizens committee.
Wolbach, who took the lead, said he wanted to "trim the plan substantially" and keep it high level and not prescriptive, the opposite of what the committee has been working hard on for the last two years.
Similarly, on a motion by Fine, the council voted to remove development requirements and various measures to determine the effectiveness of those requirements that he considered in need of more work.
In addition to setting aside all the concrete implementing programs in the plan, the 5-4 majority also voted to remove the existing overall downtown development cap and to retain the current temporary 50,000 square feet per year limit on new commercial development in downtown, on El Camino Real and around California Avenue, but to allow a roll-over of unused footage to subsequent years.
The majority also voted to remove from the plan all reference to the city's current 50-foot height limit, signaling an intention to reconsider down the road changes to the current ordinance that includes the limit.
It was an inauspicious start to Scharff's year as mayor, and eerily reminiscent of 2013 when in his first stint as mayor he presided over a similarly divided council during a tumultuous year that climaxed with the successful Measure D Maybell referendum.
Wolbach's pre-emptive move to gut the critical land-use plan was ill-timed and executed in a way that fuels conflict rather than seeks to build consensus. His ideas for a different structure and process would have been appropriate and potentially well-received if offered a year or even six months ago. But to spring it on his colleagues at the last minute, with obvious pre-arranged support from others, he undercut all his previous political rhetoric about consensus-building and respectful debate.
Elections do matter, and a solid new council majority now rules. This week we witnessed its unsettling debut and discovered how the loss of a swing vote, former Councilman Pat Burt, can dramatically change the tenor of the council for the worse.