The erratic behavior of three Palo Alto city council members is beginning to become a tiring pattern seemingly more designed to stir up controversy and stake out a political philosophy than seek genuine solutions to real problems.
In an absurd discussion prompted by two proposals offered by Councilman Greg Tanaka, the City Council devoted substantial time Monday night to discussing whether software companies should be allowed in downtown Palo Alto (as if there was any question about it) and whether start-up businesses should be permitted in residential neighborhoods.
Neither idea had been under consideration, been evaluated by staff or been publicly proposed prior to the late-night motions made by Tanaka and seconded by Councilman Adrian Fine. It was yet another example of what has become an almost regular practice of significant and sometimes ill-conceived policy proposals getting made only after all opportunity for public comment had passed.
These proposals undermine the long tradition of public participation and debate over significant policy matters, disrespect the city's professional staff by throwing it unexpected curve-balls in the middle of a carefully designed decision-making process, ignore advisory groups and make the entire council appear dysfunctional.
Both Mayor Greg Scharff and City Manager Jim Keene attempted unsuccessfully to steer the council away from spending valuable time on Tanaka's motions, but all council members needed to weigh in.
The Tanaka proposals came during the latest discussion of the city's Comprehensive Plan, which a citizens' advisory committee and the city staff have been working on for years and the update of which Scharff is determined to bring to conclusion by the end of this year.
In urging the addition of a statement that software companies are welcome in downtown Palo Alto (where, of course, they already proliferate) Tanaka was trying to counteract what he falsely portrayed as an attempt by former Mayor Pat Burt to push such companies out. Had Tanaka done even the slightest amount of homework, he would have discovered that Burt made no such proposal and that he had been inaccurately quoted in press accounts that ultimately received national exposure.
Fine jumped on the bandwagon by saying the stories had given the city a "black eye" and Scharff complained that people all over the country were "laughing" at Palo Alto. Councilman Cory Wolbach joined in the false narrative about Burt's comments, saying that Palo Altans do "not support the idea that software developers in downtown Palo Alto is outside the allowable business practices."
"We should be proud of who we are in Palo Alto," Scharff said proudly. "And we're the center of Silicon Valley and the center of tech."
What Burt actually said in an interview last August was that he was concerned that outdated city rules did not include research and development as permitted uses and needed to be reviewed and updated given the degree to which these businesses were already operating. And he raised concern over the large and growing footprint of Palantir, downtown's largest employer which occupies about two dozen buildings totaling a quarter-million square feet and whether having such a dominate single employer was good for downtown. He never suggested prohibiting software firms.
But even more disturbing was Tanaka's casual proposal to add a new provision making it legal for companies to operate out of single family homes, stating that "it's important for the lifeblood of Palo Alto that nascent startups are able to start" as is portrayed in the HBO "Silicon Valley" show.
While most of his colleagues quickly distanced themselves from the proposal, both Fine and Wolbach supported Tanaka on a 3-6 vote. Fine said it was important to "send a signal" that startups are important. Wolbach called it a "symbolic" vote.
At one level, it is harmless to declare the obvious in a document like the Comprehensive Plan — that the city welcomes software companies and likes startups. But at another level Tanaka, Fine and Wolbach's approach is becoming a pattern: deliberate surprise proposals from the dais that have not been vetted by staff or city commissions or been disclosed to the public. It leaves everyone, including their colleagues, off-balance and unprepared.
Wolbach's attempt to distance himself from his own vote by calling it "symbolic" rather than a policy position reinforces the gamesmanship that is going on.
We had hoped that the early undisciplined behavior of this council would self-correct after public feedback. Regrettably, each meeting seems to bring a new controversy that perpetuates disarray and division, all to the detriment of the community and good governance.