Seeking to replace aged technology and further spruce up the City Council's main meeting room, Palo Alto is preparing to launch a $2 million upgrade project at City Hall.
The improvements include a reconstruction of the broadcast area in the Council Chambers, including replacement of the voting system, new projection screens and touchscreen monitors at the dais for each council member. The project, which the council supported Monday by a 7-1 vote, with Greg Tanaka dissenting and Greg Scharff absent, will be the council's most significant City Hall project since the 2014 renovation, which included a rebuilt lobby, a new Community Meeting Room and replaced carpets and upholstery in the chambers.
For the council and city staff, the project is a long-planned and necessary measure to address functional problems with broadcast technology. Jonathan Reichental, the city's chief information officer, said existing equipment is obsolete. When something breaks, staff has to purchase new parts on eBay because the technology isn't built anymore.
"The equipment we're using to run the hardware has expired and it's time for us to improve it and prepare this room for at least the next 10 years," Reichental said. "It's unsupportable the way it is and it's expensive and risky."
Most council members agreed that the project is overdue, even as they bristled at the high cost and urged staff to look at ways to drive down the price tag in the next few months, before the contract comes back to the council for final approval. Their reservations notwithstanding, the council endorsed the design option recommended by staff, which in addition to upgrading the broadcasting equipment, will also equip with Chambers with a large projection screen capable of displaying up to eight different monitors, including footage being broadcast from other public facilities.
Mayor Liz Kniss, who supported moving ahead with the improvements, noted that the current quality of council recordings is very low and that improving it will help the public track what the council is doing.
"I think we're looking at a leaky roof and saying, 'Let's see how long this roof will leak before we fix it," Kniss said.
Several council members, including Cory Wolbach and Tanaka, worried about the message that the upgrade project would send to the voters at a time when the city is facing an infrastructure backlog of $56 million and when the council is preparing to poll residents about a potential tax increase. This gap doesn't even include some of the newer infrastructure projects that the council wants to pursue, including a new animal shelter and assistance with the reconstruction of the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo.
"Having a system that keeps working with more than thoughts and prayers keeping it running -- that makes sense," Wolbach said. "I think we can all get behind that. How that costs just under or just over $2 million is a little harder to wrap our brains around."
City Manager James Keene and Reichental, the city's chief information officer, repeatedly noted that the money will come from the city's technology fund, an account that annually pools money from various departments for citywide technology improvements.
"It doesn't compete for other things we do," Reichental said, "It's specifically for technology."
Tanaka wasn't swayed by this argument. He called the proposed improvements "excessively expensive" and likened the proposal to a "vanity project" -- a characterization that staff strongly disputed (about $275,000 from the $2 million price tag would fund the new screen; the rest would go to replacing broadcast equipment and making the room comply with Americans with Disabilities Act rules).
Tanaka, who characterized the upgrade as a "vanity project," said he was concerned about the "optics" of moving ahead with the broadcast upgrades. He proposed delaying a decision on a design option until after the city concludes its infrastructure poll, but could not sway his colleagues.
"I couldn't in good conscious support something like this now, especially when we're thinking about going to our residents this year to ask for more money," Tanaka said.
The project is currently estimated for completion in summer 2019.