In this week's Around Town column, find out why four City Council members were absent from Monday's meeting, learn about the imbroglio over a Palo Alto fire truck and get a preview of the improvements coming to the Council Chambers.
SOMETHING IN THE AIR ... It's been a brutal week for the Palo Alto City Council — and local issues had nothing to do with it. Much like the Golden State Warriors, who had to play last week with all four All-Stars out with injuries, the City Council was forced to play severely short-handed Monday night. Only five of its nine members were able to attend the March 19 meeting, which meant that the five in attendance had to get a unanimous consensus for every item that it passed. Three of them — Mayor Liz Kniss, Councilman Cory Wolbach and Councilwoman Lydia Kou — were waylaid by illness, possibly as a result of germs they picked up while attending last week's National League of Cities conference in Washington, D.C... The fourth, Councilman Greg Tanaka, was traveling on unrelated business and could not make the meeting. City Manager James Keene also caught the bug in D.C., though by Tuesday he felt well enough to attend the council's Finance Committee meeting for a discussion of a potential tax measure in November. That meeting almost didn't happen because of a lack of quorum. That situation was averted when Kniss subbed in for Kou and Tanaka (under the council's rules, the mayor is the only council member who can fill in on committees) in what, incidentally, turned out to be the council's shortest meeting in recent history (under an hour). "I got Mayor Kniss out of bed for this," boasted Chair Greg Scharff. "He made some promises," Kniss replied.
WHOSE ENGINE IS IT ANYWAY? ... It sure looked like a scoop: a fire engine that was supposed to save lives and property was spotted sitting idly at the home of the Oaxaca fire chief. That, at least, was the allegation from the Mexican anti-corruption group Ojo Ciudadano por la Democracia y en Contra de la Corruption (Citizen's Eye for Democracy and against Corruption), whose members said they saw the fire engine that was donated by Palo Alto to its sister city, Oaxaca, sitting at the vacation home of Chief Manuel Maza. The group recorded its footage of the fire truck and shared it with Mexico News Daily, which promptly posted a story referring to the "unmistakable bright red color of the fire truck" and referred to an investigation that state officials were looking to launch in response to these findings. But even if the truck's red color was "unmistakable" (not to mention unremarkable... it is, after all, a fire truck) the allegation that the truck came from Palo Alto was later negated. Bob Wenzlau, president of Neighbors Abroad, the local nonprofit that spearheads the sister-city relationship, noted that the truck seen at Maza's house was not donated by the city. The trucks from Palo Alto were Crown and Pierce brands, Wenzlau told the Weekly. The one spotted in Maza's garage was a Seagrave pumper, which Maza reportedly obtained from the city of Torrance (Wenzlau provided an invoice for the Seagrave pumper as corroboration). Maza, he said, purchased the truck for another city in the state of Oaxaca, but that city opted not to take it, so the chief was looking to sell it. Wenzlau called the whole imbroglio a case of "no good deed goes unpunished." He also related his findings to Mexico News Daily, which published a follow-up story. "I do happen to believe in Chief Maza, and watched him run into buildings on fire as a true hero," Wenzlau told the Mexican news site.
BROADCAST NEWS ... For the first time since 2014, the Palo Alto City Council is preparing to spend some serious cash to improve its meeting room at City Hall. Unlike the $4.5-million upgrade in 2014, which (among other enhancements) included a refurbished lobby, a reconstructed meeting room and new carpeting and upholstery, the current effort focuses on technology. Under the roughly $2-million plan, Council Chambers will be equipped with a new audio-visual system, a touchscreen at the dais for each council member (with a wireless microphone) and a new lighting system for the room. The plan will also likely include a new projection screen over the dais, with dual projectors blended into one to create a larger image, according to a report from the Information Technology Department. Existing analog hardware, the report states, "can potentially lead to electrical and other hazards to operators and members of the public." Similarly, the report claims that the voting system at the dais is obsolete and the public-speaking timer is outdated (apparently, a show of hands and a timer don't suffice as cheap replacement tools). The report states that the proposed upgrades will "enhance the City's engagement with the public." "The quality of video that will be available via live television, replay and internet-connected devices will be significantly improved and may help generate greater community interest in City proceedings through all these platforms."