In the latest Around Town column, one Palo Alto grassroots group experiences the lowest form of flattery and a new audit examines how to improve the city's business registry.
THE LOWEST FORM OF FLATTERY ... Palo Alto residents may have seen signs pop up in various locations over the past week, urging them to support Proposition 10, a California proposition that would repeal the Costa-Hawkins Act and allow cities to adopt rent-control regulations. The signs purport to be from Palo Alto Forward, the local nonprofit that advocates for building more housing. It declares that Palo Alto Forward "stands with working families and encourages you to vote yes on Proposition 10." The signs went up on the corners of Waverley Street and Channing Avenue; Emerson Street and Forest Avenue; Alma Street and Hamilton Avenue; and at least six other locations.
While it's unknown who installed them, one thing is clear: They did not come from Palo Alto Forward, says Eric Rosenblum, a co-founder of the group and a member of its steering committee. The board never approved a position on Proposition 10 and none of the members were aware of the signs before they went up, Rosenblum told the Weekly. This isn't the first time Palo Alto Forward's name has been invoked by others who have no affiliation with the nonprofit. In 2016, Tim Gray, who serves as treasurer of the slow-growth-leaning political action committee, Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning, registered "Palo Alto Forward" as a political action committee. Gray, who had also served as treasurer of Councilwoman Lydia Kou's 2016 council campaign, told the Weekly that he registered the name out of belief that the name "belongs to the public" and pointed to the fact that the City of Palo Alto had used it years ago as part of a campaign to get citizens involved in updating the city's land-use vision (members of Palo Alto Forward maintained that Gray's ploy is nothing less than a disingenuous "impersonation).
When asked about the signs this week, Gray told the Weekly that he has nothing to do with them and that he has no idea who installed them. He also reasserted his right to protect the name "Palo Alto Forward" from outsiders looking to misuse it. "I'm being true to my original concern that it would fall into the hands of a political group that would use this public asset to achieve a political purpose," Gray said. For the moment, the origin of the signs remains a mystery. The real Palo Alto Forward hopes that it gets solved soon. Rosenblum said the group filed a police report to "get this unauthorized use on the record."
GETTING DOWN TO BUSINESS ... When Palo Alto created its new business registry in 2015, the primary goal was to learn a bit more about the local workforce. The new registry, for which every business had to register, was supposed to answer an assortment of fuzzy questions, including: How many workers -- and companies -- exist in Palo Alto? Where do employees come from? How do they get here? Instead, three years after its inception, the registry remains -- to put it mildly -- a hot mess, riddled with errors, redundancies and omissions.
That much was acknowledged in May, when the council's Finance Committee briefly discussed the registries many limitations and Councilman Greg Scharff suggested that it may be time to abandon it altogether. Now, the registry is once again under the limelight -- this time, as a result of a critical new audit from City Auditor Harriet Richardson. The audit concluded that the business registry data is "not reliable," which "could cause incorrect conclusions about year-over-year business trends." Some records had incomplete information, the audit states. Others used different classifications from one year to another (thus, a business listed as a "professional and general corporation" in one year, became "retail" in another). Three business records that were entered in 2016 were named "Test Complete Application," with each showing 618 employees and 739 leased parking spaces.
Earlier this year, the city made an effort to improve the registry by hiring the firm MuniServices to administer the program. The firm, according to the audit, added a few quality control processes that should result in more reliable data. This includes correcting Palo Alto's existing mailing list of local businesses and assigning unique user accounts for each business. Richardson's audit recommends that the city and MuniServices consider additional measures, including comparing the business registry records with other databases and making in-person visits to businesses. The audit acknowledges that the latter method may be "costly and unpopular with businesses." "However, it would provide a means of validating the completeness and accuracy of registry data," the audit states.